Height a determining factor for sports success

By in Sports & Health

TRAVIS ROBINSON
The Meliorist (University of Lethbridge)

His Royal Airness is no stranger to the benefits of tallness.

LETHBRIDGE (CUP) — Height is not everything in sports. It’s the only thing.

To illustrate this rule, look to the heights of the past 10 men’s Olympic decathlon champions. Many consider the champion decathlete to be the world’s finest athlete. He must be proficient in 10 track and field events and compete in these events in a gruelling two-day competition.

He can sprint, throw and leap within a reasonable standard deviation from the Olympic standard in each event, and must do so within the compressed time constraints of an Olympic schedule.

To be world class in these events takes an exceptional athlete, one must be blessed with both genetics and a broad skill set. Genetically, these Olympic champion decathletes share one thing: height.

The obvious question remains: Why is height so crucial to athletic success? The answer is simple physics: leverage.

All of the past 10 Olympic champion decathletes stand at least 5-11. Dan O’Brien, the tallest of the bunch, stands a long 6-2. Ashton Eaton, the reigning Olympic champion and world record holder measures in at 6-1.

This remarkable consistency in the athletes’ heights is mostly due to the nature of their sport. Decathletes must have the leverage of a thrower, the stride of a sprinter and the length of a jump specialist.

The decathlete must excel in all 10 events and if they can stand at a height that falls between a javelin thrower and a middle distance runner, then this athlete will have the necessary physicality to compete on a world-class basis.

Six feet, about three inches greater than the average North American male, seems to be this magic height for decathletes.

Tall athletes are not only dominant in decathlons, but they’re slowly taking nearly all the jobs away from their shorter counterparts in a growing number of athletic disciplines. Towering height is obviously beneficial in vertical games where a higher reach means a higher score.

Most basketball and volleyball players have historically been extremely tall and will continue to be. The average National Basketball Association player has been 6-7 since Michael Jordan entered the league some 30 years ago.

What is more surprising, though, is the growing importance of height in sports that are not necessarily dependent on a vertical advantage.

Take, for example, the National Hockey League. 40 years ago, the average NHL player stood 5-11. Today, the average player is 6-1.

A Theoren Fleury-sized man would not be able to rise through the ranks as the 5-6 Fleury did 25 years ago. Today, NHL players at least six feet tall have a major advantage.

There are exceptions to this rule of course, as some smaller players have found success in the big leagues. Generally, however, the NHL player of today is tall and, if he does not meet the height expectations, he will be ignored by most NHL general managers.

The obvious question remains: Why is height so crucial to athletic success? The answer is simple physics: leverage.

The taller athlete has more leverage and can generate more subsequent power than an athlete at a shorter height. An athlete with more leverage means that they can throw farther, jump farther, run faster and be more physically commanding than an athlete with less leverage.

Having more leverage than your opponent is a competitive advantage in any sport requiring the athlete to generate his or her own power.

Simply put, being tall gets you ahead in sports. Unless, of course, you’re a jockey or a gymnast.


Photo: Michael Jordan/Google+