The Beijing Olympics are officially underway, and it is our chance to view some of the best winter athletes in the world—skiers, snowboarders, skaters, and yes, curlers—in action, right from the comfort of our homes. The Olympics also allow us to wonder: what is it about athletes’ anatomy that sets them apart from the rest of us?
Let’s take a look at a few events and the necessary requirements from an athlete’s anatomy and physiology.
The “slopestyle” event is made up of a series of obstacles including rails and jumps in which the athlete does tricks while flying over 100 feet in the air. A higher jump means increased time airborne, which leads to more possible tricks, and a higher score.
Slope stylers need to go from a standing start to full throttle in a matter of seconds. In other words, they need speed, which comes from lower body power: calf muscles, hamstrings, quadriceps, and hip flexors. Lower body power also comes in handy when pushing off a jump to get maximum airtime. In a study on snowboarders’ physiology, the athlete’s back leg has on average 15 per cent more muscle mass than the front leg. An average snowboarder’s "countermovement" jump measures 45 centimeters, comparable to that of a volleyball or basketball player.
Of all the winter Olympics events, the biathlon is among the most extreme. Skiers traverse up to 15 kilometers of often hilly terrain with a ten-pound rifle on their backs. The event requires maximum cardiovascular intensity, but also acute focus. Running a four-minute mile is hard enough: imagine accomplishing the feat, only to immediately summon the stillness and calm necessary to shoot at a target 40 millimeters in diameter, 50 meters away.
To do so requires a certain mastery of one’s own physiology: the biathlete must know how to bring his/her heart rate down, and fast. Sports scientists tracked Polish biathlete Monika Hojnisz’s heart rate in an activity simulating the extremes of the biathlon. Hojnisz ran for an extended amount of time, then stopped and was asked to bring her heart rate down over a period of 45 seconds. Immediately after running, Hojnisz had a heart rate of 140 beats per minute (bpm); 45 seconds later, she was at 70 bpm. For perspective, the rate is close to that of us human beings sitting at home on our couches, merely watching the Olympics.
A 1662 diary entry from English naval administrator Samuel Pepys reads: “So to my Lord Sandwich's, to Mr. Moore, and then over the Parke (where I first in my life, it being a great frost, did see people sliding with their skates, which is a very pretty art)."
“Art” seems appropriate in describing skating, as it requires a combination of balance, body control, and strength. Most figure skaters, in performing axels and toe jumps, spin their bodies at a rate of 300 revolutions per minute, before landing on the ice with aplomb and a cool smile that says “no big deal.” Just in landing, figure skaters convert spinning chaos into order: the leg muscles must stabilize the knees, as landing with a tilt of more than five degrees could translate into a tumble. The window is quite small, and the geometry precise.
On the other hand, speed skaters adopt a crouching position that minimizes wind resistance and offers the best position to use muscles of the “loins” and the back. To understand more about the anatomy involved in speed skating, see this 1895 description:
“In a speed skater we would look for a strong back and broad neck, due to his attitude while at work. His arms, which are kept idly folded on his back, would be small and weak, as would be his chest muscles. His abdominal muscles would get some work from the constant swaying, and he would have powerful, vigorous gluteal and extensor muscles, with sinewy hamstrings but undersized calves.”
In closing, we offer a fun, historical fact: original speed skates were made of the lower jawbones of horses and cattle, “carved to the proper shape and polished.”
So there you have it—enjoy the Winter Olympics, where human anatomy is on full display!