The 2012 Summer Olympics have come and gone, and while the besieged residents of London might breathe a collective sigh of relief, it is always a bit sad when the games reach their conclusion. This year saw some pretty amazing feats of athleticism, with Michael Phelps taking the individual medal count record to new heights, and Usain Bolt cementing his place as one of the greatest sprinters of all time.

Putting aside Bolt’s excessive bravado for a moment, it’s hard not to be impressive by his accomplishments: holding the world records in both the 100m and 200m distances, as well as winning the gold medal in the same events for back to back Olympics. Obviously, his surname is quite appropriate. However, a lot of the success for a sprinter, and other running events like the marathon, are highly dependent on the proportions and body composition of the athlete in question.

In Bolt’s case, his height (atypical for elite level sprinters) grants him a much larger stride than his competitors. His extra weight would normally be a limiting factor for acceleration, but is apparently offset by an obviously high amount of fast twitch muscle fibers thereby enabling him to outpace the competition. He is an anomaly for sure, but this is illustrated much more remarkably when comparing the body-shape trends of Olympic runners over time.

The following infographics come from, and provide an interesting look into the types of bodies which excel at either end of the running spectrum, sprinting and marathons, and how athlete’s figures have changed over time. (Click to view full size)



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6 Responses to Sprinter and Marathon Runners’ Bodies – Comparing Trends in Olympic Athletes Over Time (Infographic)

  1. Aubrey says:

    The “higher center of gravity falling forward” argument seems a little weak. Is this something NPR just mad eup or is there some basis in research or a proposed bomechachanical mechanism to back this up?

    • David Csonka says:

      I suspect the reference to center of mass came from this research:

      In a 2010 paper published in International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics, Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, and his colleagues reported that black people have a higher center of mass (i.e. shorter relative torso) that favors them in running sports and that white people have a lower center of mass that favors them in swimming.

      Bejan et al. cite the progression of world record holders in the men’s and women’s 100 meters “dash”, the majority of whom are black, and the men’s and women’s 100 meters freestyle, the majority of whom are white. The paper reported that although Asians have lower centers of mass/longer relative torsos like whites, European whites have an advantage in swimming due to longer overall torsos.

      A 1994 examination of 32 English sport/exercise science textbooks found that seven suggested that there are biophysical differences due to race that might explain differences in sports performance, one expressed caution with the idea, and the other 24 did not mention the issue.


      • Aubrey

        The higher centre of gravity is indeed very weak, especially given no West African (Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone ,etc) of pure heritage has ever dominated the 100m or 200m sprints. Most Afro-Caribbean or African-Americans who are “black” are actually only of around 80% (or less) African heritage based on the legacy of the slave trade. I myself of Jamaican heritage am only 76% of African descent, 20% European and 4% Asian based on my DNA profile. Usain Bolt would probably have a very similar profile.

        In the 1970′s and 80′s when Europeans were dominating Middle distance running the same arguments were used then until the East African’s dominated – it then evaporated.

        These variances in body mass, shape and centre of gravity are dependant on the type of work we do. 30 years ago there would be no Chinese person playing in the NBA, now based on diet, training and ability there has been and there is not much difference in build between the national teams of the US vs China.

        There are many other factors that dictate the dominance of certain events by race or geographical location, that can be proven way before race.

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