Built to perform: why body type matters

15 July 2013 - 03:03 By Ross Tucker
Wimbledon 2013 women's champion Marion Bartoli. Critics of Bartoli tweeted immediately after the women's final that she was a 'fat pig' and 'ugly'
Wimbledon 2013 women's champion Marion Bartoli. Critics of Bartoli tweeted immediately after the women's final that she was a 'fat pig' and 'ugly'

Last week, a BBC tennis commentator sparked controversy when he insulted the appearance of Wimbledon Women's champion Marion Bartoli, saying she was not a "looker".

His ill-advised attempt at highlighting her tenacity kicked off a sexism war, as it should, for Bartoli's purpose is to win tennis matches (something she did very successfully), not sell fashion accessories.

However, it does invite some interesting thoughts around the appearance of athletes, not from an aesthetic point of view but a performance one, through the eyes of sports science.

Consider Bryan Habana and Eben Etzebeth. Both are rugby players, but one is built for speed and agility, the other for size and strength. Both are world-class in their specific positions, but would arguably fail horribly doing the other's job.

That's because physical characteristics drive performance ability in sport. Some remarkable statistics reveal that, aside from the obvious requirement to train and develop skill and physiology, elite athletes are, in part born, into their sport as a result of their highly specialised and unusual body types.

For instance, the average female gymnast of 1980 was 163cm tall. Thirty years later, they are 145cm short - a change of 18cm, driven by the demands of the sport, because shorter people are better able to perform the routines and elements required in modern-day gymnastics. There is almost an "entry requirement" into elite gymastics that makes elite achievement much more difficult for taller women.

In the NBA, professional basketballers do not only need to be tall (the average height in the NBA is 198cm. Eben Etzebeth, at 203cm, is only slightly taller than average), they also need unusually long arms.

A normal person's wingspan to body ratio is around 1 - if you stand 180cm tall, your 'wingspan' from finger tip to finger tip will be approximately 180cm.

Not so in the NBA, where the average ratio is 1.063. That may seem similar at first glance but it means that our 180cm man's arms would be 191cm long - a reach advantage of 11cm - a crucial advantage in that sport.

Tennis players, waterpolo players and kayakers also have disproportionately long arms relative to their height, while weightlifters have very short arms because this gives them a leverage advantage when lifting heavy weights over their heads. For running, the situation is reversed. The ideal body type is one described as highly linear (strictly speaking, it is called 'nylotic' - long legs, short torso, very narrow pelvis and skinny limbs) - one possible reason why Kenya is able to produce so many great runners.

For swimming, the opposite is true - broad shoulders, long arms and short legs help the swimmer get through the water most effectively. A remarkable piece of trivia is that the great swimmer Michael Phelps, at 193cm, wears the same length pants as Hicham el Guerrouj, one of the world's greatest runners, who stands 175cm tall. That means the runner is 18cm shorter but his legs are those of a man standing 193cm.

Perhaps most interestingly, it has been found that, in American football, every extra centimetre in height or 3kg in mass over the average is worth about R450000 per year in additional salary.

In other words, the average player (in terms of height and mass) will make R450000 less than a player one centimetre taller, or 3kg heavier. Body type matters a lot in sport.

Of course, having the right body type does not guarantee success.

There is much more to elite achievement than long arms, legs or stature. However, it does reveal a hidden side to performance.

For Bartoli and other tennis players, aesthetics aside, we judge physical appearance based only on what we can see. What we do not see often holds the key.

These and other statistics are sourced from "The Sports Gene", by David Epstein (Current, Penguin Group, 2013). The book will be released on August 1.