The Olympian elite

For the next two weeks, many of us will be glued to the TV, watching the Olympic athletes as they race downhill on their skis and snowboards, compete on the hockey rink and perform feats of strength and grace in ice dancing.

How do they do it? Are they simply more physically gifted than everyone else? Or are they just more determined and hard-working?

To be sure, training is everything when you aspire to compete at the Olympic level. Spend some time at the official Web site of the 2010 Winter Olympics and you can find out exactly what it takes. A high-performance downhill skier, for instance, typically practices up to twice a day for two to four hours each time. In the weight room, 75 percent of the training is focused on building lower-body strength. Flexibility exercises are aimed at reducing the risk of hip and knee injuries.

For speed skaters, the drill involves many hours of skating in circles on a 400-meter track. From the Olympics site:

Ice practice sessions can last up to two hours depending on the volume and intensity required for a particular athlete. Sprinters have shorter ice sessions than distance skaters but their training intensity is extremely high and includes short bursts of speed. Distance, middle distance and all-around speed skaters have long ice sessions focusing working on balance, cornering and positioning.

In some winter sports, such as curling, it’s the mental game that really counts. Figure skaters need to be not only skilled but artistic and confident as well.

But it’s hard to overlook the importance of the genetic component. Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas, two scholars who study and blog about the science of sport, analyzed this issue during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and conclude, "Choose your parents wisely!" They write: "While we will be the first to admit that a myriad of factors and variables must converge to produce superior athletic performance, it is perhaps the genetic component that plays the biggest role."

Body type makes a difference, they explain. The best endurance runners, for instance, are generally either small or are tall and lanky – two physiques that are the most efficient for accommodating the energy demands of the body.

One of the first genes to be associated with athletic performance is the ACE, or angiotensin converting enzyme gene, they write. "It is an enzyme involved in fluid balance and has an association with performance. In other words, some people who have specific variations of this gene do better in endurance events or respond better to endurance training."

Environment also is critical, Tucker and Dugas explain:

… To succeed at the highest levels of sport one must clearly have the genes. However at the same time you must be exposed to the appropriate environmental stimuli that will permit you to exploit your superior genes. We guarantee that for every Bo, Deion and Sheila, there are countless others who do in fact possess the genes for superior athletic performance, but instead of training six days a week, they are working a desk job six days a week – and that is simply because they were not exposed to the "right" environment for them to end up as an athlete.

Dr. David Geier, director of the sports medicine program at Medical University of South Carolina, can be found here on YouTube discussing the physical commitment it takes to be an Olympic-caliber athlete.

The death of a luger who crashed during a training run last week underscores another important and sometimes overlooked element: the risk-taking that’s often required to excel in the winter Olympic sports, and the capacity to ignore your own fear.

Whether we’re a weekend athlete or a couch potato, we all admire the Olympic athletes. But they’re truly a breed apart – an elite that only a few of us can genuinely aspire to.

Photo: Associated Press

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