Survival of the Fittest

Who is the Fittest Olympic Athlete?

So, who really is the fittest of them all, the greatest of the Olympians?

This very informative article from TIME magazine would have us believe that you can’t know this from the medal count.  The one thing you can be sure of is that each athlete, given the requirements of the sport, is working flat-out at maximum capacity and endurance.

Despite all the science, nutrition and exercise machines, there remains a simple formula for becoming an Olympic champion. The winning athletes are simply willing to work harder than anyone else to reach their goal. “You don’t win an Olympic medal by being gifted,” says Carmichael, the trainer. “You win an Olympic medal by working your ass off.” There’s something very sporting in that.

Since the physiological requirements for each sport are different, and the athletes are all working at the limits of endurance, we can only conclude that between sports they can’t be compared.  

I would argue, therefore, that the question about who is the greatest of the Olympians is both meaningless and unanswerable! But the criteria in the chart above for making such a decision could be of enormous “spinoff” significance…

The physiologists work on four measurable components of fitness: VO2 max, lactate threshold, economy of motion and maximum sustained output. Biomechanics are important in that the less energy an athlete expends in a given movement — a swimming stroke, say — the more will be available for peak output. There are unmeasurables too, like the mental aspects of training and competing — one reason every Olympic team employs sports psychologists….

There are several parameters of fitness, whether it’s strength, power, flexibility, coordination, agility or kinesthetic awareness — can you feel what you’re doing in space.” But all bodies have hearts, lungs and muscles, and maximizing their output is clearly a feature of fitness….

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969… the day my first child also took his first steps!…all the world was watching. Incredible!  A magnificent achievement, that once achieved, led critics to speculate about the opportunity cost. What if all this money and attention and brain power and organizational skills had been put to use to solve problems on earth. NASA, the USA, could claim the first lunar landing… but so what?

The answer to these critics was that  technology transfer had been a mandate for NASA since the agency was established by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. The act requires that NASA provide the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and results.

Read about the technology transfer here:  Space Program Benefits: NASA’s Positive Impact on Society

“We see the transformative effects of the Space Economy all around us through numerous technologies and life-saving capabilities. We see the Space Economy in the lives saved when advanced breast cancer screening catches tumors in time for treatment, or when a heart defibrillator restores the proper rhythm of a patient’s heart….We see it when weather satellites warn us of coming hurricanes, or when satellites provide information critical to understanding our environment and the effects of climate change. We see it when we use an ATM or pay for gas at the pump with an immediate electronic response via satellite. Technologies developed for exploring space are being used to increase crop yields and to search for good fishing regions at sea.”

So, the answer is that all the costs of the NASA space program were justified, not (only) because of what was accomplished in achieving the primary objectives of the program. The “spinoff” technological breakthroughs benefitted everyone here on earth.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know that there are beneficial “spinoffs” to the Olympic Games, and I don’t mean economic benefits (or deficits) for the host city and the participants.

To what extent do experts in sports medicine, which we see operating here at its highest level, share their expertise among themselves, between nations, with medical… and pharmaceutical… experts world-wide? Because the Olympics are so competitive, would any breakthrough discoveries be closely guarded secrets? Are there any “spinoff” benefits for the rest of us?

Have any new drugs, physio-therapies, training regimens, surgical procedures, injury management and pain control techniques been discovered because of the intensive analysis of human physiology related to elite athletic performance? And if so, are they being shared to help the unelite with their more mundane but, I would argue equally important, physical complaints and challenges?

If the answer is YES  then I may grudgingly have to revise my ideas about some aspects of the extravagance and waste inherent in the Games. Does anyone know?

Survival of the Fittest? The 2012 Olympic anthem is called Survival. I will write about it in my blog tomorrow.

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