Category Archives: Olympics

Golden Oldies!

By Ben Langdown

Late nights watching Olympic and Paralympic sport have been a highlight of my summer and it has been absolutely incredible. The lack of sleep has aged me considerably but it has been worth every second to see all the amazing stories unfold.

The media has always loved a story of winning against all odds. In particular, with regard to age:

Too young to win – but look out for them in Tokyo!

Long past their prime – far too old for a spot on the podium!

And then it happens as quinquagenarians pop up and win Olympic and Paralympic gold medals! 15 year olds win medals in varying events and spark a flurry of news reports on success at such a young age.

Male Life Cycle

But why should we be so surprised about athletes young and old winning medals?

As we age many changes take place within our bodies as we develop and train towards peak physiological age of between 20-39 years old, dependant on the sport or event (Allen & Hopkins, 2015). Our muscles grow bigger, stronger and faster, the heart increases in size and can pump with greater force and capacity meaning we can run for longer, row harder or swim faster (see Lloyd and Oliver, 2013 for a full review of youth physical development). As we adapt to aerobic training we experience an array of changes in and around our muscles including an increase in the size and number of mitochondria which are the energy producing powerhouses in muscle cells (NSCA, 2016). This increase results in more energy for muscle contractions and allows us to go:

 Citius, Altius, Fortius!

 Then we hit the slippery slope…I am not even going to search the Latin for ‘Slower, Lower, Weaker’, but you get the idea! From the age of 30 the body’s systems, responsible for our peak performances, will stand at the top of the slope and look down (Spirduso et al, 2005). Now begins the slow, gradual descent that reverses all the good things their childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood years brought them, reducing an athlete’s chances of success.

ID-10055113 FreeDigitalPhotos.net Stuart Miles

FreeDigitalPhotos.net Stuart Miles

After the landmark 30th birthday the following changes start to take place at even the highest levels of sport:

  • Decreases in strength and power due to decreases in muscle mass and increases in intramuscular fat (Rodriguez et al., 2009).
  • Decreased muscular endurance, resting metabolic rate and increased body fat (NSCA, 2016).
  • Cardiac output decreases at a rate of 1% per year as does V̇O2Max, averaging 1% per year from 25 – 75 years (Jackson et al., 1996; Schvartz & Reibold, 1990 as cited in Garber & Glass, 2006).

For example, performance in competitive weightlifting declines by 1-1.5% per year until 70, after which the performance decrement gets even greater (Meltzer, 1994, as cited in NSCA, 2016).

A note of caution – the physiological adaptations to ageing are dependent on the individual, the amount of physical activity, the environment, and disease (Garber & Glass, 2006)).

 STOP PRESS!

This summer athletes have been pushing the boundaries of their physiological clocks; whether this is the result of training or through sheer determination to succeed one last time…

Take Elizabeth Kosmala, a 9-time gold medallist competing in her 12th Paralympics at the age of 72. Okay, she started out as a swimmer and has since switched to the less physically demanding event of shooting, but it is still an achievement to be competing at the top level in her category.

How about 50-year-old Kazakh, Zulfiya Gabidullina who won her country’s first-ever Paralympic Games medal with a world record breaking performance in the S3 class 100m freestyle swimming. Allen and Hopkins (2015) reported that swimmers generally peak around the age of 20! What’s even more impressive is that she didn’t even start training for swimming until her 30s!

Nick Skelton is another great example, at 58 years old, overcoming the physical demands of equestrian events to take individual jumping gold with his horse, Big Star, himself also a veteran (in horse terms!) at 13 years old!

At the other end of the spectrum the youngsters have also picked up medals in both the Olympics and Paralympics. Most notably the likes of gymnast Amy Tinkler (16 yrs), bronze medallist and the youngest member of #TeamGB, swimmers Ellie Robinson (15 yrs, S6) and Becky Redfern (16 yrs, SB13). Also athletes such as Kare Adenegan (15 yrs, T34) and Ntando Mahlangu (14 yrs, T42), who took the 200m silver behind #ParalympicGB’s Richard Whitehead (40 yrs) which is surely one of the biggest age gaps between gold and silver winning athletes!

It is easy to get drawn into the stories surrounding performances but we must pause for a moment and consider the factors potentially allowing them to happen. Let’s take the young competitors first, there is a high possibility that, physically, they have developed earlier than a lot of their peers and are therefore ready to compete at the highest level. Yes, there will be training and physiological adaptations to come but they could be, what are known as, early maturing individuals (Lloyd et al., 2014).

 FreeDigitalPhotos.net arztsamui

FreeDigitalPhotos.net arztsamui

As for the older competitors, especially at the Paralympics, we have to look at the talent pool from which they are emerging. A small talent pool allows athletes to compete for longer and achieve better results than they would if this talent pool were to grow. For example, the women’s 100m freestyle event in swimming, at the Olympics this event was won by Simone Manuel, a 20 year old American. She came from a pool of over 500 swimmers who, on the Fina world ranking list, are all within 5 seconds of each other, thus there is an abundance of swimmers competing on that world stage. Conversely, 50-year-old Paralympian gold medallist Gabidullina has succeeded from a talent pool of 19 swimmers listed on the S3 IPC world rankings, only one of whom was within 5 seconds of her time.

Of course there are many other variables I have not discussed and it is never an exact science to say who will win and at what age, but to even qualify for either of the Games there are times and standards in place, albeit put in place by each home country. So, as the Paralympics continue to thrive following the success of the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games, it is possible that these talent pools will grow therefore reducing the amount of stories we hear of the super quinquagenarians achieving Citius, Altius, Fortius!

 

References:

Allen, S. V., & Hopkins, W. G. (2015). Age of peak competitive performance of elite athletes: a systematic review. Sports Medicine, 45(10), 1431-1441.

Lloyd, R. S., Oliver, J. L., Faigenbaum, A. D., Myer, G. D., & Croix, M. B. D. S. (2014). Chronological age vs. biological maturation: implications for exercise programming in youth. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(5), 1454-1464.

Lloyd, R. S., & Oliver, J. L. (2012). The youth physical development model: A new approach to long-term athletic development. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(3), 61-72.

Garber, C. E., & Glass, S. C. (2006). ACSM’s resource manual for guidelines for exercise testing and prescription. L. A. Kaminsky, & K. A. Bonzheim (Eds.). Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2016). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 4th Edition. Human kinetics.

Rodriguez, N. R., DiMarco, N. M., & Langley, S. (2009). Position of the American dietetic association, dietitians of Canada, and the American college of sports medicine: nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(3), 509-527.

Spirduso, W. W., Francis, K. L., & MacRae, P. G. (2005). Physical dimensions of aging, 2nd Ed. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.

 

Life after the Olympics: retirement

By Caroline Heaney

The close of the 2016 Olympics bought with them the prospect of the retirement of some of the leading names in sport. Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Phelps, for example, will all be notable absences from the 2020 Olympics, but how will these athletes cope with life after elite sport?

After the thrill of the Olympics many athletes experience a post-Olympic come down and some can even experience depression. It seems logical that after the four-year build-up and the excitement of the event, many athletes are left asking themselves the question of ‘what next’ once the games are over. When an athlete feels that they’ve achieved all that they can achieve in the Olympic environment the answer to that question might be retirement.

Retirement from sport is not an easy transition for any athlete to make. Elite athletes who have dedicated their whole life to their sport and tend to have a strong athletic identity, where being an athlete is a large part of their perception of their identity. To have that part of their identity taken away can be traumatic and lead to an identity crisis. Several high profile athletes have admitted to struggling with retirement and career termination (retirement) is considered to be a significant potential cause of depression and anxiety amongst athletes. Of course, retirement from sport doesn’t have to be a negative experience – some may view it as a ‘rebirth’ rather than a ‘death’. How an athlete copes with retirement can depend on a multitude of factors such as their general resilience, whether they have made plans for life after sport, whether they have fulfilled their potential, and whether their retirement is planned or forced (e.g. a career ending injury).

Let’s examine the case of three Olympic medallists who are reaching the end of their careers and are contemplating retirement in the not too distant future – Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Phelps.

Bolt: The man with a plan

After he achieved the unprecedented ‘triple triple’ (Olympic gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m in 2008, 2012 and 2016) Usain Bolt announced that Rio would be his last Olympics. This comes as no surprise as Bolt had identified this as his plan long before the Rio Olympics. Bolt is not retiring just yet and is planning to compete in the World Athletics Championships in London next year. This ‘phased retirement’ may help Bolt with the transition into retirement that many athletes struggle with. The difference between Bolt and some athletes who find retirement difficult is the fact that Usain has achieved everything he possibly could in his sport and is exiting on his terms (a ‘planned’ retirement) – for Usain there will be no unfinished business. This will give Usain a strong sense of control over his retirement. Despite this, retirement must still be a difficult decision for Bolt, particularly when he is viewed by many as the saviour of athletics – a pressure indeed and his absence from the sport will no doubt be felt when his retirement does come.

Ennis-Hill: A decision to be made

Whilst Bolt has a clear plan for his future Jessica Ennis-Hill, after achieving a heptathlon silver medal in Rio, following her Gold in 2012, is taking some time to contemplate her future. After her event she stated “It’s going to be a tough decision, I’m going to go away and think about it… it’s a big decision.” Like Bolt, Ennis-Hill has given a clear message that she will not be at the 2020 Olympics, but has yet to decide whether to draw a line under her career now or at a later date. A home World Championships for the reigning World Champion might be a temptation for a final swansong, but will it live up to a home Olympics? Preparing for a heptathlon competition is no easy task and having twice before won the World Championships Ennis-Hill may decide that the incentive just isn’t great enough. Maybe what Jess needs is a new challenge, such as joining the exclusive 7000-point heptathlon club. Taking her time to reflect on her future and not rushing into a decision in flurry of post-Olympics emotion is a sensible approach as effective retirement decision making can be a complex process. Whatever decision she makes Ennis-Hill has been a fantastic ambassador for her sport and as one of the few women in sport to become a household name her role as female athletic role model should not be underestimated.

Phelps: The comeback king

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history (28 Olympic medals over 5 games), is an example of an athlete who retired, but then came back to swimming. Returning to sport after retirement is often associated with a compulsion to compete and an inability to cope with the sense of loss that occurs following retirement. This appears to have been the case with Phelps who stated that he experienced a tremendous low point after his retirement. Phelps has made no secret of the mental health challenges he has experienced in his life and in sharing these he has helped to overcome the stigma of athletes experiencing mental health conditions such as depression. Having learnt important lessons from his first retirement Phelps felt that he had ‘unfinished business’. His response to his imminent second retirement has been very positive:

‘I feel fulfilled. It was what I wanted. I was able to dedicate myself to this last comeback and that was it. One last hurrah. Looking back, it happened exactly how I wanted it to and exactly how it should have. Now I can hang up my suit and be happy with retiring. During the medal ceremonies, I was more emotional than I ever was before. I think that’s just because I was truly happy with where I am and how everything went.”

Bolt, Ennis-Hill and Phelps have all left their mark in Olympic history and as they move towards new chapters in their lives they face new challenges which they will hopefully take on with the mental strength of an Olympian.

‘Super-human’ athletes are at risk from the post-Olympic blues – here’s why

Karen Howells, The Open University

As nations all over the world welcome their Olympic athletes home, many of us will take a moment to reflect on the whirlwind of psychological pressure, physical strain, elation and disappointment, which they have just experienced. But whether they’re revelling in the glory of hard-won medals, or recovering from heartbreaking defeats, Olympic athletes won’t have long before our attention shifts to the next spectacle.

So what happens to elite athletes when their moment in the spotlight is over? Sadly, it seems likely that many could suffer a case of the post-Olympic blues. Research following the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics found that the return home can be accompanied by confusion, depression, anger, resentment, abandonment and emptiness. We have only to browse the media or peer into the lives of Olympic athletes through their autobiographies to appreciate that dark times await many of these seemingly super-human beings – irrespective of their successes or failures.

Anecdotal reports suggest that the post-Olympic blues are common, with many athletes finding the return to normality difficult to handle. Some even appear to develop symptoms that are in keeping with a diagnosis of depression.

While there’s no consensus in the research that the incidence of depression is any different for elite athletes, research has identified that the public perception of athletes as being mentally tough means that athletes can find it harder to speak out about their struggles.

Even so, the stories of depression following previous Olympics serve as a warning to those leaving Rio; Amanda Beard, Ian Thorpe, Allison Schmidt and McKayla Maroney have all disclosed their experiences of depression. Cassie Patten, bronze medallist in the ten kilometre open water swim at the Beijing 2008 games said:

In the year after the games, I felt lost. I got really depressed … I would come swimming and just sit on poolside and just cry. It was horrible, because I loved swimming.

The curse of celebrity

Previously known only to the staunchest of swimming fans, Adam Peaty is now a household name after 57.13 seconds of record-breaking speed. In this age of social media, celebrity is easy to come by: within seconds of success or failure, the result has been interpreted and reported, and a celebrity is born.

Oh what a feeling – but can it last?
PATRICK B. KRAEMER/EPA

The notion that athletes are “great” is widespread throughout mainstream media, and for a golden moment in time that would positively impact on athletes’ sense of worth and self-esteem. But within weeks – if not days – of returning home, the harsh realities of life as a professional sportsperson will return.

No longer will the athletes be celebrities, who are loved and instantly recognised by their adoring fans. Instead, they will be at the start of another four-year cycle of gruelling training and fierce competition, working toward that distant goal of qualifying for Tokyo 2020.

The impact of this return to the daily grind on elite athletes has not been explored in depth. But it is likely that there is some negative impact on self-worth that may well contribute to the development of mental health issues.

The athletic identity

Issues surrounding identity – that is, someone’s sense of who they are – can also contribute to the likelihood of depression occurring, especially for those who are transitioning out of sport. Olympians whose identity as athletes to the exclusion of other roles may be at the greatest risk. For athletes who are used to measuring their success and worth in terms of their speed, strength and stamina, it can be very difficult to find fulfilment in other domains.

In an interview with NBC, US swimmer Michael Phelps spoke of his debilitating experiences with depression. Following London 2012, he said: “I thought of myself as just a swimmer, and nobody else.”

Phelps’ experiences highlight how important it is for all elite athletes – even those for whom sport remains their number one priority – to prepare for futures after their sporting careers.

Looking forwards

Sport psychologists and coaches stress the importance of setting process, performance and outcome goals in the years before the Olympic Games. Research has shown that the setting of goals can provide focus and markers of progress, as well as serving to maintain self-esteem and promote resilience throughout the difficult training schedules.

But when the Olympics are over, those goals become irrelevant. Accordingly, many athletes lose focus, feel lost and lack direction. As London 2012 gold medallist Victoria Pendleton stated:

You have all this build-up for one day, and when it’s over, it’s: ‘Oh, is that it?’ You’re relieved but kind of sad and numb. It’s over … people think it’s hard when you lose, but it’s almost easier to come second because you have something to aim for when you finish. When you win, you suddenly feel lost.

So irrespective of success or failure, it is vital that athletes re-evaluate their post-Olympic lives, and set new goals – whether they are remaining in sport or not.

As the public divert their attention to other events, and national sporting organisations shift their focus to the next four years, it is important that coaches and teams spend some time focusing on returning athletes, to address the negative impacts of sudden celebrity and dominant athletic identity. At the earliest opportunity, athletes need to form new goals, to move forwards into post-Olympic life.

Karen Howells, Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Reflections on the Student Hub Live Olympics Special

On Friday 19th Aust 2016 members of the OU sport and fitness team (Simon Rea, Karen Howells and Caroline Heaney) took part in the Student Hub Live Olympics Special. This was our first experience of a live streamed event, but we all thoroughly enjoyed it. We were joined by Kath Woodward and Elizabeth Silva and the session was expertly hosted by Karen Foley.

imageOn our arrival we were delighted to see that the green room was well stocked with tasty treats, possibly as an incentive to take a green room selfie!

We then participated in a short Facebook live video talking about what we would cover in the session. This helped us to overcome some of our nerves about the main event and we were impressed how many students watched the video. This filled us with excitement about what was to come and the amount of student interaction that was possible.

imageThe session kicked off at noon and Simon Rea was up first discussing the history of the Olympics. He also shared his experience of racing 1980 Olympic 100m champion Alan Wells!

 

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Simon was followed by Elizabeth Silva, Professor of Sociology, who examined some of the economical and political aspects of the Olympics, and gave some interesting insight.

 

 

 

 

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Karen Howells was up next discussing the coach-athlete relationship and the role of sport psychology. This session highlighted the importance of the team behind the athlete.

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Karen was followed by Caroline Heaney who discussed the links between mental health and sport and exercise. As well as looking at exercise as a treatment for mental health conditions, the session looked at the incidence of depression in elite athletes.

 

imageThe session concluded with an interesting discussion about gender and the Olympics with Kath Woodward who challenged the audience to consider whether traditional views of gender are too narrow.

The Student Hub Live Olympics Special provided us with a great opportunity to interact with students and share our knowledge on sports related topics. We hope that those who engaged with the session found it interesting.

If you missed the session it will be available through the catch-up link on this page, or you can watch the video below.

If you are interested in studying sport and fitness at the OU please click here to find out more.

How Team GB cyclists peaked at the Olympics and owned the velodrome

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss

To say that Team GB have dominated the Olympic cycling would be the biggest understatement of the games. British track cyclists seem to have made peaking in line with the Olympic cycle their speciality. They won seven of the ten gold medals on offer at both London 2012 and Beijing 2008, but this year in Rio, they have really surpassed themselves. Every member of the 15-strong squad has come away with a medal, taking the final tally to six golds, four silvers and one bronze.

This remarkable success has baffled their rivals. Michael Gané – the French sprint coach – must have echoed the thoughts of many teams when he remarked; “they don’t exist for four years, then at the Olympics they outclass the whole world”. So, how have Team GB managed, yet again, to peak at the optimum time?

Training for success

It all comes down to a technique called “periodised training” – a strategy which has long been used to prepare athletes for major events. The training year is divided and organised to ensure that peak performance is achieved at the optimum time – in this case, at the Olympic Games.

A multi-year programme involves a gradual increase in training intensity through the pre-competition period, followed by a reduction or tapering of training, as the competition period draws nearer.

When following a multi-year periodisation plan – such as the four-year Olympic cycle – the final year is the most important one. That’s when the amount of training (the distance covered or time spent) is reduced to prevent injury and fatigue, while the intensity of the workouts is increased to ensure athletes are in top form for the big event.

For Team GB’s cyclists, training will focus on muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance (ability to sustain high intensity exercise) and sprint power. But the real skill is to maintain the subtle balance between periods of work and recovery, which must be tailored to each rider’s individual capabilities.

The British Cycling team has clearly mastered this approach, having set the Olympic Games as their number one priority. This may also explain why the team are less visible on the podium at world championship events in the lead up to the games.

That said, while timing athletes’ training right will unquestionably give them an edge, there are still a few other factors to consider.

The price of gold

The winning streak of Team GB cyclists at successive games has brought about a significant increase in investment from UK Sport – the organisation which allocates public funds to elite-level sports – at the expense of many others. According to sports policy expert Dr Borja Garcia, the “brutal” regime is “as crude as it is effective”. Certainly, with a grant in the region of £30m every four years, lack of funding has not been an issue for Team GB’s cyclists.

GB gold medallist Jason Kenny, looking flash.
Javier Etxezarreta/EPA

And it’s clear that investment pays off: former Olympic gold medalist Chris Boardman said that “the British team have always been at the head of the technology race and we’ve seen that again [at Rio 2016]”. This level of funding has enabling the development of bikes worth in the region of £10,000, and skin suits so aerodynamic that they can produce up to a 5% performance gain, compared to those used at the world championships in London earlier this year.

In post-race interviews, many of the athletes have also praised the extensive sport science support network working behind the scenes; from nutritionists to data analysts.

Success breeds success

The old addage “success breeds success” clearly applies to the whole of Great Britain’s Olympic team. On the track the first cycling gold in the men’s team pursuit at Rio seems to have given the squad a level positivity and confidence which not only motivated them, but also potentially has intimidated their rivals.

This notion was echoed by Max Whitlock, when he reflectedon the huge success that Team GB gymnasts had experienced: “I’m a big believer in success breeding success. The results we’ve had have pushed us to get more, it’s made us all believe that it’s possible”.

British Cycling head coach Iain Dyer openly said that the whole squad have been focusing first and foremost on the Olympics:

While we peak athletically for the Olympics, we also peak in our research and innovation for the Olympics … we’ve got a really great team of people doing a fantastic job, who will go to the ends of the earth looking for that final marginal gain. It’s all about marginal gains, isn’t it?

While this approach has left some competitors scratching their heads, no one can question the success of Dyer’s strategy. It’s clear that British Cycling and Team GB have mastered the art of periodised training. But make no mistake – it takes more than good timing to be an Olympic champion.

The Conversation

Candice Lingam-Willgoss, Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Video: What sporting future? Risks and rewards

So far in the 2016 Rio Olympics we have seen several world records (e.g. Ayana in the 10,000m, Peaty in 100m breaststroke, Wlodarczyk in the hammer,  Qingquan in weightlifting). In this video Michael Johnson, who yesterday lost his 400m world record to Wayde van Niekerk reflects on the future of sport in an age when technology is advancing rapidly.

Note: This video is also available in the OpenLearn Chasing Perfection video collection

Why are Olympic athletes copping so much abuse? It all comes down to gender

By Helen Owton

Every four years, the Olympic and Paralympic Games burst on to our screens, showcasing a rich variety of sports, athletes and cultures. For those not lucky enough to be in Rio this year, social media has made it possible to share jokes, news, triumphs and disappointments with other viewers from around the world. But with as many as 3.6bn people watching across the globe, it’s almost inevitable that some people won’t like what they see. Already, several athletes have been subject to abuse via mainstream and social media. In one disgraceful case, as the Team GB Rugby Sevens battled it out against Canada for bronze, tweets targeted Olympic athlete Heather Fisher, criticising her appearance. Fisher experiences alopecia – or hair loss – and works as an advocate for others with the same condition. Comments on twitter questioned her womanhood, saying they were “not convinced” that she is “female” and that she’s “the manliest woman I have ever seen”.


 
Sadly, these insults are nothing new to women athletes. All Olympic sports are competitions of skill, speed and strength. Yet when women run too fast, kick too hard, or look too muscular, they are subjected to abuse. At the same time as being world-class athletes, sportswomen are expected to be physically appealing – and even wear make up – while photographs of sportswomen in the media are generally more likely to be sexually suggestive. Those who defend this state of affairs often say it’s a way to attract fans and endorsements to women’s sports – yet women athletes are still paid less than men and their games are given less air time. Men are not immune from discrimination and abuse in sport either. In some ways, men face more limitations on what physical traits are deemed acceptable, thanks to society’s particularly narrow ideas about masculinity. For example, Team GB gymnast Louis Smith was subjected to Twitter trolling when he slipped off the pummel horse, with some claiming that his long hair was to blame, and Ethiopian swimmer Nobel Kiros Habte was publicly shamed over his body weight, and nicknamed “the whale”.

Generally speaking, men are also vulnerable to discrimination in sports which are traditionally “feminine”, such as synchronised swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating and netball. Indeed, at the Olympics, men are excluded from competing in synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics altogether.

A challenging notion

This widespread sexism at the Olympics shows us that women and men who do not conform to expectations about their respective genders are often targets for abuse.

Caster Semenya leads the way. ABDELHAK SENNA/EPA

This is because they threaten traditional attitudes about the appropriate roles, rights and responsibilities of women and men in society. These traditional attitudes are based on a simple “binary” classification model – where people are classified as either male or female. This model is limited and fixed: it tells us that male and female are “opposite sexes”, that sex is determined biologically (according to chromosomes, reproductive organs, hormones) and that all men are naturally different to all women in terms of their feelings, thoughts and actions. As a result, women are expected to look and behave in a “feminine” way, while men are expected look and behave in a “masculine” way. So many people understand sex and gender in this way that it can be very difficult for us to think about and discuss different ways of understanding gender. Human beings can feel very uncomfortable when other people do not fit neatly into categories, because it challenges preconceived ideas about what it is to be “normal”. And this can lead them to lash out. This model has shaped society – and sporting organisations – for a very long time. It is often drawn on in sports competitions, which are typically organised into “men’s” and “women’s” events. As a result, transgender and intersex athletes such as Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand have to contend with large sporting organisations such as the International Association of Athletics Federations to even be allowed to compete.

All too simple

In reality, the simple binary model actually appears to reflect social and cultural ideas about gender, rather than biological facts. Evidence suggests that gender isn’t entirely binary on any level of physiology or psychology: men and women can both display huge variations in terms of chromosomes, hormones, brain structure, personality and roles in society. There are several good examples of this. Daphna Joel’s research challenges the idea of a “male” or “female” brain: in fact, most people’s brains display a mixture of features. And studies have shown that in marathon races, for example, not all of the men beat all of the women – in reality, some women will beat some men. As radical as this might sound now, it is possible that some point in the future, the fastest marathon runner will be a woman. In light of modern scientific evidence, it’s clear that traditional expectations about what men and women should look like – and how they should behave – are outdated. There is never a good justification for abuse. But the hate directed toward athletes who don’t fit neatly into our ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman is based on ignorant misconceptions about gender. And in some ways, that makes it even worse. Athletes who challenge the mainstream understanding of gender don’t deserve to be bullied – especially after all they have sacrificed to compete for their countries. Rather, they should be praised for showing the world that individual differences can lead to outstanding achievements. The Conversation Helen Owton, Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, The Open University This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Medal Quest: Can you guide a promising young athlete to championship success?

To celebrate the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics we have developed a new interactive game called Medal Quest to test your skills in mentoring a young performer towards Olympic success as a senior athlete.

platforms

Click here to play the game

Please note that this game works best on Chrome, Firefox and Safari. It does not always work on Internet Explorer.

What do the Olympic medal tables say about your nation’s sporting priorities?

By Ben Oakley and Simon Shibli

Each time the Olympic and Paralympic Games come around, a small minority of nations tend to do well. On average, only 25% of competing nations at the Olympics will win a gold medal – and they’re pretty much the same ones year in, year out.

Intrigued, we dug into data spanning back to 1948 – derived from our colleagues at Gracenote Sport – to unravel how different countries approach sport, and how that affects their chances of Olympic success.

Looking back over the last 20 years, we found that the top 20 nations have consistently won more than 70% of the medals at each games. Despite the fact that some progress has been made over the last five games, the figure below demonstrates that this trend has persisted throughout modern Olympic history.

It follows that if some nations consistently perform very well, others repeatedly do not. One group which appears to perform relatively poorly is Muslim nations – which we define as those nations where around 50% of the population is Muslim. We found 53 nations that meet this definition, which collectively account for 18% of the world’s population.

Econometric models have consistently shown that bigger populations and greater wealth are closely linked with medal success. But based on these trends, Muslim nations perform well below what we might expect. For instance, Muslim nations only won 61 (6.3%) of the medals awarded at London 2012. By comparison, the top-ranked nation at the games (the US) racked up 104 (10.8%) of the medals, with only 4.5% of the world’s population.

There are several reasons which could explain this relatively poor performance. For one thing, the Olympics largely features typically European sports, such as swimming, rowing and cycling. All of these require significant facilities and investment to develop medal winners. This doesn’t play to the strengths of many Muslim nations, which tend to be more successful in combat sports and weightlifting – events where there are comparatively fewer medals up for grabs.

The gender balance

All things being equal, you would expect nations to win medals in proportion to the medals available for each gender (47% women, 53% men). The fact that women won just 15 (25%) of the Muslim nations’ 61 medals at London 2012 indicates that Muslim nations under-perform in women’s events particularly.

When we considered the top ten nations in London 2012, we noticed that Korea and Italy also under-performed in women’s events, and over-relied on men for their overall success. By contrast, in recent years China has actively targeted success in women’s events. This has proved to be a highly successful strategy: 57% of the nation’s medals in 2012 were won by women, which led to second place in the medal table.

Other nations with strong contributions made by women include the US – where college sport provides a fruitful pathway to develop young talent – and Australia, which has targeted elite sport success for men and women since the 1980s, when it set up the Australian Institute of Sport. Meanwhile, with their successful equestrian programmes, Germany and Great Britain won nearly 10% of their medals in mixed or open events at London 2012.

Positive approaches to women’s sport will only become more significant, as the International Olympic Committee works towards its goal to achieve gender equity in the 2020s.

Paralympic power

As you might expect, there is a strong correlation between the nations which dominate the Olympics, and those which succeed at the Paralympics. But a few nations buck the trend: some perform better in the Paralympics than the Olympics, and others significantly worse.

To illustrate this point, the figure below shows the index scores of Paralympic success compared with Olympic success for London 2012. An index score simply enables us to make a like for like comparison between the two events. For example, the US won 6% of medals in the Paralympic Games and 12% in the Olympic Games. So, the US has an index score of 50 ([6% / 12%] x 100 = 50), which means that it achieved only half the success in the Paralympic Games, relative to the Olympic Games.

The higher the index, the greater the nation’s Paralympic success, relative to its performance in the Olympics. We did this calculation for all nations which won at least 15 Paralympic medals.

North African nations Algeria and Tunisia – which also happen to be Muslim nations – excelled at the Paralympics relative to the Olympics. Of the traditional Olympic powers, better performances were also seen by Ukraine, Australia, China, Canada and Spain – three of which have been recent hosts (Sydney in 2000, Beijing in 2008 and Barcelona in 1992).

By contrast, the US and Japan performed relatively poorly at the Paralympics, suggesting that elite disabled athletes may not be receiving the levels of support which are provided to elite able-bodied athletes.

Fuller explanations for these variations are complex, but social attitudes towards disability must play a part. For instance, British parliamentarian and multi-Paralympic medallist Tanni Grey-Thompson cited the role of television coverage as a key factor in the US’s modest Paralympic performance.

Bizarrely, in a country where you have Title IX about women’s entitlement to sport at university and they have had scholarship programmes for disabled athletes for 40 years … the public do not get to see it [on television].

As the Olympics and Paralympics play out in Rio throughout August and September, we’ll probably see the same old suspects dominating the medal tables. But dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find that the results can tell us a thing or two about each nation’s sporting priorities: especially when it comes to the success of their elite women and disabled athletes.

The Conversation

Ben Oakley, Head of Childhood, Youth and Sport, The Open University and Simon Shibli, Professor of Sport Management, Sheffield Hallam University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.