Q & A

The science of making an Olympian

The Winter Olympics are kicking off February 9th and scientists like Matt Jordan from the University of Calgary are watching with a keen eye to see if all the training of athletes will pay off.

You don’t get Olympian bodies like this just from training hard.

Canadian bobsledder Kaillie Humphries. (Dave Holland)

Olympic athletes are all incredible specimens of power, endurance and competitiveness. For instance, Canadian bobsledder Kaillie Humphries described her body to CBC Sports in 2016 in this way: "I've always been bigger, I've had big legs and a big butt. My body is built for sport. My body is built for bobsleigh. I've worked very hard to get it here. It's very much a machine."

How much of an athlete's success is passion and hard work?

As much as we'd like to think of ourselves as potential Olympians if we had only been given the opportunity or worked just a bit harder, I have to break it to you — you probably couldn't have made it. I couldn't have either so I'm not picking favourites here.

The fact is: Olympians are the best in the world at what they do for reasons beyond just hard work, although that is a massive factor. They are also a perfect combination of the right body and they love the right sport. Not to mention they have access to facilities for sports that are in the Winter Olympics — not every small town has a ski jump for instance.

What's the "right" sport?

Part of what makes an Olympian is that they have picked the right sport for their body type. Whether they dream of being a freestyle skier and then happen to be perfectly physically adapted to that sport or they are drawn to a sport they are naturally good at and then excel in it depends on which athlete you talk to. 

Speaking of bobsledders, a lot of the middle pushers in a four person team didn't start as bobsledders but instead as sprinters or running backs, and were recruited into the more obscure sport of bobsled. Many of them learned to love it. Others dream of becoming hockey players, and it's only those blessed with the right physical characteristics — soft hands, fast feet, power and size — that make it to the big leagues.

Soft hands, fast feet, power and size help hockey players. like Canada's Hailey Wickenheiser, make it into the big leagues. (Antonio Calanni/Associated Press)

Part of the making of an Olympian is choosing the right sport for your body type. And then you have to add the dedication, hard work, tolerance to pain and hardship and the other attributes that make these athletes the top of their world.

Where do the physical talents to become an Olympian come from?

Genetics plays a huge role in the development of an athlete's body. Most importantly, it can control your height (to an extent) and the composition of your muscles. 

Matt Jordan, the director at the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary, which is the main winter Olympic training centre, explains it this way: "Generally, we classify muscle fibres into three types. There's a slower muscle fibre type that's really important for endurance activity and these muscle fibres are important because they don't fatigue very easily. On the other end, we have a very fast fibre type that's important for short-term, very powerful movements that you see in sprinting, or jumping. And there's also a muscle fibre type that's kind of in-between that has some of both properties, so it's fast but it also has some abilities to be fatigue-resistant."

And the proportion of muscle fibre types in the different muscles are first determined by your genetics. 

How much can training influence your muscle composition?

You have to work with what your genetics gave you, but you can accentuate certain fibres over others to try to work on speed or endurance or balance them both. 

Jordan describes it this way: "Training and exercise actually are very influential on your muscle fibre type. Training leads to very specific changes in muscle fibre type and obviously if you add your genetic propensity plus your training, that's where you end up with Olympic champions."

Training leads to very specific changes in muscle fibre type. (Stephanie Blanchet/RCI)

What about the sports that aren't clear-cut sprinting or endurance sports?

The Becky Scotts of cross-country skiing are different bodies altogether compared to bobsledders like Kaillie Humphries. There's also the "of all-trades" kind of athlete. That's where we get into more of the intangibles that, frankly, science doesn't have a full grasp on. 

What makes Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir the best in the world in ice dance? It's not a sport that requires great power or necessarily great endurance and yet they are the only ones in the entire world who can excel like they have. And that is where pure training becomes a much bigger factor in success. 

Training is largely what makes Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir the best in the world in ice dance. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Places like the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary take a very holistic (and very scientific) approach when analyzing an athlete's potential. Everything from diet, sleep patterns, strength assessments, endurance testing all go into the profile of how to improve performance. The training is individualized to each sport and to each athlete so that over the eight- or even 12-year time frame that they are working with scientists at the institute, the athletes can become true Olympic medal contenders. And hopefully win gold for Canada in the next few weeks!

About the Author

Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur is the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. She's the co-creator of scienceinseconds.com.