Saturday, August 23, 2008

An Olympic Pondering Decathlon

Okay, my biannual stint of Olympic watching is about to conclude. A bunch of speculations suggested by this year's stretch, starting with the utterly unscientific and ending with more genomic oriented queries.

1) Having now watched two Olympics using a Digital Video Recorder, it's completely clear that having a few fast forward speeds is no way to navigate multi-hour recordings to find what you want. Surely there are better UIs for this! The thumbwheel on an iPod is one obvious choice, but there must be other ways.

2) The Summer games are blessed with multiple events which touch on multiple disciplines: the decathlon, heptathlon, modern pentathlon & triathlon. Why isn't there a true multi-discipline Winter sport? Biathlon is a glorious combination of two diametrically opposed skills -- racing and precision shooting -- and there is also the Nordic combined, but neither of these sample a wide range. How about this for a Winter hexathlon:
A) 500m long-track speedskating
B) 2500m long-track speedskating
C) Downhill skiing
D) Slalom
E) 10Km X-C skiing
F) ski jump (small hill)

3) I once contemplated attending a HUPO meeting in Beijing; atop an interesting program there was a post-conference trip option to tour the country. There were two issues: I'd have to foot my own travel expenses & I'd be in serious hot water at home for visiting the Wolong panda center solo. But, now I'd definitely go -- particularly if they replaced a typical dry scientific kickoff with another Zhang Yimou spectacular, I wouldn't hesitate!

4) As a kid I did occasionally have Olympic daydreams. I'm a bit over the hill now, but between athletes older than I such as Dara Torres and hearing that some countries will field just about anyone, perhaps I gave up too soon. If I could pick anything, it would be long track speedskating, the most graceful speed sport bar none. But, more realistically perhaps I could go for the 1500 meter freestyle swimming -- I'd estimate my time is off by only a factor of 3 -- perhaps with some regular training I can get that down to 2!

5) Of course, even with some extensive training I'd look pretty odd on the blocks -- I'm 5'8" and from what I can tell in the TV coverage, it's a rare swimmer who isn't a few inches over 6'. Clearly there are advantages to height in a large number of sports -- but I'm also clearly too tall for a shot at women's gymnastics (atop the other obvious issue). It would be interesting to see which sports have the highest and lowest dispersion in athlete height -- and what those patterns look like. What sport should I have chosen based only on my height?

6) During the Olympics, the world's tallest living woman died, after a life with many health difficulties. Clearly, there are limits to the advantages to height. What sport has the tallest athletes?

7) What more subtle anatomic characteristics might lead to athletic advantage? Differences in muscle fiber composition are an oft-cited one. A TV profile of superswimmer Michael Phelps claimed he is 'double jointed'. But what else. For example, are there subtle differences in some individual's lungs which lead to more efficient air exchange? Smoother surfaces on bone joints?

8) Diving lower, are there biochemical differences? Again, could there be differences in oxygen transfer or usage? Differences in energy metabolism?

9) If we did genome screens of the athletes, what SNPs would we find over-represented? How many of those would be 'obvious' and how many would lead to new genes which influence performance? Already there is at least one company offering genome scans to predict what sport you should stuff (er, steer) your kid into.

10) The sad story of Flo Hyman illustrates another aspect of selection for unusual body types: she died of a aortic dissection due to Marfan's syndrome, which probably also led to her tall, thin stature which was an advantage on the volleyball court. What other genetic variants have a dicey risk/reward trade-off in the athletic arena? And how many of these are a serious medical issue for regular folks?

3 comments:

Unknown said...

9) If we did genome screens of the athletes, what SNPs would we find over-represented?

Hypothesis: We would see an over abundance of UGT2B17 deletions.

Followup: What is the distribution of these athletes by country and sport?

Neil said...

There are rumours flying around the web that Michael Phelps has Marfan syndrome. I've only got as far as Googling for those words, nothing conclusive as yet.

Anonymous said...

Of course, even with some extensive training I'd look pretty odd on the blocks -- I'm 5'8" and from what I can tell in the TV coverage, it's a rare swimmer who isn't a few inches over 6'.

Note that there are extensive prelims before all those events, and you're only seeing the best of the best even in the semis.