Height in sports
Height is not everything in sports; it’s the only thing.
To illustrate this rule, one can examine the heights of the past 10 Olympic decathlete champions. Many consider the champion decathlete to be the world’s finest athlete. He must be proficient at 10 track and field events, and compete in these events in a gruelling two-day competition. He can sprint, throw, and leap within a reasonable standard deviation from the Olympic specialists, and must do so within the compressed time constraints of an Olympic schedule. To be world class in these events takes an exceptional athlete, one who is blessed with both genetics and a broad skillset. Genetically, these Olympic champion decathletes share one thing: height.
Of the past 10 Olympic champion decathletes, all stand at least 5’11” tall. Dan O’Brien, the tallest of the bunch, stands a long 6’2”. Bryan Clay is the stockiest of the bunch, standing a bit under 6’0”. Ashton Eaton, the reigning Olympic champion and world record holder, meets the middle at 6’1”. This remarkable consistency in the athlete’s heights is mostly due to the nature of the sport. They must have the leverage of a thrower, the stride of a sprinter, and the length of a jumps specialist. Thus, having a consistent height (not too tall, but not short) means that the decathlete will be able to replicate the forms of the specialists at a high level. A shorter athlete would never be able to compete in the decathlon, as their compensation for one event would lead to inferior results in other events. The decathlete must be consistent in all 10 events, and if they can stand at a height that falls between a javelin thrower and a middle distance runner, then this athlete will have the necessary physicality to compete on a consistently world class basis. 6’0”, which is about 3” greater than the average North American male, seems to be this mandatory number.
Height is not confined just to a decathlete. Within the ecosystem of sports, height is advantageous, and nearly necessary, to a growing number of athletic disciplines. The obvious examples lie in the vertical games, where a higher reach means a higher score. Basketball and volleyball players have always been extremely tall, and will continue to be. The average NBA player has been 6’7” tall since Michael Jordan entered the league some 30 years ago. What is more surprising is the growing importance of height in sports not necessarily dependent on a vertical advantage. Take, for example, the NHL. 40 years ago, the average NHL player stood 5’11” tall. Today, the average player is 6’1” tall, and has the muscle mass to match. The average NHL player in the ‘70s would have been regarded as tall, especially considering that the average male has grown since 1970. What is non-existent today, however, is the compromise between height and skill level. In professional hockey today, a shorter player with a great skillset would simply be ignored by scouts. A Theoren Fleury-sized man would not be able to rise through the ranks as he did 25 years ago. Today, the NHL player must be at least 6’0” tall, and being taller is a major advantage. There are exceptions to this rule of course, as some smaller players have found success in the big league. Generally, however, the NHL player of today is tall, and if he does not meet the height expectations, he will be ignored by most NHL general managers.
The obvious questions remain: why is height so crucial to athletic prowess? Is it a reflection of the importance of height in life? While the latter may be true, with even Fortune 500 CEOs now standing a statuesque average of 6’2”, the former is answered with one word: leverage. The taller athlete has more leverage, and can generate more subsequent power than an athlete’s power at a shorter height. An athlete with more leverage means that they can throw farther, jump farther, run faster, and be more physically commanding than an athlete with less leverage. As discussed before, the taller decathlete is able to generate more leverage to bolster their throwing, running and jumping events than a similarly skilled athlete at a shorter height. Having more leverage than your opponent is a competitive advantage in any sport requiring the athlete to generate his or her own power. Simply put, height matters, and unless you are a jockey or a gymnast, your height determines your ability to compete.