One of my favourite moments of commentary from the Olympics on Friday was when Tomasz Majewski celebrated his victory in the shot put by running across the track to the crowd whilst the women's 10,000m was being raced. "He better not collide with them or he will scatter them like skittles." You could see his mental image: one big beefy man, a row of slight women and cartoon like fun.
It highlighted was the way different body types are suited to different sports. Rowers for example tend to have a huge aerobic capacity and great endurance but I wouldn't fancy many of them in a marathon. Similarly you would not put any money on a basketball team made up of cyclists. It is an obvious point but one that stopped me being convinced by the argument that champions are only made by focused hard work. I enjoyed Bounce by Matthew Syed and thought it contained lots of interesting evidence which showed most people could be better than they ever believed possible, if they practiced properly, with enough intensity, for enough hours. Nevertheless to be a champion, you have to have the right physical equipment for your event. You have to have enough aptitude to make the work worthwhile. The success of British cycling comes applying all the lessons of directed practice, analysing the different components of the sport and making sure no stone is left unturned. The athletes in their programme lead a disciplined rigorous life but before they are admitted they undergo all sorts of tests to make sure they have the necessary physical characteristics, the necessary talent. They know what is required and have identified people outside the sport with the requisite power and aerobic profiles and then encouraged them to take up cycling. Lizzie Armistead is an example. She had never even owned a bike before the age of 15, seven years later she has an Olympic silver medal for the road race. Champions are made from a mixture of talent, hard work, mental strength.
For the rest of us though aptitude is not so important. We can do what we want if we like it. we persist we will improve and in doing so affirm our own sense of worth, even if objectively we are at the back of the pack. For example I am not really built to be a distance runner, my shape is all wrong, but that does not stop me finding satisfaction in plodding along the canal. I can look at the slender frame of Mo Farah with limbs proportionally long and wonder at the sheer elegance of his stride and the beauty of his movement and know, that even if I had started as a young boy and worked as hard as possibly, I could never have approached his level of grace. That is fine I am not a competitive athlete my pleasure is more contemplative, more about the sensation of moving through the landscape, feeling the air, feeling the body working.
I may not be a natural but on the upside though I am not so susceptible to being scattered like a skittle