What changed, the athlete or the sport?

Evolution Of Athletes:

Over the years we have seen a continuous trend of athletes increasing in size and shape depending on the sport they participate in.

Here are some statistics:

1920s - NFL - 5’11 and 198 lbs.

1990s - NFL - 6’3 and 302 lbs.

1930s - Average NBA Player - 6’3

2000 - Average NBA Player - 6’7

1930s - Tallest NBA Players - 6’7

2000 - Tallest NBA Players - 7’6

7’+ in the NBA from 1940-1960 = 2%

7’ + Footers in the NBA since 1990 = 10-12%

NBA Player Growth:

"Another interesting finding is that the chance of an American man between ages 20 and 40 being in the NBA rises a full order of magnitude with nearly every two-inch increase in height starting at six feet. As teams scoured the globe for taller players, they often found them in countries that have a taller average height than the US.  The average height of an American NBA player is a little under 6'7". The average height of a foreign player is 6'9". Many foreign players are in the NBA, it appears, because teams ran low on sufficiently tall players at home."

"In the NBA data the average armspan-to-height ratio was 1.063. For medical context, a ratio of greater than 1.05 is one of the traditional diagnostic criteria for Marfan syndrome, a disorder of the body’s connective tissues that results in elongated limbs. Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. He is 6'9.25" with his shoes off, and his “wingspan” is 7'5.5"."

Picture above shows how disproportional athletes have evolved to become more efficient in their sport.

There are two sides to the story. Some argue that it is all natural while others suggest artificial selection also plays a role.

Artificial Selection:

Yao Ming - 7’6 Basketball player

Father - 6’10” Yao Zhiyuan

Mother - 6’2” Fang Fengdi

"We had been looking forward to the arrival of Yao Ming for three generations.” - retired Chinese basketball coach

Operation Yao Ming:

"The story behind NBA giant Yao Ming, the ruthless Chinese sports machine that created him, and the East-West struggle over China's most famous son, opens with the story of Yao's parents, basketball players brought together by Chinese officials intent on creating a generation of athletes who could bring glory to their motherland. By age fourteen, Yao was pulled out of school to follow in the footsteps of his idol Wang Zhizhi, the star of the People's Liberation Army team. It wasn't long before American sports companies would set their sights on China's two tallest players. Journalist Larmer details the backroom maneuverings and uncovers the disturbing truth behind China's drive to produce Olympic champions, while also taking readers behind the scenes of America's basketball empire. Caught in the middle are two young men--one will become a superstar, the other a struggling athlete rejected by his homeland and running out of options.--From publisher description"

Sexual Selection:

Athletes have also evolved through the selection of specific traits dependent on their sex
Ideal male body type - tall and muscular

Ideal female body type - tall and skinny

Fun Fact:

26 world record holders in track have married other world record holders, Olympic champions or NCAA champions

This continues to produce more genetically gifted athletes.

Evolution Of Sports Equipment

As stated in the intro there are two sides to this presentation. In this side we will be looking at how the advancement in sport technology has allowed athletes to break through unbreakable barriers.

"At the first modern Olympics in 1896, American Bill Hoyt won gold in the pole vault with a jump height of 3.3 meters. Today, Hoyt’s first-place jump would not even qualify for the 2012 Games and is barely half of Australian Steve Hooker’s gold-winning 5.96 meters in 2008."

Men's Olympic pole vault records

This is just one of the many examples that show a spike in athletic performances with the advancement of technology.

Others being:

  • The first soccer balls were composed of an outer leather shell and a pig’s bladder that served as an air containment unit.
  • Tennis racquet strings were originally made from animal intestine, with pig, sheep, and cow being the most popular

Where as nowadays these equipment are composed of much better quality which allows the athletes to perform at higher levels.

Gideon B. Ariel, “one of the fathers of biomechanics,” notes that Jesse Owens achieved the same joint speed as Carl Lewis when Lewis set a world 100-meter record of 9.86 in 1991 on a synthetic track.

Bleacher Reports article on the evolution of Football equipment gives a good insight on the advancements of sport technology.



In conclusion i personally believe that we as humans have genetically evolved to excel at in athletics which has allowed us to break through impossible barriers. Despite this there can always be two sides to this argument and neither is incorrect.

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