Watching the Olympics excites me. I'm an addict, and I'll watch anything. Gymnastics, the decathlon, BMX, whatever. This year, it jogged my head into what it takes to be one of the 15,000 athletes there.
These people are the top of humanity. They can jump higher, run faster, and run further than everybody else in the world. A lot of people think its genetics, but the truth is a bit more complicated than that.
To be a top athlete, a person has to be the right age for their sport. Female gymnasts get worse with age. Runners develop shin splints. The body begins to decay after the age of 25, so the most competitive athletes will be younger than that. And everything gets progressively worse. Knees, elbows, and ligaments, etc. By necessity of training, these people wear themselves out and limit the number of appearances they can make in multiple Olympics.
They also have to be introduced to the right sport correctly. Almost every major league baseball player is born at around the same time of the year. The reason is simple enough; baseball is competitive enough in America that future players must have years of success at junior levels of the sport to continue it. Since t-ball begins at about 6 years, the guys who eventually make it to the majors are usually the oldest from their age range before the year end cutoff. At 6 years old, an 11 month difference makes a huge difference in natural ability, and the ones who feel most confident are those that get the most positive feedback from the sport. They are the ones who grow to love it the most, and play the most. It becomes a positive feedback loop just because of a few months of age. Football doesn't work like this because competitive organized games start in high school.
These people have to have good nutrition, and supportive parents. This goes back into the previous point about introduction, as children would be most confident continuing sports that are suited for their body build.
To get to a competitive level, they have to have years of experience from childhood that encourage them to get to the next level. So, assuming a child was introduced at the right time to the right sport, and did well enough at it to want to continue, they have to begin to want to get dedicated to it. That means spending years of their childhood practicing alone developing the skill sets necessary for their game. Wayne Gretzky for example would go home, and do his homework in about 15 minutes. Then he would go outside and practice skating until it got dark. He did this every single day of his childhood. The result was him being the best skater in the NHL. Jordan would force his friends to follow NBA rules so he could get used to playing by actual basketball standards. Most professional athletes gave up significant chunks of their childhood working on developing themselves for the purpose of becoming professional. The person who gets into a sport too late in childhood will not be able to master the learning curve well enough to match those other guys.
This is assuming the sport requires a skill set. Generally, sprinting doesn't, marathon does a little. Its things like UFC that require a complex skill set that requires years to develop. They have to start going to a dojo at 6, be active otherwise throughout their childhood, begin weightlifting in high school, and continue with more complex fighting styles for years to be able to begin thinking of getting into the UFC. Boxing, decathlon, pentathlon,soccer, gymnastics, etc. require complex skill sets.
Aside from having the skill set, the future athlete must also be matched to the right sport. Short people can't get into the NBA, and can't play volleyball well. Tall people are at a terrible disadvantage for fighting sports. If Arnold Schwarzenegger enter the Arnold classic, his own event, he would lose the bodybuilding competition. Even if he were still in his prime today, he would be too tall, and too undefined to win.
The next two points will sound racist. Its not intentional. They also have to be the correct race for their sport. There are 2 different types of muscle fibers. One is the fast twitch, and the other the slow twitch fiber. Most of us are not all of one or the other. They work exactly as they sound, with one being better for sprinting, and the other for marathons. The type most of us have is pretty much determined by where our ancestry is from. As an ethnic Persian, I know I have way more fast twitch fibers even though I have never had a biopsy because I build muscle very quickly. At 135 pounds, I could bench about 170, or do 80 pullups, or dominate others in judo pretty easily. But even after years of doing cardio, I can't play an entire game of soccer without feeling like I'm about to die. So, you wonder why Kenyans win marathons, and Jamaicans the sprints? Its a genetic advantage.
Then there is body shape. Europeans on average have a longer armspan relative to their height than Africans. Africans have a higher center of gravity because of comparably longer legs. It should be no surprise that swimming records are mostly held by Europeans, and running records by Africans.
Another point to consider is that these people are brought in from nurtured pools of athletes. They have to come from a competitive culture that likes the sport they play. India has a billion people, but sent in as many athletes as Israel. Its obvious why they never win medals. Drawing the fastest person from a pool of a million people gets a better athlete than a pool of 100. That's why America can win gold at basketball, and Russia at hockey. The level of professional competition in those respective countries comes from the popularity of basketball here, and hockey there.
But all of us can run. All of us had the opportunity to play t-ball. Any one of us could have gone into an NCAA college. We're not athletes. They are. The single most important factor in making a professional athlete isn't genetics, or build, or age. Its personality.
When we were watching the opening ceremony for this years Olympics, my brother pointed out that that was the largest gathering of drug-free people anywhere in the world. Those guys are even tested for pot. That's ironic because athletes all, without exception must have addictive personalities. They would have to to eat bland meals every day, to conform to exercise regimens that take up mornings, and nights. Its not fun to stick to very extreme schedules. They can't take a day off. Guys like Jordan would watch their games after playing to figure out how to be better. It wasn't a coach telling them to do this. Its the initiative that got them to be pro to begin with. You have to be addicted to install a batting cage into your backyard, and practice line drives for hours every day. They get obsessed. Winning means more than their own health, their relationships, and every other facet of their lives. Its why they risk permanent injury to play through pain, or why taking performing enhancing drugs doesn't seem like a bad idea. These are reasonable tradeoffs to these guys. I can't go a day without coffee, but they can't splurge for a single meal.
That's why they gamble, and take drugs during the off-season, and spend all their money right after retirement. It's an obsessive, compulsive addiction. When Tiger Woods was revealed to have a sex addiction, and started to get treatment, I rightfully predicted that his game would suffer, and when he started winning again, I was proven right by the papers that he stopped going to therapy.
So, all those stories about athletes doing stupid crap? It has its root cause in why they could be an athlete in the first place.