Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the fittest of them all?

11 Jan 2019 Posted by

For the weekend, an easier, less weighty topic of discussion…

Here’s a question, one that might stimulate debate over a beer or a glass of wine this weekend (and really, I recommend having a few before entering a discussion, because it’s that sort of debate):

Who is the fittest ‘athlete’ in the world?

Your task: make a list of ten athletes, five men, five women, who you think qualify as the pinnacle of fitness, and then have a wander over to a recent Sports Illustrated article, where they’ve chosen 25 men and 25 women, and see how many you got right. I bet it won’t be many. And I guarantee you that you’ll double-take at the order in which they’ve ranked some of them!

That’s because a) the article is incredibly US-centric (understandably, I guess), and b) different people think of fitness in different ways. Fitness is an all-encompassing term and the first person you think of who embodies it says a lot more about your preconceptions, preferences and biases than it does about that athlete.

A sports scientist or health researcher who wants to quantify fitness whips out VO2max, which is useful to track a population of say, sedentary folk who are starting an exercise programme to reduce disease risk. But it’s rarely applicable in isolation to elite athletes, in any domain, even marathon runners, because it’s one of many contributing factors.

It’s even less relevant to other athletes – funny story, way back in 2004, when I was still doing my PhD studies, my friend Ian Harries took his best 800m athlete to a local university for some physiological testing. VO2max was their silver bullet, and they had him on the treadmill doing the usual max test to measure it. He got to about 65 ml/kg/min. The report at the end said “Athlete lacks cardiovascular fitness for the elite level”. That athlete was Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, and he won silver in the Olympic Games 800m about two months after that test, despite his humble VO2max. So yeah, VO2max might not really address what we need when we think of fitness.

The vanilla (and circular) definition of fitness is “the condition of being physically fit and healthy”. Arguably, on the latter part of this definition, you could say that a lot of elite athletes are not fit. Certainly, to be as skinny as modern endurance champions are (thinking cycling and running) probably isn’t healthy (or natural – thanks modern medicines), and it’s not for nothing that conditions like the recently described Relative Energy Deficit in Sport (RED-S) exist (Editorial note: I hate these stupid abbreviations that sports scientists try to come up with for terms, but anyway).

Another definition of fitness, more appropriate for this little thought exercise is “the quality of being suitable to fulfill a particular task”. In that regard, the shot-putter who weighs 140kg is as fit, for his purpose, as the 59kg marathon runner and the 92kg golfer who wouldn’t turn a head were he to talk through a crowded gymnasium.

And this is why it’s a debate not really worth getting worked up about. You compare a golfer to a marathon runner to a climber and a running back and you’re not even comparing apples to apples. More like fruit to items of clothing. But it’s still a fun one to have.

I remember once reading an article that tried to characterise the components of fitness, and I remember that it listed nine of them. But this was years ago, and I remember all but one of them:

  • Cardiovascular (aerobic) endurance
  • Anaerobic capacity (whatever that means to that writer)
  • Speed
  • Flexibility
  • Power
  • Strength
  • Co-ordination
  • Agility

At the time, I remember the article concluded that boxers, gymnasts and basketballers were the fittest athletes with the most equitable spread of those characteristics. I can see that, if you’re looking for a relatively equal spread of the nine (or six, or 12, or whatever you fancy).

But my own bias is towards specialization, and if I just stick to one sport – Track and Field – to illustrate, there’s no doubt that a decathlete or heptathlete (Kevin Mayer, Ashton Eaton, Nafissatou Thiam) is the fittest athlete on the planet by this “general and varied” requirement. To do 7 or 10 events at a level of say 80% to 90% (and in some cases even better – Thiam in high jump, for instance) of a specialist is quite incredible.

But, and I apologize in advance, but this is my opinion, I’d rather watch a guy run 400m in 43.3s than a decathlete run 46s, even though he’ll do 9 other amazing performances in two days. I’d rather see an 8.50m jump than a 7.80m as part of ten. And a 3:31 1500m will always resonate more with me than a 4:05.00 even when it’s the tenth of ten.

That’s specialization for you – 100% in one thing trumps 95% in ten things. It’s the same as for triathlon. I totally appreciate how remarkable it is to run 29:00 for 10km off a 52 min 40km bike after a 17 min swim. But I’d much rather watch a 26:50 by itself. Others may differ, which is fine, this is my bias, some consequence of my early initiation into sport, the path I traveled. So when I consider fitness, I think first of marathon runners, elite cyclists, cross country skiers, the 140kg shot-putters, a rock climber, then of athletes in sports like rugby, Rugby 7s (arguably the fittest team sport athletes, but I’m biased!), football and basketball. Last of all I think of cross-fitters!

How you rank them is another story. One best left to each person, because you’re not going to reach consensus. But it’s fun to try.

I leave you with this quote, attributed to Albert Einstein (though I’m not sure he said it). Nevertheless, it seems relevant to today’s Short Thought:


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