August 14, 2008

Michael Phelps: The 'natural' transhuman athlete


Watching Michael Phelps swim you quickly realize that he's not like the others. He's clearly in a league of his own.

Or more accurately, he's swimming in a genetic pool of his own.

Phelps has a number of fortuitous physical endowments that have enabled him to dominate like no other. Simply put, he is the perfect swimmer.

Here's what Phelps has going for him:
  • Most people have a wingspan that matches their height. Not Phelps. He may be 6'4" tall, but his arms extend outward to a total of 6'7".
  • The average shoe size for a person the size of Phelps is 12; he wears a size 14 which gives him a 10% advantage over the competition.
  • He also has a larger than average hand size which allows him to move more water.
  • Phelps is double-jointed in the chest area; this enables him to extend his arms higher above his head and pull down at an angle that increases his efficiency through the water by as much as 20%; this also allows him to have quicker starts and turns.
  • He has proportionately short legs relative to his long, powerful trunk; this large upper body is the engine that powers his long arms. Moreover, his unique physique reduces drag through the water and allows for maximum propulsion.
  • Phelps has a greater-than-average lung capacity allowing him to execute his underwater dolphin kicks longer than the competition.
  • He has a genetic advantage that cause his muscles to produce 50% less lactic acid than other athletes. This means he can work at higher work loads for longer periods.
  • With a low body fat of 4%, he is better able to convert his effort into speed.
Looking at this list it's as if Phelps was designed to swim.

Which leads to an interesting question: Given the potential for genetic modification and gene doping, should it be acceptable for other athletes to acquire the same physiological endowments through artificial means?

If not, what makes it so acceptable to come by these traits 'naturally?' And how could the genetic lottery ever be construed as something that's not arbitrary and unfair?

Read more about Phelps's extraordinary physiology here and here.

4 comments:

phil.gs said...

My wife and I were discussing this just last night, that Phelps must have some sort of mutation that makes him such an incredible swimmer. Just like Lance Armstrong and cycling, or Kobayashi and eating.

The story of Michael Phelps is the story of someone realizing and living up to his potential, which is something most of us struggle with. I think there should be sports for augmented humans, but then the competition becomes not just one of individual (or team) perseverance, but one of technical marvel. Like the way major league baseball is about how much talent you can buy rather than what you do with a more equitable distribution of talent. I think there is room and market for both augmented and unaugmented sporting competitions.

Seinberg said...

No doubt Phelps is the best swimmer right now, and that his body is very well-suited to swimming. But is he really *that* much different than other swimmers who also have genetic advantages? The other Olympic swimmers are higher than average in all those categories too, I suspect.

CarollJ said...

Having closely watched the 2008 Olympics, something kept at me. I have Marfan syndrome, and it just kept occuring to me that Michael Phelps sure looked familar in the face as well as the rest of his body. Then I heard that comment that his mother made about his long fingers. After Michael finished his last race, I raced to the PC and punched in his name and Marfan syndrome together on the browser. Bingo ! Several articles. I'd bet that judging from his dental structure, he has another common trait of Marfan patients, a high palate. Us Marfan syndrome patients don't ALL look alike, but there often is a facial look and well as the features sited in these blogs. Should his mother allowed him to continue stressing his system to the limits ? Was a risk of a spontaneous aortic rupture worth all the Gold ? Flo Hymen died on the court. I didn't want to believe that Michael has Marfan. But, he is a man now. Only he knows if he should continue to push his cardiac system to the limits in the name of sport.

Frank said...

Come on:
"Double jointed in the chest area" Double jointed means hyperflexable in joint, WHAT JOINT.

Greater Lung capacity - says who!

Genitic advantage that cause his muscles to produce 50 % less lactic acid - says who!

Low Body fat - from training not from some "special" augmentation. He worked for it. AND low body fat doesn't mean "he is better able to convert his effort into speed"

Come on this is a real real stretch.