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Height Matters: How Altitude May Affect Olympic Results

By L.K. Regan

The Vancouver Winter Olympics present considerable challenges for athletes—not just snow and ice, but altitude... or even lack thereof. Differences in elevation can have wide-ranging impacts on athletes, and an Indiana University researcher has spent a career studying them. Here is some of what he has found.

Robert Chapman is an exercise physiologist in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. He and his co-authors wrote about altitude training considerations for winter sport athletes in the journal Experimental Physiology. In the article, Chapman is aware of what most people would immediately think of as altitude's effect on exercise: reduced oxygen delivery to the muscles, and therefore faster fatigue. But Chapman also considers the fact that, for every thousand feet of altitude, air loses three percent of its density. And while you and I might not notice that very quickly, elite athletes definitely do. That three percent doesn't just mean shorter breath—it also means less drag, increased aerodynamics, and changes in balance at speed. "Many athletes perform thousands upon thousands of moves so they get a certain motor pattern ingrained," Chapman said. "A different altitude will change the feedback they get from balance and proprioception." It's about more than just shortness of breath.

So over time, what have been the effects of altitude on performance, and how might we use them to judge the current Games? Here are a few altitude facts: The Vancouver Olympics, including ice events, are mostly at sea level. The sled venues are higher, at 2,600 feet, and there are elevations up to 5,000 feet for the downhill skiing, but the general profile of the Games is fairly low, altitude-wise. Now, compare that to other recent Winter Olympic sites: Torino at 784 feet (very low); Salt Lake City at 4,300 feet; and Calgary at 3,400 feet. As the study authors note, all of the current world records for both men and women in every long-track speed skating event between 500 and 10,000 meters were set in either Calgary or Salt Lake City, and all the records for individual event distances were set at Salt Lake City. That was in 2002, and none of those records were topped at low-elevation Torino in 2006.

What's up with that? Chapman explains: "The general thought is that altitude slows you down because you have less oxygen going to your muscles," Chapman said. "But at altitude, just as it is easier to hit a home run in the thin air of Denver, speed skaters in Calgary and Salt Lake City could skate faster, move through the air faster, because there was less drag." That less dense air at higher altitudes may matter more than the loss of oxygen at elevation. So how does this apply to Vancouver? "Eight years after Salt Lake City," Chapman continues, "we have natural improvements that you'd expect to see involving training, coaching and technology, but we won't see many records in Vancouver. It doesn't mean the athletes are worse, if anything they're probably better. It's the effects of altitude on athletes' times." Closer to sea level, denser air is, well, a drag.