Comparing Athletes and Events
The extremes of Olympic body types range from heavy and tall to short and light, with many athletes in between. For example, shot put competitors are among the tallest and heaviest at 6 feet 3 inches and 236 pounds (that’s men and women combined). Pole vaulters are also among the tallest, at 5 feet 11 inches, but are much lighter, at 154 pounds. The shortest and lightest athletes are found among marathon runners, who are 5 feet 6 inches and 121 pounds, and artistic gymnasts, who are 5 feet 4 inches and 117 pounds.
Those athletes with extreme body size and shape are those whose heights and weights directly affect their performance. For instance, gymnasts require a very high strength-to-weight ratio, which is why they tend to be short and muscular, with no superfluous fat. Distance runners also carry no extra weight, either in muscle or fat, and instead rely on their smaller frames to stay light on their feet. By contrast, weightlifters need a lot of muscle to attain the explosive power demanded by their lifts. Having relatively short arms and legs is also crucial, allowing weightlifters to save energy when lifting barbells.
In the image above, we’ve selected 10 Olympic events and lined up the average athlete for each event based on the 2012 London Olympic Games. Among them is the average American man, who stands 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 196 pounds. His Body Mass Index (BMI) is 26.9, which means he’s considered overweight (a person’s BMI is calculated by dividing his or her body mass by the square root of their height).
For the average person, BMI is used to categorize whether someone is underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese, on the assumption that extra weight usually equals extra fat, and is bad. The average American male is categorized as overweight because roughly 28% of his body weight is comprised of fat. Olympic weightlifters and shot putters are also considered overweight according to their BMIs, although much more of their body mass is comprised of muscle than the average man.
To compare which Olympic athlete’s physique is most like the average American male, we need to look at sports that are predominantly skill-based, like shooting and badminton. The average male Olympic shooting competitor is the same height as the typical American man but 20 pounds lighter. The average judo competitor is also the same height but 17 pounds lighter. Still, the average American male hasn’t always weighed 196 pounds.
The graphic above provides a more detailed overview of the average heights, weights, and BMIs of male Olympic athletes, this time across 32 sports and events. We’ve also included stats for the average American male aged 20 to 29 (to more closely match the age of Olympians) from 1960 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The majority of male athletes fall within the healthy BMI category, but the same cannot be said for the average American man, who has consistently been at the top end of the healthy weight category, if not squarely within overweight, since 1960. In fact, in 1960, the average American man was almost the same height and weight as the average Olympic table tennis player was in 2012. In 1970, however, he had gained six pounds and was closer to today’s average hockey player. Today, the typical man is closest in height and weight to an Olympic weightlifter, although, as we mentioned earlier, their respective fat-to-muscle ratios are very different.
Unsurprisingly, basketball players are the tallest athletes in the Olympics, at 6 feet 7 inches on average (the tallest in 2012 was China’s Zhaoxu Zhang, at 7 feet 3 inches, and the shortest – Tunisia’s Marouan Kechrid – was about the same as the average man, at 5 feet 9 inches). The lightest male competitor in any sport was 21-year-old Tuvaluan weightlifter Tuau Lapua Lapua, who, at 4 feet 7 inches and 137 pounds, was able to lift a 300-pound barbell above his head. Male Olympic divers are also much lighter than average, at 148 pounds and 5 feet 8 inches, which is the same as a typical 14-year-old boy.
Let’s see if female athletes and the average woman over the last 40 years follow similar patterns.
While the average heights and weights of female athletes differ from their male counterparts, their BMIs are very similar. Female shot putters are highest, at 30.6, followed by weightlifters at 23.4. In between those two sports is the average American woman, who stands 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 166 pounds. Her BMI is 27.8, which places her in the overweight category, just like the average man. Again, though, she hasn’t always weighed that much.
The tallest female competitor in the 2012 Summer Olympics was 22-year-old Chinese basketball player Wei Wei, who at 6 feet 9 inches was taller than 76% of the male basketballers. The shortest was surprisingly not a gymnast or diver, but actually 200m runner Nercely Soto from Venezuela, who stood 4 feet 4 inches tall.
It’s difficult to find an Olympic sport in which female athletes have an average height and weight that is similar to the typical American woman. Using CDC data and the Olympic athletes’ heights and weights, we can deduce that the average woman is the same height as a female marathon runner and eight pounds lighter than the average female basketball player (despite being nine inches shorter). In 1960, the comparison was a little different. The average woman was 5 feet 4 inches and 128 pounds – almost the same as a typical Olympic table tennis player today.
In 1970, the average woman was 134 pounds – about the same as a weightlifter today. In 1980, she was still 5 feet 4 inches, but 136 pounds, which is the same weight (but three inches shorter) than the average fencing competitor today. By 1990, the average woman was the same weight as the typical Olympic tennis player is today, albeit five inches shorter.
Over the last 40 years, Olympic athletes’ bodies have become increasingly specialized. Sprinters are more “slender” (which has raised their center of mass, allowing them to “fall forward” faster), marathon runners are thinner and shorter (which helps dissipate body heat as they run), and rowers are taller (which increases power and stroke length).
In contrast, the average American man and woman have increased a bit in height and a lot in weight. While it is unrealistic to compare their physiques to those of elite athletes, their increases in weight over the last four decades have been significant enough to raise an eyebrow: 20 pounds for men and 34 pounds for women.
There isn’t much someone can do to change their height – which means becoming a basketball player or high jumper isn’t going to happen for the average person – but, with the right nutrition, exercise, and attitude, shifting one’s weight from that of the average shot putter to the typical swimmer (or rower!) is more realistic.
London 2012 competitor data released by the IOC. Available here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Y4xQqDuOVbn4mkEFUhW_xE5bgAy51raR1vlNZeXyl3Y/edit#gid=0
- CDC/NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
- Fryar CD, Gu Q, Ogden CL. Anthropometric reference data for children and adults: United States, 2007–2010. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 11(252). 2012
- St-Onge M-P. Are Normal-Weight Americans Over-Fat? Obesity (Silver Spring, Md). 2010;18(11):10.1038/oby.2010.103. doi:10.1038/oby.2010.103.