Patriotism and physiology – Olympics 2008

I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Olympics this summer. Of course, this is due in no small part to Great Britain’s success, coming fourth in the medal table – the highest for 100 years.

As well as being glued to the cycling, I’ve also been fascinated by the medical and science stories this two-week celebration of human performance has thrown up.

For example, did you know that American man-machine Michael Phelps might have subclinical Marfan syndrome, a nasty connective tissue disorder that could be responsible for his giant armspan? Or that a high prevalence of gene mutation that affects the performance of fast-twitch muscles could have helped the Jamaicans clean up in the sprinting events?

How about the suggestion that the high number of world records broken in swimming at this Olympics could be thanks to the depth and breadth of the pool at the Bejing Water Cube? Or that the records broken on track and field are because athletes have trained to use oxygen more efficiently? And it seems that we’ll never know how old the Chinese gymnasts are thanks to the lack of biomarkers to accurately identify age, although the clever hacking that caught them out in the first place is certainly pretty damning.

Although only five athletes were disqualified this time, sadly doping is still going on at the games, but the methods – and ways of catching the cheats – are becoming more complicated, including microdosing techniques and possibly elaborate genetic and growth factor approaches in the future.

So congratulations to Beijing for hosting a successful games and to the athletes for for showing us what the human body is truly capable of.

See you in 2012 – I’ll be at the velodrome!


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