Sporting Outliers

This harsh Australian sun is set to beat down upon us over the next week or so, with various sporting competitions – the Australian Open tennis, for one – set to cop the brunt of it. So should we assume that he/she who can best handle the soaring temperatures will likely take out the crown?

I have always been interested in how climate shapes international athletes. Obviously, the English cricket team (the few players that have actually grown up in England) is used to cold, blustery conditions, and as we have seen quite recently, will struggle in 40-degree conditions in the middle of the Australian summer.

Having lived in England, this inability to handle extreme weather patterns extends to the general public; English people will bust out the baby oil at the slightest hint of sunlight so as to let those rare rays of sunshine wash over their pallid, pasty skin. But when the mercury rises past 30, the faint sound of ambulances can be heard across the land. In terms of cricket, however, this English weather, with his high-level of precipitation, lends itself to  “green-tops,” suitable for medium-pace seam bowling (read: mediocre bowling). Obviously, the harder, bouncier Australian wickets lend themselves to faster, more hostile bowling.

Conversely, freezing temperatures are conducive to scrummaging – and no-one can deny that Northern Hemisphere rugby countries (and let’s throw New Zealand in there because it’s cold as shit over there) tend to have a superior forward pack than the Wallabies, whose front row has always paled in comparison. On a more obvious level, Canadians are good at snow-boarding and ice-hockey, while Sub-Saharan Africans are pretty good at running long distances in bare-feet on hot soil. Weather is everything when it comes to sport; athletes are certainly shaped by the weather conditions they grew up in.

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Having recently re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s seminal book, Outliers, I started thinking about which athletes have managed to excel in a sport – or a specific competition – where the conditions are most foreign to them. Gladwell’s book strives to explain the phenomenon of the ‘outlier’, arguing that any success story has enjoyed a series of fortunate events – combined with hard work – that has led them to the top. However, here I’m mostly interested in how certain athletes have managed to overcome a non-negotiable – such as climate – and still excel in their chosen sport.

If you take the Tour de France, for instance, you would imagine that the competition is dominated by Europeans – and the French in particular, given their home advantage. The rolling hills, warm summer conditions and home-town support all indicate a strong home advantage, but in reality, the last 20 years have seen a number of different nationalities emerge. Germans, Irish, Americans (Lance Armstrong included, I guess) and, of course, one Australian: Cadel Evans.

Cadel, against the odds

Evans is a former cross-country mountain biker who made the switch to competition cycling some 12 years ago. He grew up in Australia, where long-distance cycling is mostly reserved for 40-year-old male lycra fetishists who work in IT/accounting. More specifically, he grew up in the Northern Territory town of Katherine, a small-ish town which – and I’m going out on a limb here – is probably yet to embrace Clover Moore’s pro-bike lane policies. The arid land and the weather itself could not be less European, which is why Evans’ ascent to Tour de France glory in 2011 was such an epic achievement.

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Cool Runnings was a mid-1990s feel-good movie, somewhat based on real-life events, that tapped into society’s love for hilarious Jamaican accents. That, juxtaposed with an unexpectedly dramatic performance by John Candy, equaled obvious box office success.

The premise, mildly racist in its execution, was this: Jamaicans are basically rum-swilling, cricket-loving larrikins and therefore inherently unsuited to the technically challenging winter sport of bob-sled racing, which requires European-like precision and a steely, focused mindset. But, with a bit of luck and a white coach, they too can rise to the unlikely heights of Olympic success.

Heart-warming and mildly racist

I have no idea why the fuck these Jamaicans decided it was a good idea to create a bob-sled team (although if I watched the movie again, I’d probably discover that they were all former athletes who were not good enough at their chosen sport and thus turned to bob-sledding, which today would be one of the greatest PR moves ever and likely inspire an ESPN documentary or two). But they were never going to succeed because a) there is likely a severe lack of winter sport infrastructure on that particular West Indian island; b) there is no history of bob-sledding in Jamaica; c) the weather there is (quite obviously) hot and therefore not conducive/suitable to winter sport activities.

For some reason, humans (read: white people) have always been interested in whether black people, with their “fast-twitch fibres,” “muscular structure,” “bone density,” can succeed at what are seen as historically “white” sports. It can only be the lack of exposure to certain elements, however, that Africans have yet to dominate the pool, or the half-pipe, for that matter. Forget the academic anthropological explanations – it’s because “we” live here and “they” live there that we are good at “our” sports, and they at “theirs.” If they had the elements, their bodies would adapt, over time, to those elements. Darwin’s Theory and all that jazz.

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Tennis, for mine, is rare, in that you’d think climate would play a greater role in determining which athletes rise to the top and which fall by the wayside. I guess, that given the globalisation of sport in general, with Russian-born athletes camping out in US desert-based tennis academies during their formative years – it is possible for those from the colder climates to succeed in tournaments such as the Australian Open. Additionally, tennis appears to be mostly a summer sport, with tennis players capable of adjusting to their environment more easily than other athletes, perhaps.

Kournikova. Played tennis, briefly.

But aside from cricket, where pitches, subject to weather changes, breed a certain style of play; and rugby, where muddy, wet-under-foot conditions lend themselves to a more forward-oriented game plan – I am not certain if historical weather conditions play a major part in sporting outcomes anymore. Certain climates obviously breed athletes of a certain type – African swimmers are as rare as white English 100m runners – but when it comes to the crunch, if you’re good enough to make it to the top, then you’re good enough to match it with the rest.

That said, it’s going to be fucking hot out there at Rod Laver Arena over the next two weeks.  Who do you think will take out the crown? Will it be someone from the warmer Mediterranean-style climates or, perhaps, someone from who hails from the frosty Swiss Alps? Or will it be a lanky lad from the Gold Coast with a history of minor traffic offences and a father who is shaping up as Damir Dokic 2.0?

Dave Edwards


No Comments on "Sporting Outliers"

  1. The Roots’ version of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was more rock and roll than anything Guns N Roses have ever done. What’s that about?


  2. Well “they” have an inherent sense of rhythm.

    Perhaps stemming from their oppressive slave origins, which paved the way for more improvisational forms of music such as jazz, blues, gospel and soul, black people simply developed a greater sense of “coolness” than white people.

    PS: I’m a white European academic with a PhD in anthropology.


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