Morphological evolution of athletes over the 20th century: causes and consequences

Sports Med. 2001;31(11):763-83. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200131110-00001.


Over the course of the past century it has become increasingly difficult to find athletes of the size and shape required to compete successfully at the highest level. Sport is Darwinian in that only the 'fittest' reach the highest level of participation. Not every physical characteristic could be expected to play a role in this selection process, but two that are important and for which substantial data assemblies exist, are height and mass. Measurements of elite athlete sizes were obtained from a variety of sources as far back as records allowed. We charted the shift in these anthropometric characteristics of elite sportspeople over time, against a backdrop of secular changes in the general population. Athletes in many sports have been getting taller and more massive over time; the rates of rise outstripping those of the secular trend. In open-ended sports, more massive players have an advantage. Larger players average longer careers and obtain greater financial rewards. In some sports it is equally difficult to find athletes small enough to compete. In contrast, there are sports that demand a narrow range of morphological characteristics. In these sports the size of the most successful athletes over the century has remained constant, despite the drift in the population characteristics from which they are drawn. A number of social factors both drive and are driven by the search for athletes of increasingly rare morphology. These include globalisation and international recruitment, greater financial and social incentives, and the use of special training methods and artificial growth stimuli. In many sports the demand for a specific range in body size reinforces the need to adopt questionable and illegal behaviours to reach the required size and shape to compete at the top level. Future scenarios also include 'gene-farming' through assortative mating and athlete gamete banks.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Body Weights and Measures / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • International Cooperation
  • Somatotypes / genetics*
  • Sports* / economics
  • Time Factors