Are Better Athletes Better Looking?

New study examines connection

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Does excelling at endurance sports make us better looking? Or, equally important, do more-attractive people perform better?

Those are questions raised in a new study published in the journal Biology Letters. The report says that when people rated the attractiveness of 80 participants in the 2012 Tour de France, the ratings tended to track with the riders’ performance. Racers in the top 10 percent of the race also scored 25 percent higher on looks than those with the worst race results. In other words, there appears to be a strong connection between whom we find attractive and who’s the best endurance athlete.

The project was conducted by Erik Postma, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Zurich who usually studies the breeding habits of sparrows and the genetics of alpine voles. All of his research addresses a common question: What drives the evolution of a species?

A cycling fan, Postma was also curious to see if there’s something about the looks of people with more physical endurance that makes us find them more appealing. Are we drawn to people with an endurance edge, like, say, top Tour de France racers? And can we read it in their faces? One theory of human evolution, popularized in the book Born to Run, is that early humans relied on long-distance running to chase down large animals. If so, being better at wearing down a gazelle in a marathon pursuit would be a very appealing skill. Perhaps we can detect these attributes in peoples' faces, and it makes them more attractive.

Postma had 800 people take an online survey to look at 80 different Tour racers' headshots. They gave each photo an attractiveness score from 1 (ugly) to 5 (cue catcalls). The people taking the survey didn’t know how each cyclist did in the race.

When Postma crunched the data, he found a clear link between attractiveness and race performance. He’s not sure what people are seeing that draws them to the stronger cyclists. An air of confidence? A certain angle of cheekbone? Did they just look healthier and more fit? After subjecting the results to various statistical tests, he’s certain it’s not just a fluke. “I was frankly skeptical myself that I would find something,” said Postma, a recreational cyclist and mountain runner. “I think I've done everything I could to disprove myself, but it seems very robust.”

While there’s been little previous research on endurance athletes and attractiveness, there are studies of whether overall fitness tracks with what catches our eye. One study found women more attracted to the faces of highly rated NFL quarterbacks than to those with lower performance. But it’s not always so clear-cut. In another study, women were more drawn to the bodies of men who scored better on fitness tests, but the researchers saw no link between athletic ability and facial attractiveness.

Postma said his findings were greeted with skepticism at a scientific conference. One colleague suggested that better-looking athletes get better sponsorships, and so they wind up on stronger teams. Another questioned whether the faster cyclists looked healthier because they were doping.

Also, some of the top riders were left out of the photo selection; 2012 winner Bradley Wiggins and his teammates were left out, for example, because each of them was wearing a hat or sunglasses. Moreover, the top-ranked sexy cyclist, with an average attractiveness score of 4.21, was Frenchman Amaël Moinard, of the U.S.-based BMC squad. He finished in 45th place that year.

In a statement released by his team, Moinard said he was stumped how looks and performance might be connected, but he took some encouragement from it, adding, “Now that I know that, maybe I will perform even better!”

Postma noted that people readily accept that other species might have evolved to prefer certain physical characteristics in a mate. Female elk, for example, are drawn to males with the loudest call. But when it comes to humans, it’s a different story. Postma finds people more resistant to the idea that unconscious forces stemming from our evolutionary past can influence our attraction. “A lot of people tend to think that as humans we stand above,” he said, “that we are not animals anymore.”

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