Is Low Altitude a Disadvantage for Olympic Athletes?


It seems counterintuitive: Shouldn't Vancouver's relatively low altitude and thicker air help athletes perform better at this year's Olympics?

Not always, says Robert Chapman, an expert in altitude training and exercise physiologist at Indiana University. In the special Winter Olympics issue of the journal Experimental Physiology, Chapman argues that altitude affects athletes in skill sports such as skating, ski jumping and snowboarding by tweaking the amount of air resistance they feel when performing the exacting moves they've practiced thousands of times.

“A different altitude will change the feedback they get from balance and proprieception,” he told Science Daily. “In an endurance sport such as cross country skiing or biathlon, for competition at altitude it takes about 10-14 days to adjust. For a skill sport, it's harder to judge how long it will take to acclimate to the reduced air density at altitude.”

This also means that athletes in Vancouver shouldn't be hoping to set many new records in speed events. Chapman points out that all current individual speed skating records were set in the 2002 Salt Lake City (elevation 4,300 feet) Olympics. None were broken in 2006 in Turin (elevation 784 feet), despite improvements in training and technology. Chapman says greater drag at lower elevation is the culprit.

Find the full journal article here.

— Jennifer L. Schwartz