Weight categories not height categories, but why?

A Guardian science article last week posed an excellent question. Why don’t sports have height categories? They have weight categories after all, to ensure fairness, and height matters too.

In 1968 Thomas Khosla, a lecturer in medical statistics at the Welsh National School of Medicine in Cardiff, published an article in the British Medical Journal on what he called the ‘Unfairness of Certain Events in the Olympic Games’. The unfairness was caused by another controversial T: Tallness.

Khosla crunched the numbers and concluded that “[d]ata on Olympic winners show that many running and jumping events are seriously biased in favour of the very tall.” As he pointed out, weight categories already existed in Olympic sports to ensure ‘fairness’ – so why not height categories too? As he says

“Short champion throwers, runners, hurdlers, and jumpers are waiting to be discovered. Within every nation shorter enthusiasts, however athletically able, are systematically screened off by a process of selection in the open events which favours the very tall.” There seemed no logical reason to have weight categories in boxing or weightlifting, and not height categories in high jumping or javelin throwing. (There may be some sports where height is a disadvantage too, so height categories might even make sports fairer for some taller participants).

The Guardian piece suggests we focus on height instead of on testosterone. Regardless of what you make of that argument, height does seem to make an independent difference in many sports.

Tall swimmers, for example, have a huge advantage. See Bigger is better, except when it’s not.

The same reasoning explains why elite swimmers are big. Great male swimmers often are 6 feet 4 inches tall, and muscular. And because of the advantage that large muscles give for sprints over short distances, the shorter the distance an athlete must swim, the greater the advantage it is to be big.

Tall swimmers also have another advantage: because swimmers are horizontal in the water, their long bodies give them an automatic edge. “It’s the difference between long canoes and short canoes,” Dr. Joyner said.

Height is also an advantage in rowing. That’s why even  lightweight rowers are tall. The average height of Olympic women rowing lightweight is still above the average height for women.  And that’s why there are difficult issues about disordered eating and lightweight rowing.

I’m the shortest person in my family. At 5’7 I’m above average for a Canadian woman. But my kids have nicknamed me the “Hobbit Mother.” So the issues of height and fairness hit close to home!

A drawing of the Shire where the Hobbits dwell. The land of my people, according to my kids.




3 thoughts on “Weight categories not height categories, but why?

  1. It’s an interesting question, but my thought is that height is less likely to alter substantially the interesting-ness (technical term) of the game play in the same ways that weight does. So, for example, weight categories in boxing or wrestling matter because the super heavyweights and the flyweights often have vastly different strategies, and thus are fun to watch for different reasons. Similarly with weightlifting: a very heavy lifter can move unbelievable amounts of weight, but the strength-per-pound of light lifters is also pretty incredible.

    So a short swimmer might just be slower, without providing an interesting reason to watch her instead of the tall swimmer. Similar to how there are no weight categories in running events, to my knowledge.

    – Rick

    PS I hope you don’t mind me posting. I’m a philosophy grad student and am very interested in fitness. My mother very much wishes to be more fit, but has a hard time motivating herself. This blog has been great to read for ideas which are closer to her perspective and experiences.

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