Do I have a shot at the Olympics?
August 3, 2008 12:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm 24. Let's say I wanted to have a shot at the Olympics, in any sport, at some point in the future. Are my chances over? Is there a sport I could start now, dedicate the next few years to, and become good enough to be a contender? What sport should that be? (I'm not picky.)

I was thinking about this. I don't have a sports preference. I like to rollerblade and hula-hoop. I can train a decent amount. I'd put in a heck of a lot of time. But are my Olympic dreams dashed, because I'm too late?

If I had to pick a sport -- now -- with the hopes of making the team, what should it be? (My first thought was fencing because I'm left-handed.)
posted by melodykramer to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (66 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Target shooting.
posted by Class Goat at 12:56 PM on August 3, 2008

I'm no sports expert, but the British rower Rebecca Romero switched to cycling at 24 after an injury, and is hoping to win in Beijing. I suspect a lot of it will come down to where you're starting from, I assume she'd got the fitness, the discipline and the mindset down to pat.
posted by Helga-woo at 12:57 PM on August 3, 2008

Horseback riding. Many Olympians are in their 40s and 50s.
posted by youcancallmeal at 12:57 PM on August 3, 2008

Wikipedia has a list of summer events here:

While the winter stuff tends to be pretty lean and mean and demanding (well, maybe middle guy on a bobsled team) I'd suggest you'd have a better chance in the summer games because some of them are kind of odd and perhaps less demanding of a misspent youth. Table tennis sounds like your best bet. Or maybe get on a softball team. Or maybe canoeing. Archery seems a pretty good choice.

(Right about now, an Olympic canoeist is getting really pissed off and is ready to beat me about the head and shoulders with whatever bleeding edge carbon fiber paddles they use now and his or her amazingly developed arm and shoulder muscles. I apologize to said canoeists and grant that I know nothing about Olympic canoeing. Perhaps it's the most demanding thing in the games. But my point is there's stuff in the summer games you might not think of, and stuff that's less obviously balls to the wall athletic.)
posted by Naberius at 12:57 PM on August 3, 2008

I would say pick an event that most competitors arent single-mindedly training their whole lives for. These are just guesses, but how about modern pentathalon?
posted by milestogo at 1:02 PM on August 3, 2008

Are you an elite athlete? If not, your chances are limited. Perhaps something like archery or shooting. If Gina Davis can do it...
posted by callmejay at 1:02 PM on August 3, 2008

Definitely no chance in a very physically demanding sport like rowing, cycling, etc., if you're not already a competitive athlete in a similar sport.

But how about Curling? I bet your chances of doing this successfully would increase greatly if you could claim citizenship in some country that doesn't do the winter sport thing (a la, the Jamaican bobsled team).
posted by jk252b at 1:08 PM on August 3, 2008

It is worth mentioning that "training a decent amount" would not be enough. To be Olympic-level in most sports you have to put in an insane amount of training volume. The reason people who start early get to the Olympics is because they're able to stick that much volume in before their body gets old and starts to break down. We are not talking a couple days a week. At this point you're going to need to practice every day, with hours of practice, plus extra stuff you do on the side. And once you reach a truly competitive level, you're probably going to need to take performance-enhancing drugs in order to recover fast enough to stick in that much training volume (nearly every athlete at that level does it, they just don't get caught). It is going to be a second job, and at a certain point, your only job. You have to be comfortable with that. It's the case for people younger than you, and because of your age and inexperience for you it will be doubly so. The first couple of years (at least) are going to be learning your sport. The second couple years are going to be adjusting to the amount of training you'll have to put in. Then, it's going to be talent, genetics, and drugs. So five years minimum to get to any competitive level, I think. I'm not saying this to discourage you. It's just becoming a internationally competitive athlete in the vast majority of sports is crazy hard.

You may be able to pull off Olympic weightlifting. Because women's weightlifting is not incredibly competitive compared to other women's sports (or so my coaches tell me), women are able to last longer and stay older in the sport than they otherwise would. You have to devote a lot of time for it and better be genetically predisposed to putting on muscle. But as China's new crop of tailor-made athletes hits the stage, who knows?

On preview, yeah, some of the oddball sports that require more dexterity and accuracy than raw power would work, I hadn't considered those.

Also, professional athletes who switch to other sports when they're older and become tops in those sports don't count as examples. Don't underestimate the importance of an athletic base.
posted by Anonymous at 1:10 PM on August 3, 2008

Honestly, I think you have a 0% chance. Pains me to say it, but it's true, IMO.

The case of the rower is not really any indicator, because even though she would have had to have learned new sport-specific skills, she was already an elite athlete. That's a huge advantage, and for most sports is the biggest hurdle.

People don't become elite athletes on their own - it takes coaching and training (every day kind of training) from the age of 13-14 (or earlier for girls/women). Access to such coaching is limited and very often it isn't even a case of money - the best coaches in most sports are already in the system working full-time.

Bobsledding is another bad example. Bobsledders (other than the driver) are elite sprinters just a hair below top international/Olympic standard.

Alpine skiing - if you're not in the elite system by age 14-15, forget it. Even Bode Miller who might seem like an exception was in the system by that age.

Rowing - primarily a college sport, though many start much earlier than that. If you're not on a top college team (in the US), you can't really gain access to the coaching and equipment you'd need.

Even shooting - it does privilege older folks, but many if not most come from a military background, where if you're streamed you can shoot enough and get enough training to get good. (I'm less sure about that point but I have heard this from relatively credible people).
posted by mikel at 1:12 PM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Apply for a Kenyan (or some other tropical country) citizenship and sign yourself up for a winter sport like, say, cross-country skiing. It's been done. Countries have a quota.
posted by Dumsnill at 1:14 PM on August 3, 2008

Best answer: You're a century late too - check out some of the stuff you could have gotten in on in 1904. Speedboat driving, golf... croquet... :-)
posted by Naberius at 1:16 PM on August 3, 2008

Apply for a Kenyan (or some other tropical country) citizenship and sign yourself up for a winter sport like, say, cross-country skiing. It's been done. Countries have a quota.

Indeed. And it doesn't need to be a winter event / tropical country combination, either. There aren't that many archery experts or swimmers in poor, tropical countries, either.

My suggestion, if you had to start at 24, would be the aforementioned archery and shooting sports, and also sailing.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:23 PM on August 3, 2008

NPR did a piece about the Chinese olympic program. They start with thousands of promising children in intensive programs to get a handful of olympic caliber athletes. American athletes in comparison are often self-funded and have connections that give them time with the competition circuits.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:25 PM on August 3, 2008

Being lefty in fencing is an advantage up until you get the A/B level and beyond. Fencers at the Olympic level aren't bothered by lefties.
posted by COD at 1:25 PM on August 3, 2008

There was just a memoir written about doing this; I finished reading a review only minutes ago. Weird. It's by W. Hodding Carter, and called Off the Deep End: The Probably Insane Idea that I Could Swim My Way Through a Midlife Crisis -- and Qualify for the Olympics.
posted by k8lin at 1:31 PM on August 3, 2008

I bet your chances of doing this successfully would increase greatly if you could claim citizenship in some country that doesn't do the winter sport thing (a la, the Jamaican bobsled team).

Or the US Virgin Islands. I believe you'd need to live there 3 years before becoming eligible. Odds go up for summer sports, too-- there's only around 120,000 residents there.
posted by ibmcginty at 1:39 PM on August 3, 2008

From Chicago? If you get very lucky, try very hard, and if you have an aptitude already, you could maybe make it in Curling.
posted by Chuckles at 1:44 PM on August 3, 2008

Response by poster: Curling seems like more my speed. :P
posted by melodykramer at 1:48 PM on August 3, 2008

you could maybe make it in Curling.

No, you couldn't. However, if all you want to do is qualify for the olympics so that you can brag about having participated, then adding a citizenship is clearly the way to go. If you want to do well, you're too late.
posted by Dumsnill at 1:50 PM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

But how about Curling? I bet your chances of doing this successfully would increase greatly if you could claim citizenship in some country that doesn't do the winter sport thing (a la, the Jamaican bobsled team).

Ah, beaten to it.. Great point though. Best to stay local for a few years and get a rink together, then you could jump ship as a group and find a nation that would be happy to have you. This would probably take great gobs of money, along with considerable skill :P
posted by Chuckles at 1:51 PM on August 3, 2008

Dumsnill, making the American curling team is not equivalent to doing well :P If the poster was Canadian, Scottish, or Norwegian, she would have to find another sport..
posted by Chuckles at 1:55 PM on August 3, 2008

Dumsnill, making the American curling team is not equivalent to doing well :P If the poster was Canadian, Scottish, or Norwegian, she would have to find another sport..

OK, I'll admid that my knowledge of American curling less than spectacular.
posted by Dumsnill at 1:59 PM on August 3, 2008

The Olympics ain't for dilettantes. There are people who've been doing their sport since childhood, who've been training full-time for a decade and who are pretty good at it, who will never have a shot at the Games. This also applies to sports that older people tend to compete in, such as the shooting, archery, curling, sailing and equestrian events; the useful lifespan of an athlete is simply longer. (You'd still be up against curlers your age who'd been doing it for 15 years, for example.) There is no event to my knowledge where older competitors are at an advantage -- no polar opposite of women's gymnastics, in other words.

As a rule, the winter sports have strict qualifying criteria, and even relatively open sports such as alpine skiing and classical cross-country skiing (usually just one event of each is open) demand that you be a bona fide competitor (e.g., have World Cup experience), even if you're not exactly competitive. And there aren't that many open events. Plenty of countries won't even have the opportunity to enter an athlete in many events. I can't speak to the summer events, since it was during the 2006 Games that I made a study of the qualifying requirements, but in 2004 an athlete from Equatorial Guinea who was a specialist in one long-distance running event ended up being entered in another -- luck of the draw. That's how few positions were available.

I seem to recall making an argument somewhere that Eddie the Eagle doesn't live here any more. It's hard to get to the Olympics. As it should be.
posted by mcwetboy at 2:01 PM on August 3, 2008

The US, unlike other countries, does not recognize dual citizenship. If you are an American and you shomehow get a Jamaician passport and compete until Jamacian citizenship you might find yourself in some kind of trouble. Im not sure what the IOC rules are but I wouldnt be surprised that they might not look too kindly on citizenship for competition. According to this ruling, you would lose your medal:

May 2004: Bernard Lagat became a US citizen 3 months before he ran track in Athens and won the silver medal in 2004. The glitch is that he won the medal for Kenya. Because Kenya does not allow dual citizenship and the Olympic Charter requires each athlete to be a citizen of the country he or she competes for, his silver medal was taken away. Also according to the Charter, Lagat must now wait 3 years before he is eligible to compete for the United States.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:12 PM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


[I don't actually know anything about rowing, but how hard can it be?]
posted by andoatnp at 2:16 PM on August 3, 2008

Best answer: Also, sounds like you are suffering from this common delusion:

"Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad."
— Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash)
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:16 PM on August 3, 2008 [39 favorites]

Or maybe get on a softball team.

::mind boggles::

Wow, what an incredibly uninformed answer!

Besides, softball and baseball will no longer be Olympic sports after Beijing.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:22 PM on August 3, 2008

Mod note: a few comments removed - question is sincere, feel free to reply with sincere answers, thanks
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:32 PM on August 3, 2008

I was being sincere. It's incredibly offensive to hear your sport named as something a casual athlete could pick up and take to the Olympics. I started riding horses at seven, and even my riding schedule wasn't enough to become elite, even though it was all I wanted. Please don't make a mockery of athetic dedication.
posted by swerve at 2:45 PM on August 3, 2008

Second shooting.
posted by pompomtom at 3:06 PM on August 3, 2008

To belabour the point just a little more, and maybe address some of swerve's concerns...

American's aren't quite as bad at Curling as I like to pretend they are (6 World Championship medals for women, and 21 for men). However, in a team sport that relies heavily on strategy, it is critically important to play against strong competition, and have a relatively strong pool of talent to pull a team from.

I think it is unfair to look at this question as making a mockery of a given sport, I don't think that is the intention. At the same time, I think personal enthusiasm for the particular sport is a very important contributing factor to success. So, picking a sport this way is probably close to mutually exclusive with becoming competitive at it.

To put it another way.. it might be possible to pick up Curling (or an equestrian sport, or yachting) at an older age, but the person who proves the possibility probably doesn't happen on the sport this way. They probably love the sport first, and find that in fact they are able to compete too.
posted by Chuckles at 3:08 PM on August 3, 2008

damn dirty ape - you may be right with regard to sports, but the US definitely does allow for dual citizenship. I should know; I'm a dual Australian-American. I know lots of other dual citizens. The got rid of the law forbidding it decades ago. Sure, they don't *like* you to do it, but there's nothing stopping you. (Again, whether they let dualies compete on the Olympic team is another matter.) Just wanted to clear that up for you...
posted by web-goddess at 3:10 PM on August 3, 2008

swerve- I didn't see your comment, but I wasn't making an uneducated judgment. With enough money, natural talent and time, someone could start riding in their twenties and be an Olympic caliber competitor by their forties. I say this as someone who has been riding for almost 25 years herself.
posted by youcancallmeal at 3:19 PM on August 3, 2008

Apparently Magnus Scheving became the European Aerobic Gymnastics champion, aged 30, after someone bet him that he couldn't take up a sport and be champion. Don't give up hope!

I would pick synchronised swimming. That looks totally easy, and requres minimal athleticism beyond holding your breath.
posted by roofus at 3:19 PM on August 3, 2008

Fencing is out - the saying is that fencing takes two life-times to master: by the time your a master of the strategies and tactics, you're well past your athletic prime.

Additionally, the left-handedness advantage is a beginner thing that disappears rapidly - because people who do well at a sport right from the beginning early (ie the minority-lefties among majority of righties in a group of beginners) tend to keep doing that sport, while those who don't do well, go find something more suited to them. Thus at higher levels, about 50% of competitors are left handed, and there is no advantage to being lefty.

I'd suggest something less athletic and less complex. As to what - I don't know. But the dual citizenship idea sounds like the way to go, if somewhat mercenary.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:21 PM on August 3, 2008

I'm going to disagree with swerve. Assuming melodykramer had the necessary talent (say, could have been a contender if they started at 7) and put in the hours, I see no reason why they couldn't win in an event like dressage. Training 8-9 hours a day with a top trainer for 5-7 years seems like enough time for a healthy, athletic adult to reach the upper echelons of competitive horse racing. I think at the top of any sport it becomes somewhat of a gamble, based on all sorts of factors you couldn't control, but given the extended careers of many sports athletes now, I think it is at least a possibility.

Of course very few people in their 20s want to dedicate, or have the financial resources to dedicate themselves to a sport they have never played at a competitive level. I mean if you're in your early 20s and can dedicate all day to training, you probably would have had the resources when you were much younger, which is exactly why this would be such a rare thing.
posted by geoff. at 3:30 PM on August 3, 2008

youcancallmeal: though this may sound as if I'm picking a fight, it's actually an honest question: have you reached Grand Prix competition?
posted by swerve at 3:35 PM on August 3, 2008

No, but it was due to a lack of money, not a lack of talent. If the poster has a modicum of talent and shit tons of money...well, I've seen some crappy rich riders in my time on horses that are doing all the work. It can be done.
posted by youcancallmeal at 3:40 PM on August 3, 2008

Then you didn't get there, did you?

I was sponsored into Junior A shows and did very well. But money is inextricably part of the equation. So I'd say no, it's not going to happen for melodykramer.

Geoff: humans can work out 8-9 hours a day, but horses can't.

Since I seem to have become angry, I'll leave it alone now.
posted by swerve at 3:52 PM on August 3, 2008

Youcancallmeal, I have to disagree with your claim that someone can start horseback riding in their twenties and actually get somewhere. Perhaps a truly talented natural athlete could, but in my experience riders that do not start when they are children just never, ever have the same balance and grace on a horse. They can have amazing horses and lots of time and money to spend but they just never seem to have the same "feel" as people who rode in childhood. This is a conclusion I have come to after watching many, many adults struggle with their riding.

I would not be surprised if this problem applied to other sports as well. In the same way that learning language is easier for children, I think there are some physical activities that adults just do not have the same ability to pick up. I certainly don't think this means there is no way that melodykramer can make it to the Olympics, but I do think that this effect would make it very difficult in a lot of sports.
posted by horses, of courses at 4:02 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Competing in the olympics might be too much to ask for, and "in the next few years" might be too short a time, but there's no reason you can't fall in love with a sport or activity, train super hard, and become an expert in your community or city over the next ten years. Pick something that relatively few people do (acrobatics, not running) and you'll have less competition. But you do need to figure out what gets you excited, because there's no way you'll train hard enough unless this activity becomes the most wonderful fun thrilling awesome amazing thing in your life. All of this is based on my personal experience.
posted by nevers at 4:17 PM on August 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

I'm also going to disagree with the synchronized swimming comment. It looks easy because it's SUPPOSED to look easy, just like figure skating and ballroom dancing. That doesn't mean it's actually easy. Have you ever tried to do any synchronized movement in a swimming pool, or imitate the moves of synchronized swimmers? It's fucking HARD.
posted by Anonymous at 4:42 PM on August 3, 2008

Best answer: I think there are some physical activities that adults just do not have the same ability to pick up.
This is often said about music as well. As someone who started playing an instrument as an adult, I found it interesting to read that acquisition of the necessary skills it takes to learn music proficiently is experience-dependent, not age-dependent (Pascual-Leone, Cohen, Brasil-Neto, Cammarota & Hallet 1992). (source).
posted by davar at 5:21 PM on August 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

no. the folks you see in the olympics have been training for most of their lives.
posted by gnutron at 5:21 PM on August 3, 2008

Response by poster: Oh my gosh, I didn't mean to provoke fights - I was just wondering whether it was too late for someone in their mid-20's to do this; meaning, do all Olympians have to start pre-20's in order to have a chance -- and I thought maybe it'd be worth checking out, if -- you know -- I could (with lots of time) devote myself to a particular discipline and have a **slight** chance of moving forward, with luck and fortitude and whatnot.
posted by melodykramer at 5:24 PM on August 3, 2008

Best answer: I think your chances are pretty slim. I play an Olympic sport at a decidedly non-Olympic caliber, and I'm pretty sure it's not the one you're looking for (Judo). But let me explain.

One of the more common sports movie tropes is someone who suddenly wants to start at something who trains really hard and defeats the (possibly evil) 'expert team' through sheer moxie and quick learning. In my experience, this very rarely happens.

I have had the privilege of knowing some possibly some very talented players who competed at a very high level. They all had one thing in common: they started when they were six. I know some people who actually have picked up the sport really really quickly. They played college football and were talented athletes to begin with, who trained a lot and were very enthusiastic about the sport.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:35 PM on August 3, 2008

Table tennis sounds like your best bet.

No way! There's a country of 1.3 billion people where table tennis is taken seriously. A reasonably competent player can hit a 60mph smash, and the world record is around 70mph. That sounds slow, but consider that a TT table is 9’ long (vs. 78’ for a tennis court.)

If the OP trained for 30-40 hours/wk for ten to fifteen years and had the talent to become a top player, that still wouldn’t suffice – she’d be too old to have the reflexes necessary to be a contender by the time she reached peak form.

Shooting is at least within the realm of possibility. Leatham is in his late 40s and he’s still competitive. But he’s one of the most talented shooters ever, and it still took him five years of serious training to become competitive. It would take a lot longer for someone who’s merely as good as the average ISSF world champion.

A newly added sport might be a possibility, if there are any. Just before it was added to the ’02 Olympics, there were all these stories about people starting Skeleton and being fairly competitive.
posted by suncoursing at 5:55 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, neuroscientifically speaking, you will simply not have the time to put in enough practice to get enough training to compete with someone who has natural ability *and* has trained since childhood.

As I just posted somewhere else, your brain becomes what it does. It takes thousands of hours of training to get superior natural ability to the level of Olympic competition. If you have modest natural ability, even that much training might not get you there with a childhood start (but extra training might). Starting as an adult simply doesn't give you enough time to get there at the peak of your physical ability-- even, generally, if that ability is above average.

Practice is everything, even with talent-- and the vast majority of people with talent don't have the discipline, money and time to get enough training in. There's just too much competition that has too much of a head start unless you have some crazy natural talent for something that you never realized and some serious discipline, money and time. And even then, someone else probably has that plus the childhood... so you still wouldn't make it.
posted by Maias at 6:33 PM on August 3, 2008

The US, unlike other countries, does not recognize dual citizenship.

This does not mean what you think it means. Having other citizenships (with a few caveats) is perfectly OK under U.S. law.

If you are an American and you shomehow get a Jamaician passport and compete until Jamacian citizenship you might find yourself in some kind of trouble.

Only if you acquired Jamaican citizenship intending to give up your U.S. citizenship, or if you tried to enter the U.S. on a Jamaican passport.

May 2004: Bernard Lagat became a US citizen 3 months before he ran track in Athens and won the silver medal in 2004. The glitch is that he won the medal for Kenya. Because Kenya does not allow dual citizenship and the Olympic Charter requires each athlete to be a citizen of the country he or she competes for, his silver medal was taken away. Also according to the Charter, Lagat must now wait 3 years before he is eligible to compete for the United States.

U.S. law on citizenship did not come into play at all here.
posted by oaf at 6:42 PM on August 3, 2008

I would say that shooting or archery is your best bet. I would go for shooting, as holding a pistol is considerably less taxing than drawing and holding a recurve bow. (I do both, although not competitively.) Yes, you'll be up against competitors who've been shooting since they were six. But, if you look at the a-level shooters, they all shoot similarly--that is, very, very well. Once your form is consistent, the rest of shooting well is self-control.

I really think this is only going to work if you've got some talent. Skill will get you a long way, but it helps to be genetically different.*

Thanks, Brucie.
posted by Netzapper at 8:00 PM on August 3, 2008

I would think you would have to pick a strange and unusual (to us Americans) sport, with little interest in the States. I think Team Handball might fit the bill. Looking at the player profiles, many of the team members have only been playing for less than two years, though they all seem to have been collegiate athletes.

I had the same thought as you, but much, much later and much too late, and it seemed to me team handball was the way to go.
posted by procrastination at 8:48 PM on August 3, 2008

My SO, in her prime, could have qualified for the olympics (swimming - breaststroke and medley), and she made it all the way up to national gold (hadn't she developed a recurring otitis that kept her from the pool for long periods of time - so bye bye Barcelona - eventually she quit) - but - she started swimming at 7, and swam and trained and ran for something like 4 to 6 hours a day until she was 18, Mon to Sat, and on Sunday she would have a competition. (She's fair haired, but when I first met her she was platinum blonde - chlorine). Some of her friends did it, though.

Nthing the above advice and adding: pick something you like, practice and you'll get good, really good. Possibly, olympic good. But the most challenging thing will be discovering a discipline you love ("love" as in:"I am absolutely willing to change my life for this"), and the reward - olympics or not - will be exceptionally high.
posted by _dario at 9:41 PM on August 3, 2008

I have a friend who started doing triathlons in his early 20s, fell in love with it and began training obsessively, who is now competitive (top 150 or so, say) on the US Ironman circuit and in other "ultra" races (eg 100 mile races). He runs marathons and finishes in the top 10. He naturally has a good build for ultra endurance events, and he trains *really* hard, but it only took him about 6 years to get to this point. So, I don't know if your focus is on literally just the Olympics, or on becoming a very high-caliber athlete generally. But it's possible. As a bonus, the ultrarunning community seems very tight-knit and warm, the way he describes it.

Another thought - Bill McKibben has a good short book (Long Distance) about his experience trying to become a competitive cross-country skiier later in life. Might be inspiring.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:26 PM on August 3, 2008

I'll nth a few of the above comments by adding that some pretty unlikely athletes have made it to the Olympics, because there was little or no national competition. The Jamaican bobsledders have already been mentioned.
Likewise Eddy Edwards ("Eddy the Eagle"), IIRC, became the British skijumping team simply because there were no other applicants. He was not very good (he jumped IIRC 70 meters, vs. 100 meters for the contenders) but he was able to do the sport.
Another example was a prince from Thailand or Cambodia who became the entire national figure-skating team, again, because no one in that nation figure-skated and he had the political pull to make it happen. Like Eddy, he scored 2~3 where the contenders scored 9~10, but he didn't break any ankles either.
Note, I'll bet there are many examples like this, but they aren't shown on US TV and they get no publicity. I saw a little vignette about the SE Asian prince, which was presented as an oddity, not part of the regular coverage of the event.

I think above post has it exactly right. I've started taking my cycling and skiing seriously at the age of ... way past 24. I'll never compete anywhere but it's satisfying as hell.
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:38 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think above post has it exactly right. I was referring to the above post by "nevers." The name didn't print for some reason.
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:42 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Did nobody mention this project by the way? The site is down, but I found this old blog.

What about marathon running? Priscilla Welch started running competitively at age 34, finished sixth in the Olympic Marathon at age 39, and set the master’s world best of 2:26:51 in the London Marathon two years later. At 42, Priscilla won the 1987 New York City Marathon.
posted by davar at 2:07 AM on August 4, 2008


[I don't actually know anything about rowing, but how hard can it be?]

You're right, you'd really have to know nothing about rowing to think that. Most successful coxes started as small children, the weight lower limit for coxing men's senior boats is 55kg and for women's is 50kg which means most coxes are under that weight and carry extra in the boat to just eke the minimum requirement, and if the OP is as she said someone for whom curling is "more her speed" it's unlikely she'd be the right body type.

Steering a boat, race condition response and keeping a crew in time and motivated successfully is something akin to the skill an orchestra conductor must possess, only with added screaming. I've been coxed by Seb Pearce, and as a rower who has herself occasioanlly dabbled in coxing believe me what he brings to a boat is nontrivially far beyond what I could ever do in that seat.
posted by methylsalicylate at 3:26 AM on August 4, 2008

Australia created a women's skeleton team for the Torino 2006 winter olympics, to increase their chances of winning medals (women's skeleton was classified as not particularly competitive). But even for this they picked people who already excelled in their sports (particularly surf life saving, for which there is no Olympic representation opportunities). Maybe the OP could look for an opportunity like this?
posted by cholly at 5:33 AM on August 4, 2008

The Olympics ain't for dilettantes.

Actually, the elite athletes at the Olympics call, for instance, the skiers from Jamaica "Olympic tourists." These are the athletes in obscure sports or from obscure countries who are there for the experience and the personal or reflected glory, but who understand that they are not going to be successful in anything approaching a medal quest. I don't think the OP is asking "how do I win the Olympics," just "how do I get there."

My first thought, like many others, was curling. Unlike other sports that you can start when you're older (like shooting, archery, or equestrian) it is not mind numbingly expensive to get good at.

The other thought, (if it's upthread, apologies, I just skimmed), is to check eligibility requirements and Olympic slots for your ancestral countries. Many countries allow you to qualify for international competition if you have even a single grandparent with a passport from that country. For instance, half of the figure skating team from Greece are Americans. (Greece has a fairly liberal eligibility standard.)
posted by nax at 6:08 AM on August 4, 2008

This semi-relevant video article just popped up on CNN. I can't link the video, but here's the text clip that went with it:

'Gold machine' chews up, spits out athletes
They are recruits in China's Olympic army -- children as young as 6 handpicked by the government for a remote chance to bring home gold medals and become national heroes.
Little girls barely old enough to walk to school must walk on their hands for three minutes, followed by 60 sit-ups.
Others twist their fragile bodies like pretzels as part of their training. Click the image above to watch the video.
posted by whoda at 7:33 AM on August 4, 2008

I don't think this has been mentioned thus far, but many elite athletes have extraordinary physical gifts that are almost mandatory at the elite level but that may not be obvious to a casual observer. Obviously being very tall is a good thing for basketball, but do you know your VO2 max, lactate threshold and resting heart rate? You can bet every elite cyclist does.

If you had an understanding of what underlying characteristics predict excellence in particular sports and your own body's #s, then you'd be able to gauge your chances in those sports. I would imagine that this sort of testing is a big part of the Chinese effort described above.
posted by turbodog at 4:45 PM on August 4, 2008

Late to the party but this might be interesting for those still around, an English average Joe who tried to get into the '08 Olympic marathon by training really hard. Injuries got him.
posted by thijsk at 2:16 AM on August 6, 2008

Best answer: A bit late to the party, but just ran across a story ESPN did that followed an athlete over two years trying to get into the Olympics.
posted by whycurious at 1:45 PM on August 6, 2008

I'm late too.

My mother actually qualified for the 96 Olympics in Atlanta in archery. She hadn't even touched a bow until her mid 40's when she dated a deer hunter. After a few years she won her local competitions, and then state ones, beating all women and all men with a cheap little $200 hunting bow.

She showed up for Olympic qualifying with that same little $200 bow and qualified for the last spot on the team against all others using multi-thousand dollar specialty bows. She never made it to Atlanta due to health problems, but I still get a smile thinking of my Mom up there, with her cheap little hunting bow beating out all these "experts" with their precision equipment.

She always did have spot on accuracy with a wooden spoon.
posted by sanka at 10:00 PM on August 8, 2008 [6 favorites]

Late but...

Every four years or so, I dream of the same thing. I'm so inspired by the summer Olympics, and when I was a kid, all I wanted was to qualify for the Olympic swimming team. My parents did not have the money for that kind of investment, and I was lured away from competitive swimming by a musical instrument. Now (at nearly 30), I'm delusional, thinking that some coach out there is going to see me running my 9.5 minute miles with such grace that s/he will think that I've got the best undiscovered potential and that I could race and win the Olympic marathon, knowing perfectly well that I can't and never will. It's kind of a small, inner fantasy related to reverence of such amazing discipline, fitness, mental capacity, and strength that it sometimes bubbles up, oh man alive I would LOVE to do that / be that / top that. I know I can't, but that sort of glimmer of hope keeps me motivated to eat well, exercise regularly, and one day I WILL qualify for Boston, (probably not until I'm 40) and that is plenty. In the meantime, I occasionally slip into delusion, and hope, but not in the dangerous way. It is inspiring to see those athletes.

And a quick aside: My mom was a synchronized swimmer back in the day. The woman could hold her breath for four and a half minutes (no small feat), and had to regularly train in gymnastics, ballet, and intensive swimming in order to master the sport. It's incredibly difficult and requires insane lung capacity, muscle strength, coordination, and elegance. Just an aside.
posted by cachondeo45 at 7:46 AM on August 9, 2008

Response by poster: Maybe the Olympics will come to Chicago and I can watch them play beach volleyball or something.... :P
posted by melodykramer at 1:00 PM on August 9, 2008

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