The curious case of the incredible shrinking Olympic gymnast

Small is beautiful.
Small is beautiful.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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At 4’8″ (1.42m), Simone Biles might be one of the smallest athletes competing in the Rio Olympics, but the American gymnast’s tiny frame belies her incredible strength and technique.

If, as expected, Biles takes gold in the individual all-around event today (Aug. 11), the 19-year-old will be the shortest Olympic champion since 4’6″ (1.37m) Tatiana Gutsu of Romania in 1992. Biles’s domination of gymnastics in recent years suggests a return, perhaps, to the ”pixie gymnast“ era, which reached its peak (figuratively speaking) with Gutsu.

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For context, the average 19-year-old American woman (pdf) is 5’4″, the height of Olympic medal-winning gymnasts up until the early 1970s.

Here’s Biles next to teammate and 2012 all-around gold medallist Gabby Douglas (4’11”):

And for an even starker contrast, here’s Biles next to 6’8″ Team USA volleyball player David Lee:

For gymnasts, smaller is generally better. It’s simple physics: The smaller and lighter you are, the easier it is to make your body rotate because there is less inertia to get over. Smaller, lighter frames can achieve greater jumps, flips, and rotations more easily, and require less muscle than the average frame. As Quartz has said previously about Biles:

With a firm build and a 4’8” frame, she’s got an amazing strength-to-weight ratio. This not only enables her to hold her body straight, but also lets her jump to about double her actual height.

Biles isn’t the shortest gymnast at the Olympics—Flavia Saraiva of Brazil is just 4’3″ (1.33m). And while she didn’t make the first team, Biles’s Team USA alternate Ragan Smith stands at 4’6″ (1.37m). If they or other similarly diminutive gymnasts start winning medals, according to a highly dubious statistical projection by Quartz the 2148 champion will be a 4-foot dynamo performing superhuman feats that we can scarcely believe—not unlike Biles does today.

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