Five-ring Circus

Explainer’s Olympics Roundup

Your questions about the Games, with answers from our archives.

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the Beijing Games. 

Soaring fireworks, falling records, and cinematic ceremonies marked the first few days of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But what’s to come? From gold-medal nibblers to the world’s fastest dopers, Slate answers the questions you never thought to ask.  

Online reports have suggested that two members of China’s renowned women’s gymnastics team are too young to competein the Olympics. China has provided records affirming their athletes’ eligibility. Can’t we bypass the paper trail and test their age biologically?

No, we’ll have to rely on the records. People don’t have biological markers for precise age; there is no human equivalent for tree rings. Gerontologists have tried to measure old age by testing a range of age-related characteristics including hearing loss and joint flexibility, but at best this provides only a measure of “physiological age” instead of calendar years. Other organizations that have to document exact age, such as Guinness World Records, consult several different sources, such as birth certificate, marriage certificate, and photo ID. (For more on how to determine someone’s age, read this Explainer from 2006.)

At the 2004 Athens Games, Kenyan men swept the medals in the grueling 3,000-meter steeplechase. Kenya is expected to continue its medal onslaught in long-distance track events in Beijing. Why are Kenyans such successful long-distance runners?

High altitude, running culture, and good genes. Most of Kenya’s future Olympians were raised at high altitude, where running builds greater lung capacity as athletes grow accustomed to the thinner air. Some Kenyan children run 10 miles a day, in the hopes of  using endurance running as a ticket out of poverty. More obscure theories have credited cattle herding and circumcision rituals for the Kenyans’ success. (For more on why Kenyans are faster, read this Explainer from 2003.)

Runners Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, and Tyson Gay—first, second, and third all-time in the 100 meters—are set to race in what should be the fastest 100-meter dash in history. The Jamaican Bolt just set the world record in June, but many are predicting it won’t last the Olympics. Just how accurate are the devices used to measure the fastest men on earth?

They can record to the ten-thousandth of a second. Every track (and lane) differs in length by a tiny amount, so two runners racing at exactly the same speed might cross the finish line with times that differ by a fraction of a second. That’s why times at short events are measured to the thousandth of a second but reported to the hundredth. Longer races require less precise times. Officials can hand-time all races longer than 800 meters. (For more on track and field record measurements, read this Explainer from 2005.)

You’ve seen it a hundred times: An athlete, flush from Olympic victory, wins the gold medal and nibbles on it like a chew toy in front of the cameras. Why are athletes always biting their gold medals?

Theoretically to test their purity, but probably because everybody else is doing it. In their pure forms, gold and silver are actually “soft” enough to make tooth marks. In principle, you could use the “bite test” to see if a medal were pure, 24-karat gold. Of course, the Olympic gold medal isn’t pure gold anyway. So Olympians can’t really test the purity of the medal without a lot of practice. (For more on why athletes nibble their medals, read this Explainer from 2006.)

Beijing Olympics officials established a gender determination lab in July to investigate whether some suspect female athletes are actually men. Is a “gender test” as simple as it sounds?

No. You can’t tell just by looking at genitalia because a person’s anatomy might not match their chromosomes. But you can’t simply count the X chromosomes, because some women have only one X and some biological males are XXY. Today the International Olympic Committee relies on a panel of specialists to account for all these ambiguities. Athletes who have undergone sex reassignment are allowed to compete alongside their new gender, provided they follow regulations. (For more on gender tests at the Olympics, read this Explainer from 2006.)

Air-pollution concerns dominated the pre-Olympic news cycle. Now the Games are under way, and the attention has turned to Michael Phelps and the indoor swimming and gymnastics competitions. How will air pollution affect athletic performance during the outdoor games?

We don’t know for sure, but it certainly won’t help. Athletes in competition breathe more than 20 times the amount of air inhaled by a normal person at rest. In Beijing, that could mean a supersized dose of ozone and fine particulates, which can reduce the amount of oxygen that gets to the muscles. But with Beijing’s air quality yo-yoing from white-out haze to blue skies in a matter of days, it’s difficult to predict what conditions Olympians competing outdoors will face. (For more on pollution and athletic performance, read this Explainer from 2007.)

The head of the World Anti-Doping Agency has warned that drug scandals in Beijing—like the medal-stripping of world-class sprinters Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, and Tim Montgomery—could drive away a generation of viewers from the Olympics. How do you make an athlete give his medals back?

You ask for them. When the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Montgomery had cheated, the International Association of Athletics Federations sent him a request for the medals. Revoked Olympic medals can be reused. When the IOC strips an athlete of her gold, it can send that same medal to the woman who had received the silver. It’s even easier to take back a medal while the Games are still going on. A Canadian official took the gold medal from Johnson during a late-night visit to his hotel room in Seoul. (For more on how to take a medal from an athlete, read this Explainer from 2005.)

For many viewers, watching the U.S. women’s gymnastics team compete Tuesday night brought to mind memories of Kerri Strug’s impressive one-ankle landing after her vault in 1996. But at least one thing isn’t the same in Beijing: the shape of the vault. Why the new equipment?

In part to facilitate more impressive acrobatic feats, and in part to reduce injuries. The larger surface area has also made it easier for vaulters to perform difficult maneuvers that require handsprings on the approach. The front edge slopes downward and is thickly padded, so an accidental run-in hopefully won’t cause broken bones. The table made its international debut at the 2001 world championships in Ghent, Belgium. (For more on the newish vault, read this Explainer from 2004.)

During the parade of nations at the Beijing opening ceremony, you might have caught the Hong Kong team walking under its national flag, even though it’s been a territory of China for about a decade. Puerto Rico has its own team, too, and its residents are all U.S. citizens. How can territories like Puerto Rico field their own teams?

The International Olympic Committee, the governing body that makes all decisions about the administration and operation of the games, recognizes their National Olympic Committees. The Olympic Charter explains that “the expression ‘country’ means an independent State recognized by the international community,” and the IOC recognized Puerto Rico as such an entity in 1948. The committee also recognized the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1967, Guam in 1986, and American Samoa in 1987. (For more on how a nonsovereign territory can field its own Olympic team, read this Explainer from 2004.)