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Economic Growth: Tall Tennis Players

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 27, 2013

I was just reading about John Isner (6’10”), Juan Martin del Potro (6’6″), Milos Raonic (6’5″) and Ivo Karlovic (6’10”).  Top ranked tennis players, they represent an increasingly tall person’s sport. At this year’s US Tennis Open, 9 of the 32 top seeded male players are 6’5″ or taller.

Average size has been changing in sports.  While in 1939, an average forward on the University of Wisconsin’s basketball team was 6’1″, in 1999, he was 7 inches taller. A century ago, world record 100 meter runners averaged close to 6 feet but the Olympic gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt is 6’5″.  Similarly, during 1900 or so, champion 100 meter swimmers were much shorter–by 4.5 inches–than Michael Phelps who is 6’4″. One reason for bigger athletes is the improved nutrition that comes from economic growth.

Based on military records, a typical US male was 67 inches during the mid-1800s, close to 70 inches in 1955, and since then, stayed there. During the end of the 18th century, John Adams at 5’7″ was average height. Can you imagine how impressive George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both approximately 6’2″, must have been?

Reading the following table, this might be helpful: 1 centimeter=.4 inches. So 175 centimeters would be 70 inches.

From: Fogel and Grotte, AN OVERVIEW OF THE CHANGING BODY: HEALTH, NUTRITION, AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT IN THE WESTERN WORLD SINCE 1700

From: Fogel and Grotte, AN OVERVIEW OF THE CHANGING BODY: HEALTH, NUTRITION, AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT IN THE WESTERN WORLD SINCE 1700

Called anthropometric history, the science of the changing human body has provided economists with data that they have related to human capital. In The Changing Body, researchers have hypothesized that “The nutritional status of a generation–shown by the size and shape of their bodies–determines how long that generation will live and how much work its members will be able to do.” From there, we might conclude that nutrition affects productivity which elevates GDP and increases our standard living.

Sources and resources: Laden with a massive amount of data and written by a group of scholars that includes Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel, The Changing Body is an impressive compilation of research as is his working paper on the same topic. It perfectly complements articles in The New Yorker, the Daily Mail and the NY Times.

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