Here is Russian high jumper Anna Chicherova praying for a gold medal yesterday. Not surprisingly, God couldn't resist.
Chicherova is 30 years old and took 2010 off to have a baby with her sprinter husband. She is listed at 5'11 and 126 pounds.
And here's the great war and sports photographer George Silk's classic Life magazine picture of Swedish high jumper Gunhild Larking sulking at the 1956 Olympics. She finished sixth. Silk shot two rolls and some of the other pictures are even more flattering.
High jumping in the past was kind of nuts since they didn't have modern airbags to land on, much like pole vaulting remains a pretty crazy sport today. (Here's Buster Keaton trying out for the 1925 USC track team in College by jumping a 5' bar into a sawdust pit. Keaton, a remarkable athlete, only needed a stunt double for the pole vaulting scene.) Future singer Johnny Mathis was invited to the 1956 U.S. Olympic trials as a high jumper, but he passed it up for a tryout for a recording contract because, as he later explained, going up was fun but coming down hurt.
Larking was listed as 5'8" and 123 pounds. Apparently, upper body muscularity is not very important in high jumping. This was also long the presumption regarding sprinting. I can recall reading with bafflement the Sports Illustrated cover story in 1987 about Ben Johnson's 100m dash world record as it tried to explain why Johnson's new found (and rather grotesque) body builder-style upper body helped him go faster.
One question I've seldom seen addressed is the relationship between elongation, elegance, and social class. Why do we assume that long and lean is classy? Why are femme fatales in film noirs long-legged rather than voluptuous?
Obviously, the well-fed tend to grow taller, but, all else being equal, they also tend to grow wider, in the manner of J.P. Morgan. (My father, born in 1917, referred to the rich as "the fat cats," and was unimpressed by my pointing out that rich people these days jogged more than poor people.)
So this apparent correlation between elongation and higher social class remains curious.
My guess would be that it's related to this tendency for girls to stop growing at puberty. Thus, taller women tend to have reached sexual maturity later, which is useful in making high class marriages. Aristocratic girls who got knocked up by the groom before they can be married off to the prince tend to not have a lot of aristocratic offspring. So, there could be a selection process that leads to higher class people getting more elongated until such point as they aren't robust enough to maintain their class privileges.
Incidentally, Larking found out after the Olympics that she was already pregnant and retired from athletics.