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Electrocardiographic changes in “elite” athletes
  1. Richard Godfrey
  1. Chief Physiologist, British Olympic Medical Centre
    1. Gregory Whyte
    1. Senior Physiologist, Human Performance Centre, University of Wolverhampton, Gorway Road, Walsall WS1 3BD, UK

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      Editor,—I am constantly amazed that authors of refereed articles in sports science and medicine journals get away with dictating to the reader. I refer specifically to the use of the term “elite”. I think this is particularly inappropriate when used in the title of a paper, because it presupposes that the population studied is elite when in reality it is the reader who should make such a judgement.

      If, in the body of the text, the author(s) wish to refer to the population in question as elite, then they should present their definition in the opening introduction. Clearly, there are many instances where the term elite can be questioned, but I think most reasonable scientists and doctors would agree that there cannot be 1000 elite junior athletes in the United Kingdom. I refer to the paper of Sharma et al.1 I do not intend to victimise one research group, as I have seen many papers that “transgress” in this way. However, I have noticed that an earlier paper of Dr Sharma's, published as the result of a presentation at the European College of Sports Medicine Conference, Manchester 1998, also used the term “elite” when referring to junior athletes. Perhaps those of us who act as reviewers are also guilty here and should take a greater stand in the future in this regard.

      I recognise that what constitutes “elite” could be debated interminably. The Chambers Dictionary defines elite as “ . . .the pick or flower of anything”. There can be little debate that Olympic gold medallists are elite by this definition, but in a sporting context generally, the definition does tend to be less subject to clear distinction. By way of example, I cite the top 12 heavyweight rowers in the UK.

      The British Olympic Medical Centre regularly fitness tests 70 national squad rowers, of whom these 12 are a part, in the centre's laboratory at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow. In a recent collaboration with DeMontford University, V̇o2max data for these 12 was “scaled”. In other words, it was recalculated raising it to a power function of the body mass such that physiological data could be “normalised” or rendered dimensionless. When successfully accomplished, this mathematical technique allows data for women to be compared with men, children with adults, and so on. When done with V̇o2max data, it allows the individuals with the highest aerobic power to be truly identified. The results of this recalculation showed that expressing body mass to the 0.67 exponent produced the most promising results in all cases, with the exception of the three Olympic gold medallists. This shows that even with 12 individuals who constitute a group that appears homogeneous (very similar ages, heights, body weights, training volume, and intensities for the last 10 years, and very similar competitive experience) there appears to be a “more elite” subpopulation. Put another way, for this population the three gold medallists are “outliers” on the normal distribution curve.

      So where does this leave us with respect to my criticism of the use of the term “elite”? In my view, it brings us full circle and simply reinforces the point that authors should not be using the term “elite” in the title of any paper, and should present their definition of the term “elite” should they choose to use it with reference to the population they have conducted research on.

      These steps should return the power of judgement to the reader. After all, within science we are taught to criticise any scientific study and constantly assess its value in the context of the existing body of knowledge. Of course, authors' opinions are often important and valid, but should not be stated as anything other than opinion where they cannot be supported by science.

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      Author's reply

      editor,—Mr Godfrey has stated that “most reasonable scientists and doctors would agree that there cannot be 1000 elite junior athletes in the United Kingdom”. There are a number of issues we would like to discuss in this regard:

      • Mr Godfrey is correct to imply that the scientific community has failed to define the term “elite”, and to this end we would agree that a definition would avoid confusion. However, the use of the term “elite” in our paper is warranted, as the athletic population employed reflects the best athletes within each sport. Indeed this satisfies Mr Godfrey's definition of “elite” as being “the pick or flower of anything”.

      • When one examines the sporting standard of athletes employed in some studies, we would agree that the use of the term “elite” is misguided. However, to assume that “most reasonable scientists and doctors” agree that there cannot be 1000 elite junior athletes in the UK is both presumptuous and unfounded. Indeed, to dismiss the use of the highest quality of athletes within a sport as being non-elite is as misleading as assuming that all athletes, of whatever standard, are “elite”.

      To highlight a further issue raised by Mr Godfrey, we would like to tackle his cited example. It would appear erroneous to assume that it is physiology, and physiology alone, that differentiates the most successful performers. Whilst physiology is related to performance, other factors such as biomechanics, psychology, skill, equipment, etc, will have a significant impact, particularly in those sports that require a high skill component. The example cited by Mr Godfrey assumes that V̇o2max is the single determinant of rowing performance. Even if this were true, which we know is not the case, the determinants of V̇o2max are many, and to assume that these determinants are equal, even within a homogenous population, is highly erroneous. This point is demonstrated in the large number of studies our group has published on heart size and function in athletes.

      We applaud the use of allometric scaling in comparing V̇o2max values by Mr Godfrey and his colleagues. The use of an optimal scalar variable and method when comparing individuals is fully appreciated by our group, and I would direct Mr Godfrey to our most recent review on the subject.1 Despite this, even following scaling, we doubt that V̇o2max is the only determinant of rowing performance differentiating his “more elite” rowers.

      In conclusion, the term “elite” cannot be solely applied to Olympic medallists, as to do so would assume that all non-medal winning Olympians are not “elite”, and, further, what of those athletes competing in non-Olympic sports? We agree that the term “elite” requires a consensus definition, and may be a topic for future debate. However, we defend the use of the term in the present and past papers as being a true reflection of the level of athlete employed.

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