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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 14:16 GMT
Does tallness make you a potential medal winner?
Shelley Rudman, skeleton bob medallist and former 400m hurdler

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UK Sport is running a campaign to find tall people who might have the ability to help Great Britain do well in the medals at the 2012 Olympics. But is it possible to find the stars of tomorrow just from their physical characteristics?

If you are a man who is over 6ft 3in (190cm) or a woman who is over 5ft 11in (180cm), and you are between 16 and 25, your country may need you.

The British athletics powers-that-be have decided that Great Britain must do well in the medals table in 2012 and they are now getting into the business of "systematic talent identification" and "talent detection" to make sure this happens.

The first targets are rowing, handball and volleyball, but candidates from all sports on show at the games - bar tennis and football - will be considered.

There have been many programmes over the years, most famously in the old Soviet Bloc countries and China, which have sought to identify genetic ability at sport at an early age in order to enhance the prospect of success with intensive training and development.

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Modern proponents of talent identification include Australia and Brazil. Countries are often tempted to institute a systematic programme ahead of hosting the Olympics, with South Korea following that path for the 1988 games.

But UK Sport believes talent can be identified among those in their early 20s. They are particularly looking for people who may be training hard in a sport they are not excelling at. Matched to a more suitable sport, they may flourish.

There is an established domestic precedent in rowing. Universities encourage people who have never tried the sport to join a fast track if they meet certain physical criteria, largely regarding height and weight.

UK Sport cites the example of Anna Bebington, who began rowing in 2001 at the age of 18 at university, started intensive training two years later and by 2005 was competing in the world championships.

Other examples include Shelley Rudman, who took up skeleton bob a mere four years before securing a silver medal at the Winter Olympics. She had previously been a 400m hurdler.

Rebecca Ramiro made the jump from rowing to track cycling four years ago after a back injury and has already won medals. Jason Queally made the transition from water polo player to medal-winning track cyclist.

Yao Ming, the 7ft 6in basketball star, towers over Allan Iverson in a match
Yao Ming has drawn the eyes of NBA scouts towards China

But as unlikely as the transitions might seem, many of the sports involved have upper body strength as a factor. If you're only OK at one, perhaps you might be outstanding at another.

Chelsea Warr, UK Sport talent identification lead officer, says one of the main characteristics scouts are looking for is "games intelligence", the innate ability some people have to be in the right place at the right time to take or make a pass or make a tackle. "Coachability" and physical characteristics make up the rest of the package.

They are most likely to get results from diverting people into rowing, handball and volleyball but are also looking at candidates for other sports. But those who have never played any sport should probably not bother applying.

"Could we find a couch potato and take them through to the Olympics - it could happen but it's unlikely."

But there are sports out there where physical characteristics matter more. Basketball scouts from US schools and colleges have always cultivated contacts in Africa, where tall tribes such as the Dinka, have contributed some of the US NBA's best-known players.

Basketball journalist Mark Woods explains: "Particularly in high schools, you hear of someone who is 7ft and they have moulded them into a players."

Zairean Dikembe Mutombo came to the US on a medicine scholarship but was encouraged to take up basketball by college coaches and enjoyed a successful NBA career.

Britain's own basketball star John Amaechi was spotted in Manchester by a coach as a 16-year-old who suggested he took up the game, Woods says.

Elsewhere Dinka tribesman Manute Bol, at 7ft 7in (231cm) one of the tallest players ever to be a professional, was encouraged to come to the US by a visiting college coach.

And there have always been rumours that Chinese superstar Yao Ming's father (reported to be as tall as 6ft 10 in) and his 6ft 3in mother were encouraged in their romance by the Chinese sporting authorities, who dreamed of a future star.

The same authorities will no doubt be delighted that Yao is in a long-term relationship with Ye Li, a 6ft 3in star of the women's game.

There could be some player in the pipeline.


Add your comments using the form below.

Selecting by physical characteristics is less helpful than you might think. Yes - short people face problems excelling as basketball players, but even in that sport there are plenty of opportunities for shorter players with an accurate eye. If you're going to select at all, select for talent - physical limitations can readily be overcome by a determined, hard-working player.
Andy Davies, Albany, NY

I am 5'8", 43 years old and wear glasses. Can you suggest an appropriate sport?
Graham Gunby, Ipswich

The minute I heard the announcment from UK Sport I felt the dreams of many kids who enjoy sport being crushed. Many will wonder what the point is in trying when one of the main sporting bodies in the UK tell you you can't succeed unless you're pushing 6ft. What a way to turn kids of sport, taking away their hope.
Luke Senior, Dewsbury, UK

It's a shame that it takes the Olympics to come to this country before we start to have any really pro-active initiatives to get young people into sport. Even then it's "fast-track" rather then identifying talent and building a professional career out of a young persons skills. Too little too late?
James B, Sheffield, UK

The Olympics are an indecent waste of money and no longer promote the true amatuer ideal. British sport is a joke and asking for tall people to come forward is pure Brasseye. Look at the Aussie model. They enthuse children about sport from an early age and make time for it in schools. We have pop idol and chips and sell off school playing fields and allow Health and Safety to tamper with contact sports and schools promote a "taking part - not winning" mentality. Tell that to Warne and Gilchrist...
Simon, Oxford

Sounds like what the Soviet union used to do, during the cold war, to advertise and promote the well being of its citizens....
Ian, London

What kind of message does this send to kids? To imply that if they're not unusually tall (as is the case in basketball) then it's not worth them even trying. Succeeding in sport should be about talent and personal commitment, not factors that people have no control over. It's very sad that some sports (like basketball) are so skewed against people of average build. It's a good thing that at least some sports have a place for everyone - if they're good enough.
Andrew Cunningham, Cardiff, UK

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