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The toughest Olympians

Joshua Jefferis of Australia practises on the rings during a training session for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Joshua Jefferis of Australia practises on the rings during a training session for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo: Reuters

Over the next fortnight about 10,000 athletes from +200 countries will compete in 36 sports in London's Olympic Games.

But are all events created equal in terms of their physical demands? Is a beach volleyball player made of the same stern stuff as a sprinter?

To win a place on the highest podium and claim gold in any event will undoubtedly demand either a lot of speed, strength or agility, but I think that some events definitely demand more from athletes than others.

Here is my pick of what I think are the Top 5 toughest Olympic events.

1. Weightlifting

Two lifts make up the weightlifting events: the clean and jerk, and the snatch. The snatch is beyond tough. It is highly technical and requires speed and flexibility in the shoulders and hips, paired with world class strength and power from head to toe.

The snatch is performed with a barbell where the lifter starts with an initial drive that comes from the glutes, hamstrings and quads. The lifter extends their body when the barbell reaches their hips. An extension with enough speed and power allows the lifter to drop underneath the barbell essentially catch the barbell. This leaves the lifter in an overhead squat position to stand up and finish the lift with the barbell overhead.

In the gym? The movement is similar to a deadlift into an overhead squat. To master these, you first need to learn these two moves, then progress to a snatch with light weights.

Who to watch in 2012: Behdad Salimi of Iran, who holds the Snatch World Record of 214kgs. And in women's, at 5'1” 53kgs Zulfiya Chinshanlo from Kazakhstan snatched 95kgs on her way to gold.

2. Rowing

This event requires an amount of aerobic fitness that leaves many sports in its wake. Whether you're rowing with two oars (sculling) or single-oar, solo or as part of a team, the required speed, power, strength, and teamwork make it one of the toughest sports in every Olympic Games.

Who to watch in 2012: Male or female, Australia v England is always a tight race.

In the gym? Squats will build the leg strength, and many pulling exercises are a requirement to build back strength. And don't forget the HIIT (high intensity interval training) on the rower.

3. Water Polo

This is a team game that requires cardiovascular fitness, strength, and finesse. Similar to a game of soccer in the water, shoulder, lat and leg strength is key, and athletes possess a gentle touch to pass and catch the ball, then throw and score with power and precision.

In the gym? Much of water polo's action is under the water – kicking, grabbing, holding, and punching 'til it hurts is part of the game. You can't fully prepare in the gym. Mix up your exercises and become an all-around athlete. Hit the weights with intensity, as you need leg and shoulder strength to tread water, and get into the pool and swim with short bursts of intensity.

Who to watch in 2012: Women's Water Polo, USA v Australia will be a battle.

4. The Rings

These are suspended 2.75 metres above the ground, and gymnasts are judged based on strength holds, swings into handstands, and aerial dismounts. All that is required is bodyweight, yet the upper body strength it requires to be successful on the rings is astounding. The Maltese Cross is one of the most difficult upper body moves you will see an athlete perform in all of the Olympics.

In the gym? Pull-ups with isometric holds, along with back, trap, shoulder, forearm, bi/tricep and core strength are all key. Your upper body better be at world-class strength level before you even attempt to grab the rings.

Who to watch in 2012: Chen Yibing from China was the gold medallist in 2008.

5. Running

The 400m butterfly swim and pole vault are incredible feats, as is the variety in the triathlon and decathlon. But this list can't exclude the Men's and Women's 100m run.

It's not just a 100m run – it's a psychological battle that combines technical form at the start, speed, power, and strength. The most popular event in the Olympics lasts under 10 seconds, and standing on the podium and being crowned the fastest in the world makes every winner a part of sporting highlight reels for generations to come. Usain Bolt's world record time of 9.58 seconds was an average of +37km/hr – that is flying fast.

In the gym – If you want to get faster, you have to do the sprint work. HIIT training… hill running, stair running, and practicing quick starts is where all the work lies.

Who to watch: Usain Bolt will create a buzz, but smarter money is backing Jamaican teammate Johan Blake, the reigning world champion who won both the 100m and 200m in the Jamaican trials. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce on the women's side is the Jamaican favourite.

And don't forget about another tough athlete – Leisel Jones. She stood up to a pen used as a sword and finished 5th in the world.

Good luck to all the tough athletes in London 2012.

What do you think is the toughest sport in the Olympics?

31 comments so far

  • Even smarter money is on Yohan Blake!

    Date and time
    August 01, 2012, 3:51PM
    • Just put it on a Jamacian . For a population of less than 3 million its amazing how competitive they are in the athletics considering they are genetically no different to any other west African. Also we are only seeing the best ones there is a whole other bunch that would make a B team and still probably place in a lot of these events they dominate......must be the yams they eat.

      Date and time
      August 01, 2012, 5:45PM
  • Indoor Volleyball, Explosive every 10 seconds for min 1 hour games. Training up to 7 hours a day with ridiculous conditioning. Now that's a tough sport.

    Date and time
    August 01, 2012, 3:55PM
    • Any sport is tough at an elite level, but indoor volleyball can hardly be rated as one of the toughest.

      Date and time
      August 01, 2012, 11:24PM
    • You must be freaking kidding me. Volleyball??

      Its like saying "my job is tough, I work at a pillow factory"

      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 12:31PM
    • Clearly you have not seen INDOOR volleyball at an elite level. I can understand in Australia we have very limited exposure to it and I can assure you that if you had a chance to see an elite team play you would change your opinion. Being slapped in the face with a piece of leather at 120kph+ is not my idea of a pillow fight. These guys are lean, dynamic and powerful, basically as fit as hell with a broad spectrum of athletic ability. The skill set and athleticism involved is extreme and not one dimensional as in cycling or swimming even though the level of fitness by them is also extreme. I picked this sport because of the versatility of the athletes, the time they have to perform and the intricate skills they have to perform in a split second.
      This is only my opinion as there are many great athletes in many great sports.

      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 1:46PM
  • Has to be judo. In what other event can you strangle your opponent unconscious?

    Date and time
    August 01, 2012, 4:05PM
    • I agree: what other sport requires the strength and speed to throw an opponent your own weight and skill to the floor and the technical ability to do it in such a way to score points. Head-shakingly awesome.

      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 6:57AM
  • I don't think you can really say "this events is tougher than this", if any event or sport were easy, everyone would do it. Each one requires a different set of demanding skills, all of them tough, requiring extreme dedication to even hope for a medal.
    It's like comparing a weightlifter to a female gymnast. Both events they compete in are extreme and demand a lot from each participant, and neither could be done to as high a standard by the other.
    I think it's actually kind of lame to say Mr water polo is a better olympian than Mr pole vaulter because Mr reviewer thinks Water Polo is more demanding....just sayin.

    Date and time
    August 01, 2012, 4:30PM
    • It wasn't about who's a "better Olympian", more about how physically demanding each event is compared to the others. Another way of putting it would be: setting aside any questions of skill and subtleties of technique, how physically able do you have to be to even perform the basic actions of the sport at the highest level?

      It's a valid comparison, even though I agree that in some cases it'll always be up for debate (as in your example: how do you rate a weightlifter's strength against a gymnast's flexibility?).

      In other cases, though, it's pretty clear - I don't think anyone will argue that you have to have the physical ability of Usain Bolt to compete in, say, the archery, shooting or dressage (for the horse, let alone the rider).

      Date and time
      August 01, 2012, 5:45PM

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