A roundup of Explainer columns about the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 13 2008 6:57 AM

Explainer's Olympics Roundup

Your questions about the Games, with answers from our archives.

Check out Slate's complete coverage of the Beijing Games. 

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Soaring fireworks, falling records, and cinematic ceremonies marked the first few days of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But what's to come? From gold-medal nibblers to the world's fastest dopers, Slate answers the questions you never thought to ask.  

Online reports have suggested that two members of China's renowned women's gymnastics team are too young to competein the Olympics. China has provided records affirming their athletes' eligibility. Can't we bypass the paper trail and test their age biologically?

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No, we'll have to rely on the records. People don't have biological markers for precise age; there is no human equivalent for tree rings. Gerontologists have tried to measure old age by testing a range of age-related characteristics including hearing loss and joint flexibility, but at best this provides only a measure of "physiological age" instead of calendar years. Other organizations that have to document exact age, such as Guinness World Records, consult several different sources, such as birth certificate, marriage certificate, and photo ID. (For more on how to determine someone's age, read this Explainer from 2006.)

At the 2004 Athens Games, Kenyan men swept the medals in the grueling 3,000-meter steeplechase. Kenya is expected to continue its medal onslaught in long-distance track events in Beijing. Why are Kenyans such successful long-distance runners?

High altitude, running culture, and good genes. Most of Kenya's future Olympians were raised at high altitude, where running builds greater lung capacity as athletes grow accustomed to the thinner air. Some Kenyan children run 10 miles a day, in the hopes of  using endurance running as a ticket out of poverty. More obscure theories have credited cattle herding and circumcision rituals for the Kenyans' success. (For more on why Kenyans are faster, read this Explainer from 2003.)

Runners Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, and Tyson Gay—first, second, and third all-time in the 100 meters—are set to race in what should be the fastest 100-meter dash in history. The Jamaican Bolt just set the world record in June, but many are predicting it won't last the Olympics. Just how accurate are the devices used to measure the fastest men on earth?

They can record to the ten-thousandth of a second. Every track (and lane) differs in length by a tiny amount, so two runners racing at exactly the same speed might cross the finish line with times that differ by a fraction of a second. That's why times at short events are measured to the thousandth of a second but reported to the hundredth. Longer races require less precise times. Officials can hand-time all races longer than 800 meters. (For more on track and field record measurements, read this Explainer from 2005.)

You've seen it a hundred times: An athlete, flush from Olympic victory, wins the gold medal and nibbles on it like a chew toy in front of the cameras. Why are athletes always biting their gold medals?

Theoretically to test their purity, but probably because everybody else is doing it. In their pure forms, gold and silver are actually "soft" enough to make tooth marks. In principle, you could use the "bite test" to see if a medal were pure, 24-karat gold. Of course, the Olympic gold medal isn't pure gold anyway. So Olympians can't really test the purity of the medal without a lot of practice. (For more on why athletes nibble their medals, read this Explainer from 2006.)

Beijing Olympics officials established a gender determination lab in July to investigate whether some suspect female athletes are actually men. Is a "gender test" as simple as it sounds?

No. You can't tell just by looking at genitalia because a person's anatomy might not match their chromosomes. But you can't simply count the X chromosomes, because some women have only one X and some biological males are XXY. Today the International Olympic Committee relies on a panel of specialists to account for all these ambiguities. Athletes who have undergone sex reassignment are allowed to compete alongside their new gender, provided they follow regulations. (For more on gender tests at the Olympics, read this Explainer from 2006.)