Fitness: Stretch your legs by watching these unsung Olympic sports

The Tokyo Olympics are almost upon us, which means getting reacquainted with sports we see only once every four years. To help expand your horizons beyond high-profile events like basketball, gymnastics, swimming, and diving here are what it takes to become an Olympian at three sports that are less likely to grab the headlines.

Canada has a good chance at a podium finish in the 50 km race walking event, with Evan Dunfee hoping to improve on his fourth-place result at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. At 186 cm (6 foot 1) and 67 kg (147 pounds), 30-year-old Dunfee has the lean physique needed to excel at an event for which his personal best is 3:41.38.

Vancouver is Canada’s hotbed for up-and-coming race walkers, with the sport introduced to children in primary and secondary schools. According to Dunfee’s coach, Gerry Dragomir, race walkers pick up the necessary skills during their late teens and peak in their mid-20s to mid-30s.

The rules of the sport are quite particular, with one foot required to be on the ground at all times and the front leg straight as it makes contact with the pavement. Competitive distances at the Olympic level are 20 km and 50 km, and demand superior aerobic endurance combined with the ability to sustain high levels of effort over long periods of time. Speed in race walking is all about stride length and cadence, with the average elite race walker taking about 200 strides a minute.

Dragomir says race walkers also need the mental and physical fortitude to withstand walking the equivalent of several marathons a week and the sense of body movement necessary to maintain a competitive pace without breaking into a jog. They accumulate anywhere from 120 to 160 km of training miles weekly, often with more than one workout a day, along with time in the gym. The path to excellence for race walkers is a long one.

Canadians to watch: Evan Dunfee, Mathieu Bilodeau

Table tennis
The table tennis you’ll see in Tokyo is very different from the games played in your parents’ basement. Games are now played to 11 instead of 21, which makes the matches shorter and more intense. The ball is bigger (40 mm instead of the traditional 38 mm), which slows downplay just enough to make rallies longer and the game more enjoyable to watch. The average rally is about 3.5 seconds of intense play, with early-round games lasting anywhere from three to six minutes and a best-of-seven series around 20 to 25 minutes. As players move along in the tournament and are competing against opponents of more equal skill, matches last about an hour.

Table tennis is played in singles, teams, and, for the first time in Tokyo, mixed doubles that play a best-of-five series. Team play involves three athletes who compete in four games of singles and one doubles match.

According to Dejan Papic, high-performance consultant for Table Tennis Canada, most elite players pick up the game playing with their siblings or parents before joining a local club. Talent identification in Canada starts at about 12 — well after Japan and China, which start grooming future table tennis athletes by the age of three or four.

Papic says table tennis players need explosive strength and speed at the elite level, along with muscular and cardiovascular endurance and superior reaction time, as the ball travels at high speeds over a very short distance. It’s not unusual for top players to spend four hours a day practicing, with several of the best players in the world spending closer to seven hours a day perfecting their skills. Two of Canada’s Olympians are in their mid-30s, but most players are at their physiological peak in their mid-to-late 20s.

Water polo
The last time our national women’s team qualified for the Olympics was in 2004 in Athens, and the men in 2008 in Beijing, so it’s been a while since Canadians have had the opportunity to watch this physically demanding sport. The women qualified this year; their game is played in a 25-meter pool and features four eight-minute quarters, with six field players and a goalie.

Water polo players are good swimmers, but they also need superior ball-handling skills, game sense, and a high level of aerobic fitness. According to Nishant Damani, technical adviser for Ontario Water Polo, ball skills can be learned at an older age but young players need to enter the sport to be able to move efficiently in the water.

“Water polo players need to cover a lot of space with minimal movement,” says Damani.

A typical game requires periods of high-intensity play, sprinting the length of the pool at top speeds, followed by more moderate-intensity activities like passing and shooting. There are a lot of body types in the water, as different positions demand different levels of strength, size, and body mass. That said, height is always an asset, as it helps players reach and control passes.

Centre forwards and central defenders are involved in more grappling-type movements — water polo is a contact sport — in addition to swimming and shooting, while players on the outside spend more time sprinting up and down the pool. Core strength and stability are important, as is leg strength, in powering the upper body out of the water for a long pass or shot on the net.

Canada’s elite players train in the pool seven to nine times a week, putting in their share of two-a-day practices. Gym workouts are also important, with muscular strength and endurance a key focus. The average age of entry to the sport is around 11, with most athletes specializing by their early teens. Elite players reach their peak in their mid- to late 20s, though it’s not unusual to see professional players in their 30s.

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