Small towns, big pro fodder

ALISON KORN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:16 AM ET

Sorry, Toronto, but smaller cities are more likely to produce elite athletes.

That is according to research by York University professor Joe Baker, who also investigated the effect of birth dates among top athletes.

People have been talking about athletes and birth date recently due to the popular book Outliers: The Story of Success in which Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell has a section on the significance of birth dates on future hockey paths.

Research shows those born earlier in the year are more likely to excel than their peers born later in the year. The same thing happens in soccer, field hockey, cricket and baseball.

But what people aren't talking about is the finding that birth place actually matters more than birth date for the achievement of sporting expertise.

A 2005 study in the Journal of Sport Sciences found that the optimal community size for the development of a professional athlete is greater than 1,000 but less than 500,000 -- places where children enjoy more space and unstructured play compared to urban centres.

"Smaller cities present fewer safety concerns, better access to open spaces, and less competing sources of leisure time use by children," the study notes. "The (birthplace) effect could be mainly due to skill acquisition related to the quality and quantity of play and practice afforded by the physical environment of smaller cities."

As well, "there may also be greater diversity in player size and ability in small cities, since all the children from the neighbourhood gather to play together independent of age and ability." This environment may allow young athletes to better develop expertise in their sports.

The study looked at the birthplace and birth month of American players in the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and Professional Golfers' Association, and Canadian players in the NHL.

Results showed that the ranks of elite athletes were over-represented in cities of fewer than 500,000 and under-represented in cities of 500,000 or more, in all the sports studied.

Birth month affected all sports studied, except golf and basketball.

The study's lead author was Queen's University sports psychologist Jean Cote, with Baker from York U credited as co-author along with Bruce Abernethy of the University of Hong Kong's Institute of Human Performance and Dany J. MacDonald from Queen's.

The birth-place results confirmed a 1987 study on Olympic and NHL players whose authors, J.E. Curtis and J. S. Birch, suggested that "top players are more likely to come from communities large enough to build rinks but not so large that the demand for ice time outweighs the opportunities to skate."

Guide gets medals

Last week, I reported on the frustration of blind runner Jason Dunkerley, who had decided to boycott a prestigious awards gala in Toronto next month because his guide runner -- with whom he has won three Paralympic medals -- was not considered an athlete.

Well, a change of heart from the Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons that is hosting the annual Great Valentine Gala means that Dunkerley's running guide of 10 years, Greg Dailey, has now been invited to attend as a full athlete and to receive his own award.

"I'm very encouraged that Greg is going to receive the recognition that he deserves," Dunkerley said. "I hope we can continue to build consensus in Canada and internationally about the importance of recognizing guide runners in the same way as the blind athletes they guide. I think this helps to set a precedent."

Indeed, the topic of awarding medals to guide runners is now on the agenda for the governing board meeting of the International Paralympic Committee in March, thanks to Dunkerley's stand.

Vim Kochur, head of the foundation, consulted with Patrick Jarvis, an IPC board member based in Calgary. Jarvis explained that because of the rapid growth of the Paralympic movement, not all sports are at the same point of evolution, "so you have some inequities."

"Organizing committees used to provide guides," Jarvis said. "At that time, it didn't make sense to give the guide a medal, whereas now they're obviously an integral part of the entire program."


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