Lofty discussions | Morales’s maneuvering in Zurich earns reprieve for La Paz

From the perspective of science, whether Bolivians maintain a physical advantage over opponents in competitive football at altitude is difficult to establish with certainty. Ávila posits that the benefit is more psychological. Bolivian players based abroad themselves must make the physical readjustment when playing in high-altitude games. Dwellers at high altitude, according to U.S. Olympic Committee physiologist Jay Kearney (see Mark Zeigler, “Altitude Sickness,” San Diego Union-Tribune, Jul 4), face the reverse challenge of acclimatizing to venues at sea level.

Nevertheless, Estádio Hernando Siles in La Paz, at 3,636m, is known as El Nido del Condor (The Condor’s Nest) to accentuate the air of intimidation. And in the course of 11,000 years of human habitation in the high Andes, scientists suggest that native dwellers have developed higher concentrations of hemoglobin in the blood (Mark S. Aldenderfer, “Moving Up in the World,” American Scientist 91 [Nov-Dec 03]: 542–49). Humans have evolved at low altitudes for the most part, making high-altitude life both a physiological and cultural adjustment.

To live permanently and thrive at high elevation, a person must have two things: a set of physiological adaptations to cope with the reduced availability of oxygen and a suite of cultural adaptations to cope with the harsh environment. These include, at a minimum, fire, effective clothing and a reliable set of tools for eking out a living. Hunting and gathering people, who were the first inhabitants of the high plateaus, also had to work out patterns of seasonal movement that minimized exposure to environmental hazards while simultaneously providing them with sufficient calories. (544)

Whether the cultural evolution encompasses an advanced capacity for scoring goals is another question.

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