Why I look up to many Czechs


The Czechs are one of the world’s tallest nations. In fact when I first came here I found it slightly disconcerting. On a good day I’m 5 feet 10 inches, and I was used to feeling I was of average height in Ireland.

However, next to many Czech people I suddenly felt short, an unpleasant feeling I thought I had left behind forever after a late but much-welcomed spurt of growth at around 16 years of age.

According to a piece in the newspaper Hospodářské noviny a few days ago, the average height of a Czech man today is 180 cm. That’s the equivalent of 5 feet 10, so to my surprise I am (almost) averagely tall here after all. Nevertheless, I do see a lot more really big guys in the Czech Republic than I ever saw at home.

Apparently the average český muž reached only 168 cm in 1895, the first year somebody thought to measure such things. An academic at a university in Munich, John Komlos, says that in those days the Czechs were among the shortest nations in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Today’s average of 180 cm puts the Czechs near the top of the international tall table, in the same bracket as the Swedes and the Norwegians. But all three nations have to look up at a slight angle at the Danes and the Dutch, whose average is 185 cm.

The average woman in the Czech Republic, by the way, measures 168 cm, compared to the 170 cm of her sisters in Denmark and the Netherlands.

While I'm on the subject, it often strikes me that Czech politicians are an unusually tall bunch. Leaders of all kinds no doubt are taller in many countries, but sometimes when you see footage of ministers in Prague gathering for a cabinet meeting or what they call a “family photo” it can look like a kind of giants’ convention.

One Prague based scientist told Hospodářské noviny that average growth tends to occur in fits and starts, and after a period of sprouting the Czechs are currently “stagnating” in this respect. While in the 20th century there was growth of one or two centimetres every ten years, there has been none in the last decade.

Professor John Komlos in Munich says he believes one reason that Czechs are so tall is that society here is relatively balanced, with comparatively small differences in the living conditions of different classes. Only the Japanese, he says, are better off in this regard.

Decent health care is another factor, says Professor Komlos. In fact, he says, the large number of people without health insurance in the United States has contributed to the fact that Americans are no longer, as they once were, taller than Europeans.