Sweat Tech

This year's Olympics are a showcase of science as well as skill

By David Ewing DuncanSep 1, 2000 5:00 AM


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If U.S. athletes bring home gold from the Sydney Olympics, a lot of the credit may be owed to the accelerating presence of high technology, which is radically remaking games that just a few years ago were proudly amateur and lacking in the gee-whiz science that can shave seconds off event times. "Technology is reshaping most sports," says Lance Williams, program administrator at the United States Olympic Committee's $2.2 million, state-of-the-art sports science division. Employing more than 25 people to assist 45 U.S. teams, the division's biomechanists, physiologists, engineers, and psychologists are augmented by dozens of tech-smart specialists on individual teams and at such equipment makers as Nike, Adidas, and GT Bicycles. Critics contend that technology's cutting edge is fast overtaking the human edge in creating stellar performances. But coaches, officials, and sports scientists insist that old-fashioned talent and grit remain the most important ingredients. "You still have to sweat," says Jeffrey P. Broker, a USOC biomechanist based in Colorado Springs. "No technology is going to do that for you." Not yet anyway.

Slip Sliding AwayWhen U.S. breaststroker Ed Moses flings himself into the cornflower-blue water of the Sydney International Aquatic Center, the only skin showing will be on his face and below his elbows and knees. Looking like a sleek Teletubby in his Teflon-coated, formfitting bodysuit, Moses will glide through water with greater efficiency and more speed than did former Olympians clad in skimpier suits. His Adidas-made supersuit is designed to put pressure on appropriate spots on the body to maintain proper technique. The tight-fitting fabric around his biceps and thighs reduces muscle vibration, and hence fatigue.

It's in the BagOlympian boxer David Jackson's punch power is measured using an instrumented heavy bag, exclusive to the U.S. team, which looks like a normal punching bag. Except engineers at the USOC workshop in Colorado Springs have embedded a PVC pipe inside running the length of the bag. It houses a device called an accelerometer, a three-inch wafer of circuitry and wires that translates the pounding of a jab or a hook into schematics displayed on a computer screen.

Videotape shot while the boxer bashes the souped-up bag is run on the same screen in tandem with numbers and graphics, a juxtaposition that allows coach and athlete to critique the athlete's punch effectiveness— his stance, arm motion, and attitude. "I think the boxers are getting stronger and better because of this bag," says David Lubs, director of programs for the U.S. boxing team.

Piercing the WindCome September in the down-under world of Sydney, the air blows with ferocity, averaging 24 miles per hour. At nearby Homebush Bay, where archers will compete, winds frequently gust up to 50 mph. Such force can play havoc with a slender shaft zipping along at more than 130 mph toward a target 230 feet away.

"Oh, baby, the wind was impressive," says Don Rabska, a former archer and the coach of movie-star archer Geena Davis, who competed in an Olympic test tournament in Sydney a year ago. "On one of the practice days, when I was standing with Geena, I was literally blown off the line. It was howling!"

To help the arrows fly true, U.S. archers will be using weeny one-fifth-inch diameter shafts weighted in the front with heavier-than-steel tungsten points. Manufactured by Easton Archery of Salt Lake City, Utah, the X-10 arrows are made from the latest aluminum-carbon hybrid, with slippery carbon-graphite coatings that help reduce drag.

Straight ShotLast January Olympic shooter Bob Foth was off his usual mark while firing his .22 caliber rifle in the prone position. To find out why, he visited engineer Tim Conrad at the U.S. Olympics Center in Colorado Springs. Conrad clipped a tiny 120-gram diode laser to the bottom of Foth's weapon.

As Conrad demonstrates, when the weapon is fired, a laser beams along the exact trajectory of the bullet as it zings at 750 miles per hour to the target, situated 50 meters (165 feet) away. The beam is concentrated to strike at the bullet's exact point of impact.

The laser is used concurrently with videotape to check shooters' aim before and during a shot and how much they sway while pulling the trigger. Heart monitors strapped to the gunners' chests also measure the impact of pulse rates on accuracy. For optimal results, shooters must remain as still as a stone while firing; one minute of arc can make the crucial difference between a gold medal and no medal at all.

For Foth, a three-time Olympian, the lasers revealed that his stance, pulse rate, and gun harness were fine. The trouble was that his ammunition was firing slightly off: "Using good ammo, he improved," says Conrad.

I'm Gonna Learn How to FlyFor the pole vault, biomechanists are testing the bend and verticality of poles in an effort to further thwart gravity. They videotape vaulters and use the tape to build computer models that analyze the bend and motion of poles and the style and placement of the athletes in order to help heave humans ever higher.

The garb worn by track-and-field athletes has undergone some radical remodeling to enhance performance. When Florence Griffith Joyner broke the world record for the 100-meter dash, her body was moving at close to 22 miles per hour. But her legs whipped back and forth at up to 50 mph. "The legs are in a different airflow environment, so we are focusing on making the legs more aerodynamic," says USOC biomechanist Jeff Broker. This year in Sydney some runners and jumpers will be wearing special bodysuits by Nike that will cut down on the wind resistance of skin against air, with the possibility of improving times by valuable fractions of seconds, depending on the competition.

To cut times in sprint and hurdle events, athletes' shoes have been pared away so that they now amount to lightweight "socks with spikes attached," according to triple-jump coach Dick Booth. At Sydney, his jumpers plan to use another innovation: ultralight spikes made of ceramics rather than metal that help launch athletes off the rubber tracks more easily and efficiently.

Everything Old is New AgainAt the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, cyclists with teardrop-shaped helmets and ultratight bodysuits rode machines only vaguely resembling anything hitherto called a bicycle. As if tiny front wheels, ultralight Kevlar frames, and almost paper-thin chain casings and tubes were not enough, engineers of the SuperBike also placed the handlebars so radically far forward that cyclists crouched with buttocks high in the air, thus reducing wind resistance and cutting some times by several seconds. The SuperBike stirred an uproar— few teams could afford its high price— and the Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport's governing body, banned it from competition.

In Sydney, the old bicycle— or something very close to it— is back. According to the UCI's regulations, cycles must have a diamond-shaped frame, equal-sized wheels, and handlebars closer to the oldfangled, upright position. Many U.S. Olympians will be riding GT's new SuperBike III (the 1996 SuperBike was actually number two in the series), a machine that pushes the UCI regulations to the max. Although it looks like the older "bike," it has a more aerodynamic frame and silk tires pumped to 250 pounds pressure per square inch. U.S. cyclists also will be wearing improved suits with the seams sewn out of the airflow to reduce friction. The slipperier-than-skin suits may cut times by as much as one to three seconds.

Sticking to Your OarsTo train Olympic eight-person rowing crews, scientists mounted a plastic box the size of a paperback book and weighing just 1.4 pounds right behind the coxswain's seat. As muscles strain and water spews in a spray from the ends of the oars, the box pings a signal that relays sensor-collected data through a small antenna to a fancy laptop on the coach's boat.

Attached to the oars and their mechanisms, the sensors help create a biomechanical profile of each crew member's contribution to the boat's speed and acceleration. "We are looking for force, power, curve, and synchronicity," says USOC biomechanist Jeff Broker. The sensors assess each oar's force and angle, producing charts that reveal who is pulling more than the others.

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