The Year the Olympics Went (Really) Hi-Tech

NASA-inspired sneaker soles, ping-pong paddles that whip the ball, "ballistic" artificial kayak courses...

By Gregory MoneAug 8, 2008 5:00 AM


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The spirit of the Olympics may date back to ancient times, but its methods have evolved since a bunch of leather-clad Greek men broke each others’ fingers in wrestling matches. For all the political controversy, the 2008 Beijing Olympics might be most notable as the games that went high-tech. The torch was designed by the personal computer manufacturer Lenovo. Some events will take place in an aquatics center inspired by the Weaire-Phelan structure, a physics model that describes how soap bubbles form. But the real impact of science and technology will play out on the fields and the track and in the pool.

The International Olympic Committee tries to ensure that the competition is between athletes and not their gear. That has not stopped manufacturers and coaches from seeking technological advantages, however. For example, a software package called Dartfish is standard training equipment among U.S. athletes; it enables coaches to record an athlete in action, then instantly review the performance, freezing a frame to highlight a glitch. After immediate feedback, the athlete can head right back out and make the necessary adjustment—and study the results later at home by means of the system’s Web-publishing feature. Johnson & Johnson is working with various teams to improve athletes’ visual skills. And other programs are double top secret: Jim Miller, the endurance programs director for USA Cycling, will not divulge the advanced training techniques his group has developed until after the Games.

Sometimes the newest, coolest gear is only marginally better than what it replaces. But technological one-upmanship may confer a psychological advantage. Brent Rushall, a human performance expert and sports psychology professor emeritus at San Diego State University, says athletes can perform worse if they believe the competition has significantly better equipment. The most telling case may be in the pool. Some swimmers have called for Speedo’s reengineered suit to be banned, since sponsorship affiliations may force them to wear a different brand. Others insist that the emphasis on space-age materials in swimming and in other sports is overblown. “It always comes back to the ability of the athlete,” says Tom Parrish, leader of the U.S. Olympic archery team.

Heart-stopping contests and photo-finish races are a given at the Olympics, but 2008 is a year of more subtle competitions, too. Look for who sports that new Speedo suit, how kayakers fare on the faster artificial whitewater course, whether U.S. cyclists can transform lighter wheels into bigger leads. This is your guide to the science and technology face-off, the match within the match.

Table tennis: watch for . . . Both the ball’s spin—its action as it bounces off the table—and its speed. Given the speed, you’ll need to wait for the instant replays.

Table Tennis Don’t call it Ping–Pong. Modern table tennis is one of the world’s most popular sports, and a match between top-notch competitors looks like a hard-court tennis game played in fast-forward. The ball jumps off the paddle at up to 60 miles an hour and can spin as fast as 9,000 revolutions per minute. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the paddles used at the highest levels don’t much resemble the busted-up wooden things sitting on the average basement pong table. “More spin and more speed are demanded than 10 years ago,” says Junichi Toda, an engineer at Killerspin, a Chicago-based equipment maker.

Teodor Gheorghe, technical director of U.S. Table Tennis, says all the top players use advanced paddles, so it’s hard for one player to gain a technological edge. One of the new Killerspin models is covered with a dense synthetic rubber that offers more surface tension. Because the molecules are packed closer together than in standard rubber, Toda says, there are more particles to grip the ball, and a player can transfer more spin with the same swing. Competition rules specify that the blade must be at least 85 percent natural wood. Inside the wood, though, you might find a hybrid titanium-carbon layer. The carbon fiber adds speed, while the titanium “bends like a bow and shoots a ball as if shooting an arrow,” Toda says. Killerspin is also incorporating a new material called Texalium, a glass fiber with an aluminum coating. It is supposed to improve defensive play because it gives and is therefore more effective at absorbing the impact of a ball.

Image Speedo©

Swimming: watch for . . . New gear from Mizuno, Nike, and others, who are debuting their own space-age swimsuits. Look for who wears what—and who wins—to see if suits really matter.

Swimming For the second time in as many Games, Speedo has triumphantly trotted out a revolutionary space-age swimsuit, and in the months leading up to Beijing, the LZR Racer didn’t make waves just in the pool. It generated serious controversy, too.

The suit, which leaves the arms and shoulders exposed but extends to the swimmer’s ankles, features a series of polyurethane-based, millimeter-thick panels designed to reduce drag. Watch a swimmer in a traditional suit pushing off a wall and you’ll notice a kind of rippling effect in the muscles—even if the swimmer has almost zero body fat. Speedo ran computational fluid dynamics tests to identify these drag hot spots, then placed panels in parts of the suit that cover the chest, thighs, and other friction spots to cancel out the ripple.

At press time, swimmers wearing the LZR Racer had broken 37 world records since the February unveiling, causing many to cry technological foul. Others say that Speedo’s claims about the suit’s performance-enhancing, drag-reducing capabilities are marketing double-talk rather than real science. Rushall insists that the faster times should be attributed to recent advances in stroke mechanics and training techniques; freestyl­ers, for example, have stopped pulling through an S-shaped curve, adopting a straighter, more powerful path for each stroke. Anything that gives swimmers a psychological boost is more important than the new suits, Rushall argues. “If I could get the top 100 swimmers in the world to swim with their faces painted red,” he says, “I could make the same claims as Speedo.

Image courtesy of Lew Racing

Cycling: watch for . . . How the cyclists fare on the climbing portions of the road race—and whether the U.S. riders outduel the competition up the hills, where weight savings are crucial.

Cycling The focus this year is not on the bike—it’s on the wheels. USA Cycling turned to aerospace engineer Paul Lew for lighter, stronger wheels. What’s an aircraft guy doing in cycling? Lew says bicycles and airplanes are similar in that a reduction in weight and increase in strength should automatically enhance performance.

The spokes of his new wheel, the VT-1, have an airfoil shape. Since they taper to a sharp edge, they are aerodynamically more efficient than standard cylindrical spokes. But the real advance is in the material. Lew is using a new boron-based composite—something he first started experimenting with while building unmanned aerial vehicles, including the Inventus class of long-range, autonomous surveillance planes. The boron composite, he says, is three times as strong as carbon fiber of the same weight. Although he has extensively tested his wheel in wind tunnels and other environments, Lew isn’t releasing the data yet. The principle is simple, however: By applying the same force to less mass, riders should be able to generate more acceleration.

Each U.S. cyclist will get a custom-made set of VT-1s, but if you want your own, prepare to open your wallet. The first commercial wheels, which will be available after the Games, could go for as much as $15,000 a pair.

Archery: watch for . . . How training affects the archers’ form: A balanced, solid stance is critical, and some coaches differ on how much weight athletes should place on their front, or leading, foot

Archery Not to knock the world’s best-known archer—the dashing Legolas of the Lord of the Rings movies, who launches arrows on the move and from all positions—but the Olympic Games reward consistency. Every archer stands the same way, the same distance from the same target. “Archery is a sport of accuracy and repetition,” says George Tekmitchov, an engineer at Hoyt, a bow manufacturer in Salt Lake City. The goal for engineers, therefore, is to design bows that behave the same way every time; an archer who trains in an arid climate, for instance, shouldn’t have to adjust his form to account for Beijing’s expected humidity. As a result, today’s top bows typically have a core of syntactic foam. This material is light and strong, made up of tiny, hollow spheres that don’t change volume when the temperature spikes or drops, thus keeping the bow’s behavior constant. One of Hoyt’s latest bows, the 900CX, aims for a slight edge in the technology race by replacing the typical fiberglass outer coating with a much lighter synthetic polymer and using a higher percentage of carbon fiber inside. The advantage of the new bow, Tekmitchov says, is higher efficiency. “It transfers more energy to the shot instead of wasting it on bending the thing.”

But the best bow in the world won’t help poor form. U.S. team leader Parrish, who is also high-performance manager for USA Archery, the sport’s governing body, says the group recently brought in a high-speed video camera that captures 1,200 frames per second. This is hardly overkill, given that the arrow flies from the bow at 220 feet per second; it moves two inches from one frame to the next. The new camera allows coaches to analyze minute errors in an archer’s technique. “You can actually see the arrow coming out of the bow,” Parrish says.

Tennis: watch for . . . The close calls. Twice in each match, players will be allowed to challenge the human judge’s ruling and leave it up to artificial intelligence.

Tennis They may as well just start calling it nanotennis. At Beijing, the players’ rackets will incorporate materials that filter vibrations, allowing only certain frequencies to flow through to their hands, and titanium nanofibers that impart extra strength without adding weight. Dunlop and Head, two major racket manufacturers, are also touting the use of aerogel —the incredibly low-density solid that NASA used to collect comet particles as part of its Stardust mission—in their latest models. The material is supposed to impart stiffness without increasing weight and distribute the impact of a ball better throughout the racket head. The companies say this translates to more power and better feel.

Nevertheless, the game’s most visible scientific upgrade may not be in the equipment but in the officiating. Tennis at the 2008 Olympics will feature the Hawk-Eye computerized line judge system. Hawk-Eye, which made its Wimbledon debut last year, calculates the flight path of a ball by estimating its 3-D position from a series of snapshots taken by as many as 10 cameras. The system then projects the path forward to the point at which the ball hits the ground, objectively revealing whether it struck in or out.

Running: watch for . . . How the runners' feet strike the ground in the longer races. The top competitors should barely touch with their heels. Newton running shoes accentuate this form in elite runners and encourage it in those with less-than-perfect technique.

RunningNike’s Zoom Victory should make the most noise on the track, as the company’s new-tech shoes have at recent Olympics. The lightweight track shoe gets its support from 116 cables spun out of Vectran—the same material NASA used in the air bags that cushioned the Spirit and Opportunity rovers when they landed on Mars. While Nike’s shoes may draw the most attention, though, a small company in Boulder, Colorado, called Newton Running is trying to have a much larger impact on the sport.

Founder Danny Abshire, a longtime running coach and orthotics expert, has been working for more than a decade on a shoe that makes you feel as if you’re running barefoot. He says most runners have poor form: They strike with their heels first and opt for a longer stride instead of higher turnover. When running barefoot, though, you tend to correct these errors, so the Newton shoes encourage a more efficient gait by tricking the foot into thinking it is naked. The forefoot section of the shoe’s sole includes four small rubber blocks that move up and down relative to the rest of the shoe. When you hit the ground, the lugs press against a stretchable membrane below your foot, which then pushes back as you launch into the next step. “It’s basically an energy storage and retrieval system,” Abshire says. Several world-class triathletes have tested the Newton in major races and significantly dropped their times.

Whitewater kayaking: watch for . . . The gates. Paddlers are penalized for hitting or missing gates as they race down. Shorter boats should improve handling, helping the kayakers stay on course, but the faster artificial river will do its best to throw them off.

Whitewater Kayaking Since the 2000 Olympics, the whitewater kayaking event has moved from natural rivers to artificial courses in which the water’s speed and flow, the height of waves, and the obstacles can all be adjusted. These man-made rivers are narrower, and their smooth concrete floors make for a course that is faster and less turbulent than nature’s waterways. Scott Shipley, a three-time Olympian in the event, says the races are now a bit more like cycling. The boats move so fast that you can bank into turns instead of just paddling through them. He calls the event “ballistic.”

The Beijing course will be one-of-a-kind—the Chinese redesigned it after an exact replica of their course was built in the Netherlands. That might sound like a serious home-court advantage, but U.S. kayakers should be well prepared. Shipley designed a course in Charlotte, North Carolina, that several national teams, including the U.S. squad, have been using to train. A pneumatic pump inflates bladders along the bottom to change its shape and, consequently, the form of the waves on the surface. Obstacles can easily be switched around, and pinball-style paddles extending from the walls squeeze the water in spots, altering both its flow and its height.

The courses aren’t the only big change in the event. Paddlers will also be able to race in boats that are 11/2 feet shorter than at the last Games—they lobbied for the change so they could better maneuver the boats through the trickier artificial courses. The kayaks have to weigh at least 19 pounds, but John Brennan, a coach and boat designer in Durango, Colorado, says builders will typically aim to come in a few ticks below that limit, then add weight to the rider’s seat. By moving more mass to the middle, Brennan says, you make it easier for the boat to swing around its center of gravity. He says this kind of design trick, combined with the shorter, 2008-model kayaks, have made the sport far more dynamic. “These guys are doing moves that honestly just blow you away,” he says.

Volleyball: watch for . . . High-arcing set shots. See if the ball moves around due to turbulence. Study how the players position the ball on their serve and whether they are using the ball’s new seams effectively to generate more spin.

Volleyball In Beijing the human pogo sticks known as volleyball players will have to pay attention to more than just their opponents. They will also be striking a new kind of ball. Mikasa, a leading equipment manufacturer, has produced two new models, one for the indoor event and another for the beach. The outdoor version has a water-wicking outer material that prevents the ball from absorbing moisture—and gaining weight—during a match. It also has a new stitch pattern that, combined with smaller threads, does a better job at keeping sand out of the seams.

The indoor ball is radically different too. The biggest change is its newly dimpled, golf-ball-like surface. Tiny divots reduce the ball’s aerodynamic drag and, according to Mikasa, allow it to fly truer through the air. The dimples also increase the surface area that comes into contact with players’ hands, which should give the competitors more control.

U.S. men’s head coach Hugh McCutch­eon says that Mikasa’s aesthetic alterations are significant too. The company switched the ball’s panels to a swirling pattern. McCutcheon thinks that because of the resulting change in the seams, a player can actually produce more spin by hitting the new ball in certain spots rather than others. Mikasa has shipped each national team a set of practice balls to give players time to adjust, which McCutcheon says is critical. “When you are trying to win medals,” he says, “the way the ball plays is a big part.”

Field hockey: watch for . . . How the ball hydroplanes over the surface of the field, and whether Nike’s new cleats prevent the players from slipping.

Field Hockey For several years China has been touting its plans to host an environmentally friendly Olympics. In field hockey, that means reducing water consumption. Matches are held on artificial turf that is watered heavily prior to the game and during halftime. The watering speeds up play, allowing the ball to hydroplane across the thin layer of moisture at the surface, but a single game might use as many as 15,000 gallons. A giant water footprint doesn’t exactly scream Earth Day.

In Beijing players will be racing across a new surface developed by chemical engineer Martin Schlegel and his team at Advanced Polymer Technology in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and their subsidiary in Australia. With more efficient drainage, the company’s system cuts water consumption by 40 percent. And the rubber subsurface—which Schlegel says absorbs more force than standard artificial fields and should thus reduce player injuries—has an elastic layer made from recycled materials. But this is the Olympics, after all, so the new field isn’t all about minimizing environmental impact. It’s designed to improve play as well. Accordingly, Schlegel opted for turf that’s denser than the standard surface. The last Olympic field used 55,000 stitches per square meter; the new one uses 75,000. This increase should result in a more uniform field that allows the ball, when struck, to keep on a straight path instead of being nudged in one direction or another by the fake grass blades. It has also forced shoe designers to adjust: Nike footwear design director Sean McDowell says the company tested 20 prototypes on the Beijing turf before choosing a shoe that the players said gave them the best grip, enabling faster cuts.

BMX: watch for . . . Who wins the gold in the unofficial fashion event, but study those first five seconds of the race, too. Whoever leads into the first turn has the best chance to stand atop the podium.

BMX As part of an ongoing effort to make the Olympics more appealing to young people, this year’s Games will feature BMX, or bicycle motocross. Make no mistake, though: The riders are true athletes. BMX experts say their racers rank with the top Olympic participants in terms of strength-to-weight ratio.

A BMX race is an all-out sprint around a dirt track full of tight turns, bumps, and jumps. Typically, the tracks start on flat ground, so the most powerful riders, those who generate the most acceleration in the first few cranks of their pedals, have the advantage. That’s why strength is so critical. In Beijing, though, BMXers will start at the top of a 30-foot-high ramp. Because all of the competitors get the same gravity assist, the riders with the biggest kick will lose their advantage. But the U.S. Olympic Committee wasn’t going to let this procedural change hurt its team; the organization commissioned a near replica of the Beijing track in Chula Vista, California, for training.

This year’s BMX bikes feature advanced materials; one manufacturer says its high-tech construction method allows it to strengthen the frames at stress points with stiffer carbon fiber and to use lighter blends in other spots to save weight. But overall the sci-tech craze hasn’t hit BMX as hard as it has road cycling. In fact, when the Australian Olympic team tested out skintight aerodynamic bike suits at a recent competition, they were mocked by fans. “The skin suits made them look silly,” says U.S. National Bicycle League official Justin Travis. The sport’s international governing body subsequently banned the slick outfits: In BMX, speed is important, but you’ve got to look good, too.

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