Olympic Science

According to an opening ceremony that alternated between fun and ludicrous themed dancing to a nightmarish hell-scape, many things and people lurk behind the scenes of the London Olympics. The only science to get a shout-out in the excruciatingly long ceremony was factories and texting, but that’s OK: the rest of the games will be packed full of science goodness.

The influence of sports science is obvious in several events: each Olympics features a brand new, cutting edge, totally space-age Speedo suit nearly guaranteed to help swimmers reach for the gold. In swimming events, even a hundredth of a second can, and has, been the difference between gold and silver. A suit that enhances the athlete’s performance can play a crucial role in determining the outcome of the race. Scientists working for Speedo spend the years between Olympics applying knowledge of the mechanics of swimming to further refine their suits. Not every change is a good one, though. The shark skin suit that was inspired by actual shark skin and dominated the pool in Australia was found to hinder athlete performance slightly.

Leaving the pool behind, sports science permeates almost every aspect of the games, from nutritionists determining the ideal diets for each athlete and each sport to trainers using knowledge of human anatomy and mechanics to create focused workout plans. The physics of sports also provides information about  the ideal body type (gymnasts are not arbitrarily short) and the ideal form of movement.

The games started with interviews with men who competed in the previous London Olympics, the ones held immediately after World War Two. The men talked about how they took up their sports casually or through their jobs. They worked out and trained and practiced, but the movement to world-class athlete was less regimented and focused than it is now. To be a competitor today takes more than grit and determination – it takes the application and knowledge of sports science. Unsurprisingly, the countries with the best sports science programs, like Australia, the Netherlands, and Germany, lead the medal counts year after year.

The best part of the rise of sports science isn’t the ramp up in level of competition, though as a lover of sports, I enjoy seeing record after record fall. No, the best part is sports science filling in the blanks and providing information about the “how” of athletics. Understanding the mechanics of movement explains how Usain Bolt can make a come-from-behind sprint look so effortless and how gymnasts can get such air and spin on their jumps.

If answering those question doesn’t get you excited for the application of sports science, let me try one more thing: using sports science to predict which events to watch. Let us face it: with so many channels and live streams showing so many events all at the same time, it can be difficult to know what to choose. Sure, some calls are easy, like watching the men’s basketball games, but what about archery versus table tennis? Popular Science talked to Steve Haake, the director of the Center for Sports Engineering Research about how to use knowledge of a sport’s history and its technology to predict which events have the best chance for excitement, drama, and world records. And hey, picking events to watch allows you to say you’re using science to inform your decisions, which makes you that much more like an Olympic athlete.

One reply on “Olympic Science”

I’m fascinated by the gymnastics and diving. I just can’t get my head around how they move like that! And there is a reasonable amount of variability in the female gymnasts’ bodies as well: from Beth Tweddle to Gabrielle Douglas to Rebecca Tunney to Linlin Deng… they clearly all have the bodies they need, but they’re not identical physiques.

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