July 16, 2012 / 2:03 PM / 5 years ago

Olympics-Newton at the Games: Sports Science

(This is the first in a series of stories about the science behind the Olympics to run daily this week. The full list will be updated at )

By Sharon Begley

NEW YORK, July 16 (Reuters) - When Pheidippides ran 26 miles (42.195 kms) from the Battle of Marathon with news of the Greeks' victory over the Persians, he hadn't consulted any of the era's leading scientists on whether he should wear shoes, carbo-load, or do weeks of interval training.

Given that the first "marathon" runner collapsed and died as soon as he delivered his news, maybe he should have. But modern athletes don't make the same mistake.

Scientists, engineers, and technology gurus make crucial contributions to the Olympic Games, bringing fresh insight to coaches and athletes at each new round of the international competition. Knowledge gained in the four years since the Beijing Summer Games, from swimming to the discus throw, will help guide performance strategies in London later this month.

"Sport is a laboratory for science," said Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "Knowing the principles empowers the athletes and coaches, showing them how they should train and what techniques to use. Everyone is interested in knowing the secret to outstanding performance, and the secret is science."

Equipment does not play nearly as important a role in the summer Olympics as it does in winter, where bobsleds and skates, skis and luges reign. But it is crucial to one of the Games' biggest crowd-pleasers: swimming.

The hydrodynamics wizards at Speedo, part of the Pentland Group, have jettisoned the "dermal denticles" they put on swimsuits in 2000, tiny hydrofoils that were meant to emulate shark skin. This year, they debuted the "Fastskin3" system: a combination of cap, goggles and suit that streamlines swimmers into the closest thing to a barracuda this side of the ocean.

If swimmers do not break Olympic or world records, it will not be for lack of effort from the engineers at Myrtha Pools, a division of A&T Europe S.p.a. They have designed new features to prevent waves at the water's surface and currents below from increasing drag on the swimmers, which slows their speed. Seven Myrtha pools installed in the Aquatics Centre promise the fastest water ever.

For sports scientists focused on bodies, not gear, the work can range from analyzing the speed and strength components of the long jump to the most efficient execution of a back 2-1/2 somersault dive with two-and-a-half twists off the 10 meter board.

Biomechanics, the study of the forces exerted on and by a body, has shown that take-off speed is the single greatest determinant of distance in the long-jump and triple-jump: increasing take-off speed by 10 percent should increase distance 10 percent. But strength also matters, since the greater the force with which the jumper pushes down on the ground, the farther she should fly.

Athletes will be advised to train differently, says Adrian Lees, emeritus professor at Liverpool John Moores University and a long-time advisor to British track and field, depending on whether speed or strength is their greater asset.

Australia, Britain, China, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands lead the way in sports science, according to an envious Peter Vint, director of high performance at the United States Olympic Committee. "In terms of sports science, they have the models other countries aspire to," says Vint.

SPRINTING JUMPERS, CROUCHING RUNNERS

Biomechanics has also shown that the height cleared in the pole vault is proportional to the take-off speed squared, causing vaulters to hone their sprinting skills as much as their technique. And it has found that a relay sprinter will do no better from a crouching start. Taking this to heart, France's men's 4x100 meter relay team starts from a stand.

But science does not always find its way into practice: other relay teams retain the crouch, physics be damned.

"There are psychological factors," sighed biomechanics expert Aki Salo of the University of Bath, an advisor to British track and field. "If elite athletes feel they get a better start from the crouch, it is difficult to get them to change their mind."

Just as science can improve athletes' performance, so it can increase spectators' enjoyment.

Those watching gymnasts or divers perform a mid-air twist may notice how they position their arms. The arms start out extended to an athlete's sides. As she initiates the somersault, one arm goes straight up and the other straight down. This asymmetry induces the twist, explains biomechanical engineer Jill McNitt-Gray of the University of Southern California.

Similarly, when an athlete sets up for the high jump, understanding how a tight curve in the approach translates into height makes the performance that much more meaningful. The maneuver is known as the Fosbury flop, named after Dick Fosbury who used it to win gold in Mexico City in 1968.

Biomechanics can assure fans of Jamaica's Usain Bolt that if he trails after 20, 40, or even 60 meters in the 100 meters sprint, he is not necessarily in trouble. The most successful sprinters in recent years have been long and lean, according to a 2011 study led by Alan Nevill of England's University of Wolverhampton, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Sports Sciences.

Bolt, who holds the 100 meters record of 9.58 set in 2009, stands 6 feet, 5 inches. His legs are so long that 41 strides taken him the lenght of the race, not the 44 strides his rivals average. But the most explosive sprinters tend to have shorter legs, which accelerate more quickly and move faster than longer legs. That is why Bolt almost never leads at the midway point.

"Taller, linear sprinters are at a disadvantage in the first 50 meters or so," said Nevill. "But a sprinter can maintain his top speed only for 50 to 60 meters." In the last 40 to 60 meters, as the explosive runner's stride frequency falls, a longer stride lets the taller runner catch up and pull away.

As many as nine million spectators are expected to cheer the London Olympians, including royals and celebrities and politicians, with another 4 billion watching on social media and television. But Isaac Newton, too, will be very much in evidence, as athletes try to spin his physics into gold. (Editing by Michele Gershberg)

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