Skip to main content

Olympic athletes: Driving forward with technology

Olympians have an obvious athletic edge over the rest of the population. Whether it's the result of genetics, dedication, parental drive, careful coaching, or a combination of all of the above, the athletes competing in the London 2012 Olympics have reached the pinnacle of their profession. But they – and technology – aren't always content to leave it at just that.

Some of those who will be at the Games have spent hours biking a virtual course that's pedal-by-pedal identical to the one they'll race around in London. Others have run with a boost from NASA, and still others have had their practices analysed not in miles per hour, but in thousands of frames per second.

If these modern marvels seem like they're also giving some an unfair advantage, it's nothing new. The last time the games were in London, in 1948, the post-war conditions made for a stark contrast. Athletes were subject to the same rationing rules as the rest of London, being given a workman's portion at each mealtime. But some countries supplemented that with their own provisions; the United States, for example, flew in fresh fruit, meat, and bread daily to enhance the nutrition of its team.

Technology can also democratise improvement. Luc Fusaro, a design student at the Royal College of Art in London, has crafted what might be a speed-enhancing sneaker that can be custom fit to an individual, and produced by a 3D printer so that it's far more accessible and affordable than other custom gear. While Fusaro hopes to have it on the feet of Olympic athletes in 2016, athletes in 2012 will benefit from medical care and equipment at the Olympic Park that they cannot receive in their home countries. And ultra-marathon runners, like Simon Wheatcroft, who was an Olympic torchbearer in London and is blind, is finally able to run on his neighbourhood’s streets on his own thanks to the app RunKeeper.

So, following our broad look at the tech behind the scenes of the Games yesterday, here’s a peek at how the athletes at the 2012 Olympics are gaining an edge thanks to technology.

Giving accreditation where it's due

Qualifying for the Games is a triumph, but getting accredited to participate and applying for a visa is a trial. Olympics IT partner Atos developed an accreditation system to manage the process for athletes. Data on the nearly 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes participating in the Games is logged into the system, which generates accreditation badges that grant access and other privileges. Additionally, the athletes can use their own phones, tablets, and laptops to access Atos' myInfo+ app to check their schedules, review their training plans, and see their results.

Walking on the moon

The height of one NASA technology is Olympics use. AlterG Treadmill runners can exercise at just 20 per cent of their body weight, letting athletes train harder with less strain. Wearing a pair of specialty neoprene shorts and zipping in to the plastic chamber that surrounds the lower body on the treadmill, users can adjust their effective weight in 1 per cent increments, reducing the impact on their joints as they increase the differential air pressure. US athlete and distance runner Shannon Rowbury uses the AlterG for training and after a recent stress fracture in her femur, has been able to run on it just six weeks after diagnosis.

Smells like team spirit

Wind tunnel analysis of cyclists used to be a solitary pursuit. While each cyclist could improve his or her personal performance, a team had to rely solely on the incremental benefit they gained from that. But a wind tunnel at Monash University in Australia allowed the country's men's pursuit track cycling team to be evaluated together, vastly improving overall performance. Reworking a facility normally used for aircraft and automotive testing, and outfitting it to accommodate the testing of athletes and their equipment, coaches could analyse both what worked best and where aerodynamic improvements could be made.

The X Factor

An athlete is just one person, but he or she represents the hard work of many. Lolo Jones, a US Olympic hurdler, is the first to admit that. "It takes a team," Jones says, and indeed her team consists of a coach, high-performance director, high-performance manager, sports technologist, coaching consultant, and a physiology consultant. But the technology they use is just as important.

Jones participated in Red Bull Project X, a technologically advanced training program that goes far beyond what normal coaching can accomplish. Project X uses three components – a Vicon 3D rendering system, the Optojump Next, and a Phantom Flex camera – to give a comprehensive and minute breakdown of an athlete's performance.

Jones' team attaches 39 reflective markers to her body, so that her movements can be tracked by 40 Vicon T40S motion capture cameras that can record 2,000 frames per second. Her jumps are dissected by number, contact time, flight time, height, rhythm, specific energy, specific power, total energy, and total power by the Optojump Next, an optical measurement system with transmitting and receiving bars that have from 33 to 100 LEDs on each, and calculate stats based on the interruptions between them. Every moment is captured by the Academy Award-winning technology of the Phantom Flex camera, which is capable of 10,750 frames per second.

"If you can fix one small thing over one hurdle, you're gonna fix that over ten hurdles," said Jones, whose average time in the 100 metre hurdles is 12.5 seconds.

Motivating factors

Athletes are performers and, as such, want a response. Now they can receive some valuable feedback from MotivePro. It's a network of wearable sensors that take measurements between key points on the body, tracking movement and providing haptic feedback via a vibrating motor that's triggered when the wearer moves out of a set range.

MotivePro was invented in the Visualisation Research Unit at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, by composer and sound engineer Jonathan Green, and dancer/performer Gregory Sporton. Originally intended to produce data that could then be used in performances, it now has applications in several industries and provides not just real-time feedback but analysis and archiving, too. Mimi Cesar, a rhythmic gymnast, tested it out and said it could be helpful for Team Great Britain's rhythmic gymnastics team, since they earn points for synchronisation.

Head start

Olympic swimmers will be getting a boost from the starting blocks making their Olympic debut at London 2012. The Omega blocks are slanted so that the rear leg can be positioned at a 90-degree angle, giving them more power at the start. But lest they get a false start, the blocks will know, since they're outfitted with a new detection system. To try to prevent athletes from false starts, the blocks will emanate the start signal so that all athletes hear it at the same time. For spectators, the blocks will light up to show if its respective swimmer is in first, second, or third place.

Déjà-vu all over again

When Australia's cycling team takes to the road at London 2012, it will seem familiar, even to those team members who haven't been there. On a test run last year, riders' bikes were armed with video cameras to capture the scenery, GPS to map the route, and equipment to measure the highs and lows of the course, enabling a stationary bike and a plasma screen back home at the Australia Institute of Sport to serve as a virtual track. The system also measures athletes' performance, so that coaches can monitor their time, speed, power, and distance.

The straight dope

GlaxoSmithKline has built and equipped The Science Centre, a drug-testing laboratory that is accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Located at King's College, near the Olympic Park, the lab will operate 24 hours a day during the Games, testing over 6,000 blood and urine samples. Immediately after they compete, medal winners and half of all competitors chosen at random are led to the site by a chaperone for testing. The samples are then transported to the Science Centre in bar-coded, A and B-labelled tamper-proof bottles.

The A sample is stored for eight years for future testing with improved technology, and the B sample is put into test tubes that go into a centrifuge to separate solids out. The sample is then subject to solid phase extraction to trap compounds of interest. The sample gets identified by its barcode and is passed through a liquid chromatography column, and then a mass spectrometer, getting tested for about 70 illegal substances at a time. Samples will be tested for 240 illegal substances in total.

Sports clinic

Round-the-clock medical care will be available to the more than 16,000 Olympic and 6,000 Paralympic athletes at a polyclinic in the Athletes' Village within the Olympic Park. Staffed with volunteer physicians and other healthcare practitioners, it's stocked with the latest in GE medical imaging equipment, including MRI machines that are wider than conventional scanners and cushioned, a high-definition CT scanner, a wireless digital X-ray system, advanced ultrasound, and an ECG designed for high-volume environments. The polyclinic will remain after the Games are gone, providing care for the local community.