The winning formula: Scientists and the Olympics
The latest hi-tech Olympic kit is helping athletes to shatter records in Beijing. Simon Usborne tracks down the backroom boffins
Wednesday 20 August 2008
When Rebecca Adlington won two gold medals in the Beijing Water Cube, it was the culmination of years of toil. Most of it took place in the pool and the gym but, inside a laboratory in Nottingham, white-coated technicians will be sharing in their own celebration after playing a supporting role in "Dame" Rebecca's victory.
They helped to develop Adlington's mould-breaking suit, and are among a hidden army of designers and techies whose innovations, be they million-dollar bikes or shoes inspired by bridges, help today's athletes go faster, stronger, higher. Every four years, the big names in sports manufacturing invest millions in a race to stamp their logos on the most cutting-edge kit. Whether your name's Adlington or Adidas, the Olympic Games is the biggest stage of all.
Speedo LZR Racer
When Mark Spitz won his seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, he did it wearing a pair of star-spangled nylon Speedos with elastene for a snug fit. The Speedo logo on Spitz's trunks is about the only thing to survive on the Nottingham-based firm's new LZR ("laser") Racer, perhaps the only thing in Beijing to make more waves than Michael Phelps.
The LZR, which took four years to design and has "ultrasonically welded" seams instead of stitching, improves performance in three ways. Its sharkskin-like material reduces drag; the Nasa-tested sheathing compresses the body with 70 times more force than the Spitz standard, squeezing the swimmer into a more streamlined shape; and polyurethane panels reshape those parts of the body responsible for the most drag (notably bottoms and breasts). The LZR also comes in a legs-only half-suit.
The suit can cut times by around 2 per cent, and it accounted for 38 out of 42 swimming world records before the Olympics had begun. Its effects have been so marked that some in swimming have accused wearers of "techno-doping"; those without LZRs queued up to be fitted.
Nike Zoom Victory Spike
Weight is crucial when it comes to saving split seconds on the 100-metre track. To make its running spikes as light as possible, Nike looked to the cables of suspension bridges for inspiration. Its Flywire technology uses an exoskeleton of wispy filaments clustered at key points, such as the heel, to reduce to a bare minimum the material required to encase the foot. The Victory Spike weighs a world low of 93g a shoe, the only shoe to break the 100g mark. The new material also required new construction methods: rather than stitch panels together, Flywire shoes are "printed" as one piece using machines that can be programmed instantly. The method means that Nike's new shoes, versions of which have been made for the consumer market, are not only lighter but faster and cheaper to make.
But, in the clearest example of how hi-tech footwear will get you only so far, Asafa Powell's cheetah-print Victory Spikes could not help him beat Usain Bolt, who stormed to victory in the 100 metres wearing his relatively weighty golden Pumas.
On 6 September, the Paralympics kick off in Beijing, where a whole new range of technology, from specially made basketball wheelchairs to adapted bicycles, will be used to help disabled athletes win medals.
On the running track we'll see the latest in prosthetic limbs, but all eyes will be on two legs – those belonging to Oscar Pistorius. The 400-metre runner dubbed the "blade runner" and the "fastest man on no legs" almost lined up in the able-bodied Olympics after a ban placed on him by the IAAF, the governing body for athletics, was overturned – but the South African runner, who was born without lower-leg bones, narrowly missed the qualifying time.
The ban came after a study suggested that Pistorius's prostheses gave him an advantage over flesh-and-bone rivals. Made by the Icelandic firm Ossur, the Cheetah Flex-Foot comprises an ultralightweight carbon socket and a J-shaped blade that replicates the spring of a human foot and ankle. The IAAF suggested the Cheetah's spring was greater, but another study showed the Flex-Foot returns only about 80 per cent of the energy in each stride, compared to up to 240 per cent for a natural leg.
OTE Composite FX javelin
The javelin may be based on a wooden hunting spear, but in Beijing the last word in spear technology is the OTE Composite FX. Made by Gill Athletics, which also sells such obscure products as "steeplechase pit forms" and "shot throwing circles", the OTE offers throwers the perfect balance between weight and strength.
Standard metal javelins vibrate for a couple of seconds after being thrown. This disturbs the airflow around the shaft and reduces lift, meaning shorter throws. To combat the shakes, engineers experimented with carbon shafts that stayed true. But the rigid carbon javelins transferred the energy released by vibrations back into the thrower's arm – a fast track to a shattered shoulder.
The OTE is a winning compromise. A flexible aluminium core is wrapped in a sheet of spirally woven carbon, like a toothpick wrapped in a hardened fishnet stocking. The mix reduces the forces on the throwing arm, and cuts the anti-aerodynamic vibrations by 10 per cent. Expect to see big throws in the Bird's Nest this week.
Hoyt Helix 900CX archery bow
As part of its Olympic build-up, the BBC asked British archers to fire arrows at fruit dangling on strings. The watermelon and apple were easy. Then the archers faced a bigger – or smaller – challenge: a single grape. But the tiny fruit barely twitched as Charlotte Burgess sent an arrow straight through it, using a Hoyt.
Bows by the American firm have accounted for more than 75 per cent of all Olympic archery medals since 1972. Key to their success are the "limbs" or blades, made of the same flexible yet crush-proof "syntactic foam" used by the US Navy inside the dive planes or "wings" of some of its nuclear submarines.
Before Beijing, the British team travelled to a lab in Germany to record their shots using high-speed cameras. The team reviewed their shots in ultra-slow motion and made minute adjustments to ensure that nothing brushes their arrows when they are released from the bow at 150mph.
Adidas adiStar Rowing shoes
Watching the rowers in action, with their powerful upper bodies, it would be easy to think their sport was all in the arms. In fact, it's the legs that drive the boat through the water. When the rower, who sits on a sliding seat, pushes against a footplate, the thighs pull the rest of the body, and the oars, forwards, taking the boat with them. And, like on the bike track, the key to getting the most out of the muscles is transferring every ounce of that energy into motion.
The German sports giant Adidas makes the most advanced rowing footwear. The lightweight, ventilated shoes include rigid shoes with "outriggers" that help to transfer more energy than any other.
The British rowers have embraced other technology, too. In training for the Games they wore £5,000 goggles that communicate wirelessly with an off-boat trainer and display individual stroke-rates and other performance indicators in the lenses.
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