The athletes, the venues, the medals, the odds, the styles and everything else you need to know about the London 2012 Olympic Games
Author KEVIN ALEXANDER
BY JON MARCUS
The World’s Greatest Athlete flexes his toes just shy of the foul line, ready for his sprint along the runway to the long-jump pit. Beside him, under the Southern California sun, stands an equally determined-looking team of engineers from one of the world’s trendiest car companies, fiddling with a pair of cameras connected through a tangle of wires to a bank of laptops and video monitors.
It’s not the set of a TV commercial. These aren’t those kinds of cameras. They can “see,” in stereo, the location, speed and distance of objects, and they’ll be in your car 10 years from now to watch out for pedestrians and help you stay in your lane. But today they’re helping American Bryan Clay, reigning Olympic Gold Medalist in the decathlon — the event whose champion gets to claim the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” — train for his goal of becoming the first man ever to take home three Olympic medals in the sport.
Clay starts up the runway, one stride, then another, gaining speed for 20 paces. The faster he’s going when he hits the board, and the lower the angle of his takeoff, the farther his center of gravity will carry him across the pit. His foot slams flat against the ground before he rises into the air; his hips arc forward and his torso springs upright.
Afterward, Clay walks over to the laptops so that the technicians can instantly play back his run for him, with down-to-the-millisecond details of his velocity and form on every frame.
“If you’re serious about trying to win, this is the type of information you need,” says Clay, 32. “Athletes are always looking for that next piece of technology that’s going to help us train better. Every 100th of a second or centimeter could be the difference between going down in glory and going down in flames.”
High-tech tools like these, developed by BMW in its Mountain View, Calif., innovation lab, are merging science with sports more closely than at any time since the absentminded professor added Flubber to the shoes of the Medfield College basketball team. The trend is being driven by huge advances in wearable sensors and wireless communication, and by a generation of athletes who have grown up fluent in Xbox and Wii. Researchers also know that products they develop for elite competitors could end up reaping massive profits on the multibillion-dollar sports mass market.
But the primary goal is to give Olympic competitors incremental advantages at a time when winning and losing comes down to a fraction of a second or a fraction of an inch.
“The technology is getting crazy,” says Phil Cheetham, senior sport technologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee and a former Australian Olympic gymnast. “And it’s becoming usable as a coaching tool, rather than just by the scientists as a research tool.”
Cameras that analyze motion, like the ones that Clay is working with, are only part of the equation. There are sensors that measure nutrition, hydration, muscle activity, posture and pressure on joints. Research at Brown University has led to a portable device that monitors sleep, an essential element of the body’s recovery. A mouthguard developed by Under Armour helps athletes reduce stress and speed reaction time by preventing them from clenching their jaw while competing. A Nike-designed device that looks like a pair of sunglasses blocks the vision of one eye at a time to sharpen the wearer’s capacity for judging depth of field. A pod the size of a fingernail that fits inside an athlete’s shoe can record average and maximum speeds, number of sprints and distance covered. Irish Olympians are using vests developed in a Dublin City University lab dubbed “Clarity” that measure their breathing, and patches that detect the level of sodium in their sweat.
“The immediate deployment of these kinds of things is at the high end, where even slightly better performance means the difference between competing in the Olympics and not,” says Alan Smeaton, deputy director of the Dublin City University lab. “Then they trickle down into the mass market.”
That Under Armour mouthguard, for instance, which prevents the release of a fatigue-causing hormone known as cortisol, is already on the market. So is the sleep device, Zeo, and the shoe sensor, miCoach, from Adidas. Motion-analysis technology is also starting to be used in physical therapy and rehabilitation, and it’s increasingly popular in the quest for the elusive perfect golf swing.
But the most dramatic impact of this flood of new technology will be on the London 2012 Olympic Games, according to enthusiastic athletes, coaches and engineers.
“Compared with the last Olympics, we’re seeing at least twice as much technology being used, and in some sports maybe five times as much,” says Mark Verstegen, founder of Athletes’ Performance, a high-end Phoenix-based training complex that works with some of the world’s top pro and Olympic athletes — including, this year, the Chinese Olympic team. “For the last 10 years you could see some granules coming together, but it really has been a cascade to where technology is being applied to almost every sport. Athletes are realizing that the more you leave these kinds of things to chance, the more you’re going to be missing your goals by tenths.”
Weightlifters who train with sensors on their spines, for example, can hone their posture to be perfectly vertical for maximum thrust, says Neil Schell, director of business development for the 3-D motion-tracking company Polhemus. “They know there’s an optimal path for that barbell, which is almost straight up and down. You don’t want to move it back and forth, because that’s wasted energy,” says Schell, whose firm’s products are also used by Olympic gymnasts. ” The crux of why people are using motion tracking is that the differences among elite athletes are so small now. And it’s not as clear to the naked eye, or even to an experienced coach, what those subtle differences may be.”
New motion-analysis cameras can see movement at as fast as 250 frames per second, almost 20 times the speed of the naked eye and five times as fast as HD cameras. “Nothing gets away,” says Joseph Jimenez, co-founder of the motion-capture company Performance 3D. “And in sports, where there’s also this backlash against performance-enhancing drugs, people want to utilize their God-given talents to the best of their ability, but in the best way. So a lot of coaches and players are catching up with the science.”
Not all Olympians are happy about this. “You have the guys who blow off the science, where it’s ‘I’m the man.’ There are a lot of egos,” says Ali Boolani, a professor of kinesiology and exercise studies at Oklahoma City University who studies carbohydrate and electrolyte loading and how it affects fatigue and focus, and who works with several Olympians as a strength coach. “But the biggest thing they want is to get better, and they’re very, very driven. Whatever they’ve got to do, they’re going to do it.”
Ego is not entirely a bad thing in a world-class athlete — or a coach, for that matter, says Clay’s jump coach, Kevin Reid. “But you’re missing the boat if you’re intentionally staying away from some of this technology,” he adds. “I would be foolish to think I could catch everything I need to catch on those last three steps on the long jump without needing to slow it down.”
Most Olympians are part of a new tech-savvy generation that embraces this, Verstegen says. “It doesn’t intimidate them,” he says. “They view themselves as athletes much more like something in Madden,” the bestselling football video game series.
The next frontier? Training above the neck. That’s the motto of Axon Potential, which uses touchscreen technology to help those Madden-schooled athletes increase their reaction times by, for instance, responding to an object coming toward them on a tablet at high speed. “At the super-elite level of sports, the difference between the competitors is so small that, when you think about it, it’s a matter of the entire body functioning,” says Jason Sada, the company’s managing director. “It’s physical skill, strength and endurance, but also cognitive skill and cognitive strength and endurance.”
Scientists are also studying athletes’ brain waves to determine the best mental state at the key moment — an archer, say, at the second he releases his arrow — then trying to reproduce it. “What we haven’t tapped into is the psycho-physiology of sports: the brain waves athletes have when they’re in the zone,” says Gregg Steinberg, a psychologist who has done research in this area.
Some of that work is under way at the University of Maryland, where Brad Hatfield, a professor of exercise and sports psychology, has already found that top athletes focus their brains by unconsciously tamping down the static of emotion and other nonmotor processes. Now he’s trying to find a way to help them do it on purpose.
“Your act of faith is that that can translate to the real world,” Hatfield says. But if it does, he says, “your focus is going to be better and your communication with the skeletal muscles is going to be more deliberate and efficient. The coach of the future will be a coach who has a theoretical view of elite performance, just like a scientist.”
Back at the track with Bryan Clay, BMW engineer Cris Pavloff says he’s already seeing that up close on his video monitors and in the readouts on his laptops. “To see how athletic and how amazing these people already are, and the things they can do with their bodies,” Pavloff says, “it really rams home the fact that they are finely tuned machines.”