Olympic athletes put faith in science


When U.S. boxing coach Tom Mustin wanted to add more oomph to his team's uppercuts, he brought some unlikely help into the ring: a squad of engineers.

The scientists created a computerized heavy bag that could measure the precise pounds-per-square-inch power behind every wallop. Using the souped-up bag, Mustin and his team were able to tweak each fighter's stance and delivery to make their punches sting.

From wired punching bags to controversial new shark-like bodysuits, the Sydney Games will be a showcase for not only world-class talent but the latest technology. More than ever, Olympians are embracing high-tech training tools and space-age apparel to edge out their rivals.

While science may help athletes rewrite the record books, it is also rekindling a long-standing debate over just how far athletes should go to live up to the Olympic mantra "Swifter, Higher, Stronger."

Many U.S. athletes started high-tech practice sessions long before they arrived in Sydney. In the months preceding the games, many flocked to the "Gold Factory," as the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., is known, where a team of 25 sports scientists helped them tune up their skills.

U.S. rowers, for example, trained on sensor-studded boats that beamed oar data to a coach's laptop. Shooters had lasers mounted on their rifles and heart monitors pasted to their chests (they want to shoot between heartbeats) to help sharpen their aim. Swimmers were whisked through the pool on a high-speed pulley to help them optimize their body position while slicing through the water.

Meanwhile, sports equipment makers have spent millions developing high-tech equipment for the games. Archers, for example, will fire Easton Archery's razor-thin X-10 arrows made with tungsten tips and graphite-coated shafts to slip through the air more easily. Jumpers will wear Nike cleats equipped with feather-light ceramic spikes instead of metal ones to help them leap higher.

Speedo's Fastskin body suit, created with the help of a shark expert at the Natural History Museum in London, has already helped swimmers such as Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands and Ian Thorpe of Australia smash records.

A lot of research goes into these space-age duds. Nike boasts that its Swift Suit - a colorful bodysuit used by sprinters and other track and field types - took two years and a team of scientists to create. The difference between this bodysuit and ones past, "is like the different between a Formula One and a Dodge Viper, " says Eddy Harber, a Nike researcher who helped design the suit.

Sprinters, he says, face the same problem as airplanes, submarines or anything else that moves through a fluid: drag. To figure out how to make athletes fly through the air more easily, Nike researchers turned to a tool used by airplane designers and rocket scientists: the wind tunnel.

Draping a mannequin with more than 50 different types of fabrics, they narrowed them down to the five most aerodynamic. They experimented with large wigs in the wind tunnel and discovered hair can add as much as a pound's worth of drag. The solution: stick on a hood.

No detail was overlooked. They found different parts of an athlete's body move at different speeds. Sprinter Maurice Greene's torso, for example, clocked in at 27 miles per hour, while his legs chugged along at 55 mph. Researchers choose the most aerodynamic fabric for each part.

They researched local weather patterns, noting the Olympic stadium in Sydney warms to 65 degrees during the day, receives 7.5 hours of sunshine and stiff 25-knot wind gusts. With this in mind, designers moved the bodysuit's seams and zippers to the back and dyed the fabric zebra-like: dark on the bottom to warm up the leg muscles with heat from the sun, lighter on top to deflect heat from the torso and head.

But not everybody believes all this effort is necessary - or fair. Some trainers question whether the results achieved from innovations such as the Swift Suit are more psychological than physical. Purists, meanwhile, have pooh-poohed the marriage of science to sport ever since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

"Bodybuilding?" huffed Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Games, after observing a turn-of-the-century training session. "Do we really wish to create a human thoroughbred?"

But historians of sport counter that athletes have sought a competitive edge through diet and exercise since antiquity. In the third century B.C., Greek athletes guzzled wine and munched fistfuls of mushrooms before a big event. Ancient Greek and Latin coaches, meanwhile, touted everything from jogging in sand to wrestling large animals as the secret to success.

And technology also has a long history of moving from lab to locker room. In 1905 Harvard football coach William Reid Jr. began photographing his punters to help them improve their technique. When fiberglass poles were substituted for bamboo ones in the 1960s, it transformed pole vaulting. Ditto for the dimpled golf ball, the graphite tennis racket and other innovations. But technology has forced rule makers over the years to step in to keep competition exciting, safe and fair.

Fearful that professional tennis has become more about brute force than finesse, the International Tennis Federation asked scientists this year to design a slightly larger tennis ball to slow the game and serve up more dramatic rallies. Experimental new balls will give pros an extra 0.03 seconds to make their returns.

When East Germany's Uwe Hohn hurled a high-tech aerodynamic javelin a tad over 343 feet during the 1984 Olympics, he set a world record. He also came close to skewering spectators in the stands. As a result, in 1986 the javelin was stripped of tail fins and other enhancements to emphasize arm strength over aerodynamics.

And a level playing field is always an issue for Olympic officials. After the 1996 Games, cycling's world governing body banned a $30,000 ultralight bicycle, the SuperBike II, worried that few teams could afford it.

This year, USA Swimming initially banned Speedo's body suit from Olympic trials, only relenting after the company promised to provide it to any athlete who wanted one.

"People are always going to use the technologies available to them to win," says Steve Haake, a physicist at the University of Sheffield in England who has designed goal posts, dart boards, and ice skate blades. "That's just human nature. It's up to the ruling bodies to make sure it's not cheating."

But researchers say that skill and sweat will always edge out technology in the long run. Despite their cutting-edge SuperBike II, for example, U.S. cyclists still lost every event.

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