Humans are neither the fastest nor strongest species. However, unlike the lower animals, we have the knowledge necessary to better ourselves physically. The human itch for competition and our need for self-improvement spawned events like the Olympics. Coaches developed training regimens based on intuition and athletes succeeded through sheer power of will. But as records are shattered by fractions of a second and humans reach their physical peaks, the “I’d do anything for that one-hundredth of a second” mentality may become destructive, as technology seems to be the last available way to win. Mark McClusky of Wired writes, “After a century of massive accomplishment, the pace of improvement has slowed dramatically in the past 20 years. From 1905 to 1988, the men’s 100-meter freestyle swimming record dropped an average of 0.32 percent a year. In the 24 years since 1988, it has dropped just 0.13 percent a year. You see the same thing in other sports. The curve is flattening out… We might have only a percent or two of improvement left in us.”
McClusky adds, “We spent the 20th century learning the basic science of human physiology, training, and nutrition. Sport went from an amateur pastime to a worldwide industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and millions of new athletes were able to compete. New equipment—from stronger, lighter shoes to drag-reducing swimsuits—radically elevated performance. Our understanding of nutrition led to the development of drinks and foods that ensure that athletes have the fuel they need during events. Strength and conditioning programs meant fewer injuries and more time to train. In 100 years, we developed a cohort of athletes whose physical accomplishments would have been unthinkable four generations earlier… [But now] margins of victory are going to be smaller, and the tools that help athletes win will increasingly be found not in the weight room but in the lab. Many sports will begin to resemble auto racing, where wins are determined by a combination of driving skill and technology.” The trouble is that not every athlete with potential has access to expensive tools and gear, giving an unfair advantage to nations with well-funded research programs and corporations eager to sponsor teams.
The Olympics are a prime proving ground for high-tech training tools, since medical tests weed out athletes who attempt to increase their performance chemically. The most visible technological intervention is what the athletes wear. At this year’s Olympics, the United States’ gear was designed by Nike, whose Pro TurboSpeed Track & Field uniform promised to give athletes a .023 second advantage in a 100m race. After wind-tunnel analysis, Nike strayed away from its usually smooth-surfaced suits and found that applying golf ball-like dimples on the arms and legs, the fastest-moving parts of the body, made for better aerodynamics. Nike also provided a shoe called the Flyknit Racer to marathon runners, claiming that its lightweight design would save them a ton (literally) over the 40,000 steps taken in a race. These Games also feature Speedo’s Fastskin 3 swimsuit, which reduces drag by 16%. Available for $600, the suit can only be made on one of six of Speedo’s proprietary machines. Speedo had to make changes to its suits since the 2008 Games, for which the company issued the waterproof, full-body LZR swimsuit. Athletes who wore it won 92% of the medals in 2008, with times improved by as much as 2%. New Olympic rules mandated that suits be made only from textile fabrics, and banned full-body swimsuits for male swimmers.
There are a number of technological tools that are controversial because they alter athletes’ bodies internally. They are neither banned nor heavily publicized, putting them into a shadowy area of Olympic training methods. One is the cryotherapy chamber, which some athletes call the “Chamber of Horrors.” Athletes must wear clothing to prevent frostbite as their bodies are cooled down to -220 degrees Fahrenheit. Blood vessels contract, blood flow and metabolism slow. The two-minute sessions in the cryochamber can be painful but the benefits are numerous: veins expand to four times their normal size, allowing blood to reach parts of the body faster to facilitate quick recovery, and increased endorphin release provides a pain-killing effect. Another machine, called the Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Conditioning pod, simulates high altitudes and exposes athletes to changes in barometric pressure, temperature and air density. Supposedly, it increases endurance because it forces the blood to carry more oxygen to the muscles. One of its strongest advocates is tennis champ Novak Djokovic. The most controversial method of this type is remote ischemic preconditioning. It involves attaching blood pressure cuffs to the arms and legs of athletes to limit the buildup of lactate, the substance that causes muscle pain. The British and Canadians have tried it, getting staggering results. The former found that it takes 30 seconds off of a 5 km run and the latter found that it provides a 7 second improvement in a 1 km swim. However, if used incorrectly the method can be extremely dangerous.
But fancy gear and the aforementioned unusual training apparatus don’t help with an athletes’ form. Input from coaches is no longer enough for achieving proper technique. Many athletes find that they need something even more accurate. The automotive company BMW adapted its software and hardware to create training analysis tools for the USA Track & Field team and USA Swimming. One tool uses motion tracking to analyze swimmers’ dolphin kicks during the 15-meter underwater swim after a dive or flip turn, the point at which an athlete has the most speed. Trackers are attached to six areas on a swimmer’s body and monitors allow coaches to detect errors in form and correct them to increase speed and efficiency without having to rely on underwater footage alone. USAS will use the tool to build a database of dolphin kicks at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Other US athletes like Lolo Jones have even better tools provided by generous sponsors. Jones, sponsored by Red Bull, used a system called Optojump consisting of 40 motion-capture cameras and a high-speed camera to help her perfect her hurdle. Specialized clothing and training tools cost hefty sums, but for many countries, sports are worth the sacrifice. In 2000, Australia set aside $20 million to fund the Australian Institute of Sport in preparation for the games, winning 58 medals. Canada spent $100 million on preparations for the 2010 Winter Games and the UK spent $160 million getting athletes ready for 2012. The less wealthy nations participating in the Olympics don’t have this luxury.
Athletic technology isn’t just for the elite anymore. Nike’s Nike+ system has been available for several years, allowing runners to track distance, speed and calories burned through sensors in their sneakers. It was at first integrated with iPods and was purely a tool for self-improvement. But as devices with wireless internet have become ever smaller, the need to share results was the next obvious thing to address. Nike+ Basketball, a system new to the market, tracks the vertical jump, quickness and intensity of players via sensors in sneakers and syncs to iPhones and iPod Touch devices. A main aspect of the product is sharing stats and videos with others online. The product is clearly not targeted towards pros, like spokesperson LeBron James, but will likely appeal to the younger generations. If it gets popular, it may encourage some to work harder to achieve their athletic goals. However, putting such an emphasis on statistics may only fuel the “I’d do anything for that one-hundredth of a second” mindset and cause youngsters to forget that athletes who achieve greatness, like our nation’s Olympians, are dedicated, humble and respectful of their competitors, regardless of what the numbers say. Sure, we watch the Olympics for the fraction-of-a-second victories, but what’s really valuable about the event is that it provides a stage to witness the passion for competition that the world’s best display. Technology and science can’t provide that.