Olympic technology 2000

“Faster, higher, stronger” are the oft-stated goals of Olympic athletes. Increasingly, science and technology are helping them to achieve those goals.

This year, the technological focus is on swimming. Until recently, the goal of swimmers seemed to be to wear bathing suits that preserved the illusion of modesty with as little material as possible, the idea being that bare (often shaved) skin slid through the water better than cloth. This year, that idea has been turned on its head by the full-body swimming suits, especially the Speedo Fastskin suit.

When you enter the water, a layer of still water a millimetre or less thick forms around your body. Like glue, it clings to the water swirling around you as you swim. Researchers have discovered that dolphins and sharks have fibres on their skin that break down that layer of still water; the Fastskin suit performs the same function for human swimmers. It also outlines the large muscle groups of the body, constricting them so that they snap back faster, providing more power.

Even strokes are changing. For instance, breaststrokers are now allowed to go underwater. That increases speed, because every time a swimmer breaks the surface of the water, surface tension creates resistance. The breaststroke, as a result, has become a very undulating stroke, similar to the way dolphins swim.

Even the pool in Sydney is high-tech. For instance, the pool has no gutters; instead, the water is flush with the sides and washes over the top, draining into grates instead of washing back into the pool and creating waves. The round plastic buoys that divide the lanes also break down rough water. As well, the pool is three metres deep instead of two; more water means less water motion. The water itself is salt water, which is more buoyant, heated to 27 degrees, the perfect temperature to keep muscles limber. And it’s treated with tasteless, odorless ozone instead of chlorine.

Swimming isn’t the only sport where new technology is playing a role. In track and field, every Olympics sees new technological advances in shoes. Today there are special shoes for every event, from triple jump to long-distance running. Sprint shoes provide more traction that ever before; jumping shoes have more spikes in the ball of the foot.

Mountain bikes used in the Games feature hydraulic suspensions, aluminum and titanium frames and graphite and magnesium components. New brakes provide improved stopping power and don’t lose grip as much when drenched in rain or mud. And handlebars carry tiny computers that give digital readouts of speed and distance.

Sailing boats’ fibreglass hulls, as well as their sails and masts, are now designed through months of computer simulation testing.

Even the soccer ball, which looks the same as always, has been improved this year. Typically, soccer balls are made of an outside synthetic finish encasing four separate layers, all surrounding an inflatable bladder. This year the second layer in is made up of “syntactic foam,” tiny, gas-filled microballoons, all of equal size and highly compressible, so no matter where you kick the ball, you get the same amount of force out of it.

Even beach volleyball has a high-tech component: there are rigorous standards for beach volleyball sand, which is manufactured specially for the sport. Sand that is too fine too dusty and too firm, making athletes prone to injuries. Sand whose particles are too angular also tends to clump together, becoming hard. And sand even has to be aesthetically pleasing: some nice non-glaring color like tan, cream or pale brown.

Science has also affected the scoring of sports. In boxing, for instance, the five judges each have a box with two buttons on it, one for each boxer. When a boxer hits a scoring blow, three of the five judges must hit that boxer’s button within a second of each other. If not, it doesn’t register in the scoring computer.

In the future, technology may even alter the athletes themselves, who could conceivably be genetically enhanced to grow bigger muscles or develop faster reflexes. No doubt such genetic enhancement would be illegal to begin with, but it could be very hard to police: genetically enhanced DNA might be impossible to distinguish from the DNA the athlete was born with.

On the other hand, today’s top athletes, as far as most of us are concerned, might just as well be superhuman. Maybe the genetically modified athlete will someday be as accepted in the Olympics as the formerly unthinkable participation by pro athletes is today.

Swimmers with gills, anyone?

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