Olympic science: the gear of the 2012 Games

  • Fastskin3 Super Elite suit. Image credit: Pej Behdarvand
  • Speedo goggles & Fastskin3 cap. Image credit: Pej Behdarvand
  • Specialised S-Works Trivent shoe. Image credit: Pej Behdarvand
  • Cervélo’s S5. Image credit: Pej Behdarvand
  • Giro’s Air Attack helmet. Image credit: Pej Behdarvand
  • The Albert. Image credit: Pej Behdarvand
  • Adidas Predator Lethal Zones boots. Image credit: Pej Behdarvand
Date:1 August 2012 Tags:, , , , ,

While the world’s elite compete at London 2012, state-of-the-art gear could mean the difference between finishing back in the pack or winning a place on the podium. Here are some key tech breakthroughs that are helping athletes pursue the Olympic ideals — swifter, higher, stronger. By Joe Lindsey

Swimming

Making waves
Twenty-five Olympic swimming records were broken in ­Beijing in 2008, 23 of them by athletes wearing Speedo’s LZR Racer. But the supersuit, made of a woven nylon-elastane blend with water-repellent polyurethane panels, spawned a major backlash — one coach called it a form of “technological doping”. In the summer of 2009, FINA, the sport’s international governing body, announced new rules for suits: textiles only (no impermeable fabrics) and no full-body coverage for men. Speedo developed a compliant LZR Racer Elite, which some athletes will wear in London, but its UK-based Aqua­lab division also got to work on the Fastskin3 System — a suit designed together with cap and goggles, marking the first time Speedo has invested heavy R&D in those accessories.

(At the risk of being blindly partisan: South Africa’s Chad le Clos, who powered to a spectacular victory in the final seconds of the 200-metre butterfly, and Cameron van der Burgh, who took gold in the 100 metres breaststroke event, would have won even if they’d worn boxers.)

Strong suit
The improved hydro­dynamics of the Fastskin3 Super Elite suit (see image 1), which reduces drag up to 2,7 per cent more than the LZR Racer Elite, is the result of computational fluid-dynamics analysis and water-flume tests to study passive drag (where water flows over a motionless swimmer holding a towline) and active drag (where a swimmer works at race pace). The Fastskin3 fabric — a nylon–Lycra blend — has zoned compression panels of varying densities — most knit, some woven — that help to hold the body in the most efficient position: hips high, core supported. The men’s suit has a high waist, covering as much area as FINA rules allow. Exterior marker lines help athletes align the suits.

Wide view
A lot of hydrodynamic drag comes from the head (the leading edge), especially the facial area, so Speedo used 3D head-scanning data to design goggles (see image 2) that smooth out facial gaps and holes (with Western and Asian fit variants), cutting hydrodynamic drag 2,2 per cent more than its Aquasocket model. A full 180-degree field of vision gives a clear view of the competition, and the lens shape significantly reduces force on the goggles, preventing them from shifting during entry and high-speed turns. Pair the new goggles with the Fastskin3 cap (see image 2), whose design emerged from the same head-scanning data, and that 2,2 per cent drag savings jumps to 5,7 per cent.

Triathlon

Race with the pack
The gruelling triathlon debuted as an Olympic event in 2000. In this year’s edition, racers swim 1 500 metres in the Serpentine, a lake in London’s Hyde Park; switch to bikes for a 43-kilometre ride (three kilometres longer than in previous Olympics); and finish with a 10-­kilometre run — all in less than two hours. Speed is paramount not only on the course but also during transitions, which take athletes about 30 seconds and are strictly regulated. After the swim, for example, athletes must put on their helmets before mounting their bikes and can only mount outside the transition area (where gear is stored).

Quick change
After athletes finish their swim, they sprint to the transition area to wriggle out of wetsuits and grab bikes prepped with shoes already clipped to the pedals. The Specialised S-Works Trivent shoe (see image 3) has a drawbridge heel that pivots away on a hinge so the rider can simply slide into the shoes — as with a pair of clogs — and cinch up the heel, saving seconds over squeezing into a conventional closed heel. A Boa reel closure system also shaves time: three turns of the dial wind up the steel-cable lacing and clamp in the heel cup firmly. To get out of the shoe for the running segment, athletes just pop out the rotary dial and lift their feet out.

Fast form
An elite triathlete exerts about 300 watts of power during the biking leg, and at 40 kilometres per hour (the typical Olympic pace), cutting 100 grams of aerodynamic drag saves 10 watts, which means athletes can ride faster at the same effort — up to 40 seconds faster over a 40-km course. That’s a serious edge in a race where the first and the last athlete are separated by only two or three minutes on the biking leg, so bike-makers are constantly innovating to improve aerodynamics. (The rider’s body accounts for about 70 per cent of drag — the rest is in the gear.)

The Olympic tri is a draft-legal race, which means riders can group in packs, reducing the energy required to overcome wind resistance. But aerodynamic gear still plays a key role. Cervélo’s S5 (see image 4), created for the demands of road-bike racing, makes a good mount for draft-legal triathlons, which ban most conventional triathlon bikes (like the Cervélo P5, see image 3, which some athletes will ride in the time trial event).

Like many aero bikes, the S5 features airfoil-shaped tubes, but Cervélo used extensive wind-tunnel testing to refine how the bike’s carbon-fibre-composite frame works with its attendant parts (and rider). The seat stays are shaped to direct air around the rear-brake calliper, normally a source of turbulence. Brake and shift cables are routed internally, which saves 40 grams of drag over externally routed systems. The sum of Cervélo’s innovations: in its tests the S5 saves 6 to 22 watts (depending on what bike it’s up against) even when a rider is drafting.

Head game
The teardrop-shaped helmet favoured by most triathletes since the 1990s is more aerodynamic in wind-tunnel tests than a traditional road-bike helmet. But recent research, including sophisticated data-capture trials in real-world conditions, shows that in anything other than a straight-on headwind, the teardrop shape loses its aero advantage. On Giro’s Air Attack helmet (see image 5), the frontal area looks much like a traditional road-bike helmet’s. The Air Attack mimics the performance of a teardrop helmet in headwinds and is actually more aerodynamic than the teardrop in crosswinds or when a rider turns his head.

Soccer

Power kicks
With 58 matches scheduled on six pitches at venues ranging from Wales to England to ­Scotland, 28 teams (16 men’s, 12 women’s) from six continents will compete in soccer at the 2012 Games, kicking 2 700 balls provided by official Olympic sponsor Adidas. The Albert ball is an evolution of the 2010 FIFA World Cup model, the Jabulani, which was controversial among many players for its erratic trajectory, especially on hard strikes.

Ball control
The Jabulani used just eight spherically moulded panels with shallow grooves (compared with 32 panels and deeper seams on a classic black-and-white ball). In a Caltech wind-tunnel study with the blower set to 30 m/sec (108 km/h), the average speed of a pro kick, aeronautical engineers found that the Jabulani’s smoother skin affected airflow in a way that caused erratic flight. “The rougher the ball, the more predictable it is,” says lead ­researcher Beverley McKeon. (Consider the dimpled golf ball.) The Albert (see image 6) features 32 panels, thermally welded to prevent deformation; a new bladder is designed to hold air more consistently throughout a match and to absorb less water in rainy conditions. (Only two venues — London’s Wembley and Cardiff’s Millennium stadiums — have roofs.)

Better boot
Soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, doesn’t keep records of the fastest strikes, but elite players can drive in goals at about 160 km/h. All that power relies on a smart boot for control. To design its new microfibre cleat, the Predator Lethal Zones (see image 7), Adidas asked its top club players to draw, on plain white boots, the most important areas for various types of ball contact. On each of five key zones, layers of rubber and memory foam are textured to maximise the desired touch: a flat plate on the instep helps direct lower-velocity passes, while recessed rubber ribs around the forefoot add grip for dribbling, passing and striking.

Timing is everything

At the 2008 Beijing games, Michael Phelps needed a win in the 100-metre butterfly to tie Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics, set in 1972. In the home stretch it was a dead heat between Phelps and Serbian Milorad Čavić. Čavić appeared to touch the wall first, but Phelps was the first to exert the 0,45 bar required to activate the touchpad. The result: a victory margin for Phelps of 0,01 second, which the Serbian team disputed. But a review down to 0,0001 second confirmed Phelps’s gold — and he won an eighth the next day as a member of the 400-metre medley relay team. This year, official Olympic timekeeper Omega has taken horological precision to a new extreme: its Quantum Timer measures differences in performance down to one one-millionth of a second. Here’s how time has changed in a century-plus of Summer Olympics competition.

1896
Athens: Officials at the first modern Olympics rely on analogue stopwatches to determine winners.

1912
Stockholm: Analogue stop­watches yield to electronic ones, but finishes are still hand-timed. The margin of error is 0, 2 second — almost 2 metres in a typical 100-metre dash.

1932
Los Angeles: In its debut as official Olympic time­keeper, Omega uses 30 precision chronograph stopwatches for each event. Degree of accuracy: 0,1 second.

1948
London: Machines begin to take over. The first Olympic photo-­finish camera, dubbed the Magic Eye, revolutionises sports timekeeping. Degree of accu­racy: 0,001 second.

1960
Rome: US swimmer Lance Larson loses gold to Australian John Devitt when officials disagree on Larson’s time. It’s the last Olympics where disputes are resolved by the human eye.

1968
Mexico City: Timing touchpads are introduced in the Olympic pool. Now the swimmer’s own fingers stop the clock with a precision of 0,01 second.

1972
Munich: Swedish swimmer Gunnar Larsson wins gold in the 400-metre medley by 0,002 second. Days later, the sport’s governing body rules that times be meas­ured only to 0,01 second.

1984
Los Angeles: Americans Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead are the first to share gold in Olympic swimming history for their tie (55,92 seconds) in the 100-metre freestyle.

1996
Atlanta: GPS timekeeping is introduced for the sailing regattas at the coastal city of Savannah to track the speed and location of individual boats.

2012
London: To flag false starts in track and swimming events, starting blocks will monitor pressure exerted by athletes’ feet instead of early movement.