Olympian efforts

Lou Reade reports on some of the technologies that are helping elite athletes to boost their performances – and increase their chances of winning medals – at the Olympic Games

A host of sports technologies, many of them developed in the UK, could help participants at the current Olympics – or the next Games, held in London – to improve performance and increase their medal count.
The technologies range from sports equipment through to training aids that help athletes boost performance.
One person at the forefront of this is Scott Drawer, head of research and innovation at UK Sport – an organisation that aims to boost standards in British sport.
“We are actually quite resource-limited, so need to be clever about how we do this,” he says. “Our philosophy is to look outside sport for answers and use the UK’s strengths – such as aerospace, defence and automotive technologies.”
One method has been to attract technology partners, the latest of which is BAe Systems.
“Many of their military and defence technologies could be used for the benefit of sports,” says Drawer. “We’ve worked on a few projects with them.”
One fruit of this collaboration will benefit the UK shooting team in the double trap event, in which competitors shoot two clay targets that are released simultaneously.
The secret to success in the event is accuracy and ‘rhythm’ – which means knowing the optimum gap between the two shots. To date, no method existed to work this out.
“The solution seemed fairly simple at first – but typically, as our understanding has grown, so has the complexity required to solve the problem,” says George Simpson, senior scientist at BAe. “The system we’ve tested determines the time difference between the two shots.”
As manual timing would be impossible, BAe developed a microphone-based system: the first shot is detected and starts the clock, while the second shot stops the clock. It found a typical time difference of 0.4 seconds between shots.
“We’re able to use this system to evaluate individual performance which we hope will prove useful to the teams in their final preparation,” says Simpson.
Knowledge of defence technologies could also benefit every athlete in the squad – through a better knowledge of how to deal with the temperature in Beijing. UK Sport and the British Olympic Association (BOA) believe that heat and humidity – not pollution – will be “the biggest environmental threats to success”.
“We need to help athletes manage heat stress,” says Drawer. “Portsmouth University has done lots of work studying how troops cope with extreme environments. We’ve done some work to develop clothing with ice packs – which can be worn before an event to take the heat out of the body.”

More competition
UK Sport has tried to keep the momentum going by announcing a competition – open to all – that will try to harness ideas for the next Olympics and beyond.
Ideas 4 Innovation is already open for ideas, and will stay open until late October. At that point, eight ‘finalists’ will battle it out for the main prize.
“It’s about trying to capture great ideas and concepts from ‘garage innovators’,” says Drawer. “We’re looking for people who have had a ‘Graham Obree moment’.”
Graham Obree was a British cyclist who “changed the rules”, according to Drawer – by designing a bike unlike any that had come before it.
“We’re looking for these kinds of breakthroughs,” says Drawer.
A prize of £25,000 is up for grabs – which will be used to develop the winning idea. And Drawer points out that “professionals” – such as design consultancies – are also welcome to enter.
“We’ve run research and innovation programmes since 2004, in order to deliver bespoke performance,” says Drawer. “Some of these ideas may eventually become commercial, but many will not – because they are so specific to individual performance and have no commercial market.”
An example of this is a diving harness used by members of the UK’s diving team. It helps divers to perform ‘difficult dives’ – which score more points – with greater confidence.
The harness is worn around the hips, when on the diving board, and a set of ropes and pulleys – adapted from the sailing industry – are attached to it.
“The ropes loop around and are held by the coach – who can then control the speed of descent,” says Drawer.
Before this, the diver would practice over a trampoline – which was less realistic as they would land on their feet.

Swimming for victory
Staying in the pool, there are a number of technologies – developed in the UK and beyond – to help swimmers. Unsurprisingly, they involve ways of moving through the water more effectively.
Sports scientists at Edinburgh University have developed new software to help swimmers perfect their ‘gliding’ – the parts of the race when they are not actually ‘swimming’. Swimmers glide following starts and turns, and use only their momentum to travel through the water. The software helps swimmers to position their head and body in the best way to minimise drag – and predicts the best moment to start kicking again.
The swimmer is marked at body joints using water-resistant markers, then videoed from several angles – including underwater. The images are fed into a computer and the software tracks the movement of the markers. The swim is then replayed on a poolside screen – along with active suggestions on how to improve performance.
The researchers claim two advantages: firstly, the feedback is available instantly, so lessons can be implemented at the poolside; and the data itself is of much more detailed and accurate than before.
“The speed and accuracy of the feedback will add to the value of the advice that coaches give their swimmers,” says Professor Ross Sanders, who is leading the project. “Alterations to technique are customised exactly to suit each swimmer.”
As well as helping to perfect the technique of existing swimmers, it could also be used to identify promising newcomers.
“It will show which young swimmers move easily through the water – which may well equate to outstanding ability or a particular aptitude for the sport,” says Prof Sanders.
The software could be available in one year, but swimming at this year’s games is likely to be dominated by a new suit from Speedo – which claims to have helped break 35 world records.
The Speedo LZR Racer suit was developed for elite swimmers and relied heavily on Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD). Part of the research on the suit was carried out by Herve Morvan at Nottingham University, using Ansys CFD software.
It was used to predict fluid flows around the body of the swimmer in the outstretched glide position to identify areas where drag is likely to occur. The simulations helped to determine where drag-reducing panels should be placed on the suit.
But athletic performance is not everything. One aspect of swimming – the TV coverage – ensures that we all get to see it in the first place. And a UK company, Camera Corps, is responsible for much of the poolside camerawork. The company specialises in various aspects of camera technology, but in sports has carved out a niche in automated systems – including tracks for moving cameras along automatically.
Camera Corps design engineer Robert MacNab recently attended Eureka’s ‘Automation for the Future’ Design Day, and had a special reason for doing it – as the company’s latest poolside system will incorporate the latest Digitax drives from event sponsor Control Techniques.
So when you see a camera keeping pace with a swimmer during the Olympics you can amaze your family with facts about the camera system as well as the athletes.
At the end of the day, few of these sports technologies will bring about a step change in performance. They are about fractions of a second – which can separate fourth place from the gold medal. This is why UK Sport and Scott Drawer are keen to encourage new ideas.
“Even if it’s just a concept or prototype, it could have an influence on our sports,” says Drawer. “Some of them may end up as commercial products but that’s not our aim – ultimately, we are measure by medals.”

Tom Shelley

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