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Nov 29

The Olympic: Citius, Altius, Fortius OR Faster, Higher, Stronger

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Modern Sport Science has impacted the performance of today’s High-performance and Professional Athletes (aside systematic doping and drugs). I came across a fascinating book by Sports Science Reporter David Epstein (Sports Illustrated) “Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.” Epstein points out that “Athletes have fulfilled that Olympic motto – and they’ve done so rapidly.” He investigates the reasons that year after year, runners, swimmers, gymnasts, basketball players and others athletes are able to push their sport to new levels. He proposes that it really comes down to three factors: changing technology, changing genes, and changing mindsets.

He starts by taking a look at runners. The 2012 Olympic marathon winner would have bettered the 1904 Olympic winner by more than 1 hour and 20 minutes. Similarly, 100-meter sprinter Usain Bolt would beat the World record by Jesse Owens in 1936 by14 feet at the finish line. However, much of the difference in these records is due to the impact of technology. While Owens ran on cinder track, and had to dig a hole with a trowel to use for the start, Bolt and contemporaries run on surface specifically designed to go as fast as possible. In addition, races nowadays are performed from well-engineered starting blocks. He proposes if we take these technologies away, Bolt and Owens would have been within a single stride of each other at the finish line.

Schloder: Let’s look at some technical improvements:

The most popular “rubber-like” track surface utilized at all modern Olympic and World Championship competitions (both indoors and outdoors) are those made by Italian company Mondo. However, Swiss company CONICA developed a new surface at the Letzigrund Stadium in Zurich in 2014. The existing track was not replaced but re-topped on 12 June 2014 with CONICA’s new surface, the triple-layer CONIPUR. Tests conducted by the Institute of Biomechanics and Orthopaedics of the German Sport University Cologne confirmed the benefits of the new system. “The new surface provides athletes with better stability of the big toes, ankles, and in particular of their knees. This effect results in a smaller loss of energy in these joints, and therefore in less oscillation of the body’s center of gravity. The new surface of the track therefore creates even better conditions for fast times.” And… There you have it!

Technology and engineering have contributed to other improvements such as: sprung floor in artistic gymnastics; fiberglass poles for pole vault, fiberglass with wood coating for the Uneven bars in gymnastics (when I competed… these were bold and wood… and could break when storage environment was too dry… and I got speared during a routine!). Materials have revolutionized the Pole vault as poles were originally constructed from hardwood, but soon changed to bamboo and finally to fiberglass, the material of poles used today.

Similarly, Sir Roger Bannister became the first man in the world to run the mile under four minutes in 1954; now 1,314 runners have accomplished that. Though, running on cinders is 1.5 percent slower than running on the modern track. If we were to account for that, about half of those runners would no longer be under the 4-minute mark.

Skis are faster, the wax is better (has become a science and is treated as a national secret by most Olympians): bikes are more aerodynamic as is the case in bob sledding and luge; shoes are lighter; high-performance swimsuits are more tailored and drag resistant, etc. By the way, the aerospace engineer and father of a swimmer of my team in Tempe, Arizona developed the aerodynamic swimsuits used by the US Team in Athens. I actually was involved in the primary research with a Paper Presentation at the American Swim Coaches Association (ASCA) World Clinic in Swimming: “Computational Fluid Dynamics: An analytical tool for the 21st Century.” The swimsuit research subsequently followed that presentation and principles of drag resistance were applied to develop the new bodysuit. As we now know, the new suit was controversial as it contributed to 48 World Records, and then was banned, and modification was made to allow the present knee-length version of the suit.

But it is more than just technology, according to Epstein. Today’s athletes train at a much more intensive level than they once did, and many have sport physiologists monitoring the progress. “Even College athletes are professionals in their training compared to Bannister, who trained for 45 minutes a day. “That guy was drinking rat poison and brandy because that’s what was considered a performance-enhancing drink,” says Epstein who, by the way, is one of the journalists who broke the news that Baseball Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroid use.

In addition, the bodies of athletes have changed. In the 1920s, the average body type was considered the ideal for every sport. Both shot putters and high jumpers were medium height and medium build. “As financial incentives and fame and glory for elite athletes skyrocketed, it accelerated the artificial selection for specialized bodies,” says Epstein. “Athletes’ bodies became much more different from one another …the large got larger, and the small got smaller.” Some refer to this as the “Big Bang of Bodies.”

Today’s shot putter is much taller and about 130 pounds heavier than the High jumper. The average gymnast has gone from 5’3″ to 4’9″ (2016 Gold Medal winner is 4’ 8”), while the average basketball player has gotten much taller. According to Epstein, the number of NBA players over 7′ has skyrocketed since 1993. “Today – if you know a man over 7’ – there’s a 17 percent chance he’s in the NBA right now,” he says.

Another example of body particularly well-suited to long distance running are from Kenya. However, it isn’t all Kenyans but those from the Kalenjin tribe, which accounts for about 12 percent of the population. The runners have “legs that are very long and very thin at the extremities.” This shape is not only ideal for cooling purposes but legs swing like pendulums while running which makes this body type more energy efficient. While 17 American men in history have run a marathon under 2:10 – 32 Kalenjin men have done it so far.”

There is, however, another important factor: namely the psychological aspect. Humans are pushing themselves to take on greater physical feats than ever before, which also requires tenacity and mental push although “the brain acts as an inhibitor, preventing us from accessing all our resources” thereby prevents us from hurting ourselves,” says Epstein. “The more we learn how limiting factors can be, the more we can learn how to push it back.”

Epstein cites the example of Kilian Jornet Burgada, who did a vertical assent of 8,000 feet, going up and down in three hours. “Talented though, Kilian is not a physiological freak,” says Epstein. “Other athletes now will follow, as they did Sir Roger Banister.”

Epstein’s Book is fascinating and very thought provoking because we all wonder who is going to be the next Olympic Champion with new record nobody expected.

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