Electronic Design

Technology Takes London’s Olympics To The Cutting Edge Of Performance

Timing is everything, especially at the Olympic Games.

Omega, an official timekeeper for the Olympic Games since 1932, sent a single technician with 27 stopwatches to the 1938 Summer Games in Berlin to time the track events. This year, the company has committed more than 450 onsite technical professionals and other specialists, along with 800 trained volunteers, 420 tons of equipment, 70 public scoreboards, 320 sport-specific scoreboards, and 180 km of cables and optical fiber on the ground to the Games in London. It also will bring along several new devices and technologies, mostly for timing track, swimming, and cycling events.

Take Your Marks…

One of the more obvious changes will be the starting blocks for swimming events. An adjustable slanted foot rest will allow swimmers to push off from a crouch position with the rear leg at a 90° angle at the knee, optimizing the power swimmers can generate against the block from the starting signal (Fig. 1). These new blocks were first introduced in international competition at the FINA/ARENA Swimming World Cup in 2009 in Stockholm to give world-class swimmers plenty of time to become comfortable with them in actual competition before the 2012 Olympics.


1. Swimmers at the 2012 Olympic Games will have a much better chance of improving their times with new starting blocks that offer a slanted footrest, allowing them to push off from their usual crouched starting position.

Like the starting blocks used in track events, the swimmers’ new blocks have a system that detects false starts. Also like sprinters in track, the swimmers have their own acoustic start devices, or “horns,” so they all can hear the start signal at the same time.

Starting blocks first were used for the track events in the previous London Olympic Games in 1948. At the preceding Games in 1936, sprinters had to dig their own marks for starting with hand trowels normally used for gardening. The starting blocks introduced in 1948 essentially equalized starting conditions for each runner.

In 2012, the runners’ reaction time will be measured entirely by the measurement of force against the back block and not by movement (Fig. 2). The new blocks can detect the reaction times of every runner—large or small, male or female—without changing any settings. (A false start is triggered as the runner leaves the starting blocks within 100/1000ths of a second of the gun being fired.)


2. The starting blocks in the track events at the 2012 Olympic Games will measure force against the back block, not movement, to gauge the runners’ reaction times.

Also, the center bar in the sprinters’ starting blocks is now thinner, enabling an improved starting position, especially for women runners. It has been reduced from 80 to 50 mm. The foot rest is wider as well, expanded from 120 to 160 mm, allowing for different starting positions.

Athletes and fans also will notice a new starter’s gun at the London Olympic Games (Fig. 3). Three things happen simultaneously with the new gun: a sound is “played” over speakers behind each competitor, guaranteeing that they all hear the start signal at the same time; a light flash is emitted; and a start pulse is given to the timing device. Pressing the trigger a second time within two seconds audibly signals the false start. The sounds can be changed and downloaded by computer. At some venues, the audio start signal can be heard over the public address system.


3. A new, futuristic-looking starter’s gun will make it easier to detect false starts during track events.

In some of the longer track events, such as walking and the marathon, all of the competitors will wear a very small transponder tied to their shoelaces, not unlike the New York Marathon and other long distance races run today.

Dressed For Success

The big new thing for Olympic swimmers is Speedo’s Fastskin3 Racing System, the first swimsuit, cap, and goggles designed as a single, cohesive unit (Fig. 4). Working with Speedo, simulation software developer Ansys used computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to improve the performance of its competitive swimsuits.


4. Working with Speedo, Ansys developed new goggles for swimmers by analyzing lens position relative to the eye, bridge design and fit, and goggle seals.

Research indicates that the system, when worn together, reduces full-body passive drag by up to 16.6%, improves oxygen economy by up to 11%, and reduces active body drag by up to 5.2%. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 47 gold medals—and 89% of all swimming medals—were won by athletes wearing Ansys-developed LZR RACER swimsuits.

The prototypes for the new cap and goggles were designed in conjunction with a new swimsuit, designed in line with guidelines revised in 2010 by the world governing body of swimming, Federation Internationale de Natation, or FINA, calling for swimsuits that cover less of the swimmer’s body than the previous LZR generation of whole-body suits.

Ansys DesignModeler was used to refine the overall shape of the next-generation goggles, including lens position relative to the eye, bridge design and fit, side arm assemblies, and goggle seals. The new goggles produced less turbulence that would negatively impact the performance of competitive swimmers. The Ansys/Speedo team also used head scans to study variations of actual cap fittings, focusing much of their attention on swimmers’ hair to minimize drag.

“Engineering simulation has been absolutely critical in launching this world-first concept,” says Tom Waller, head of Speedo’s Aqualab. “I’m confident this collaboration will continue to impact the future of competitive swimming by driving ongoing innovation.”

Touch Pads For Swimmers

Olympic athletes and fans alike have become used to the touch pads at the end of the pool that automatically stop the clock of every swimmer at the end of each race. The system was first used at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and it made its Olympic debut at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. The touch pads have been used at every Olympics since.

What’s new at the London Games is an innovative light system called the Swimming Show. Lights are mounted on the starting blocks positioned next to the touch pads at the end of the pool where the swimmers complete the race (Fig. 5). A single large dot of light on a swimmer’s starting block indicates first place. Two medium-sized dots of light indicate second, and three smaller dots of light indicate a third place finish.


5. Built into the new starting blocks, the Swimming Light Show will indicate first, second, and third place finishes.

The Swimming Show was conceived primarily for spectators, who won’t have to check the scoreboard to determine race results. It also can indicate the intermediate rankings of the top three swimmers every 100 meters.

Another innovation, the Open Water Gate, was designed specifically for the men’s and women’s swimming marathon (Fig. 6). As in races in the pool, intermediate times will be available to spectators. The gate at the finish line used by marathon swimmers has touchpads with vertical transponder antennas, while the ones in the intermediate positions along the course have horizontal transponder antennas that pick up signals from transponders swimmers will wear on their wrists. There are also high-definition cameras at the finish to serve as a backup system for close finishes.


6. Swimmers will tag the Open Water Gate when they cross the finish line during the outdoor events at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Jump Farther, Swim Faster

Behind the scenes, technology has been developed to help athletes improve their performance in anticipation of the Olympic Games. For example, the BMW Technology Office in Mountain View, Calif., has just wrapped its part of a velocity measurement program with USA Track & Field that would help athletes improve their performances.

The system uses stereovision technology and machine vision software algorithms to capture swimmers and long jumpers in motion and then automatically calculates their performance metrics. Potential Olympians are now using the technology at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Visa, Calif.

The system provides real-time analysis of three key parameters in the long jump, an event that has produced only two records in the last 44 years—the most recent 21 years ago by Mike Powell of the U.S., who jumped 29.4 feet World Track& Field Championships in Tokyo in 1991. The first measurement is the jumper’s speed approaching the takeoff board. The second is vertical takeoff velocity, and the third is takeoff angle.

Having spent about a year working the kinks out of that system, BMW is now working with USA Swimming to adopt motion tracking analysis for swimmers’ starts and turns.

Swiss engineers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne’s Laboratory of Movement Analysis and Measurement, meanwhile, have designed a waterproof device called the Physilog III. Small enough to hold in your hand, this inertial sensor system is equipped with accelerometers and gyroscopes that can be sewn into pockets in the arms and legs of a full-body swimming suit to measure the time, speed, acceleration, and instant velocity of swimmers as they push off the side of the pool (Fig. 7).


7. The waterproof Physilog III is equipped with accelerometers and gyroscopes that can be sewn into pockets in the arms and legs of a full-body swimming suit to measure the time, speed, acceleration, and instant velocity of swimmers as they push off the side of the pool.

Still in the prototype stage, the device is designed to improve a swimmer’s overall performance and reduce wasteful motion. Researchers also have developed a special snorkel to measure swimmers’ gas exchange ratio to improve their breathing technique. So far, the devices have been used to analyze two strokes—freestyle (or crawl) and breaststroke.

The Twitter Games

The Internet infrastructure at the London Olympics, already dubbed the “Twitter Games,” is expected to absorb a tidal wave of traffic. BT, the official communications service for the Games, says it will have 500,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across London. BT already supports 475,000 hotspots in the greater London area.

Olympic Park, where most of the major events are scheduled, is expected to have the largest density of Wi-Fi deployment anywhere, with more potential Wi-Fi users in one place at one time. The Wi-Fi will complement 3G networks and allow users to download and upload as much data as they like.

NBC will be televising the London Games. This time, the network will stream virtually every event live at NBCOlympics.com. While this may sound promising for fans who anticipate this great athletic circus every four years, the events that are streamed will not be “produced.” In other words, the footage won’t have any context (no editing or announcers), unlike what’s broadcast in prime time. And viewers will only get to see it once, since the footage won’t be archived.

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