Going for gold

7 min read

Engineers are developing hi-tech solutions to help British Olympians, from archers to cyclists, win more medals in the 2012 Olympics. Berenice Baker looks at the developments

As the targets whizz past at breathtaking speed, the hidden laser detection system logs, identifies and reports on its quarry. The battlefield under surveillance is not in Iraq or Afghanistan but the Manchester Velodrome. And the targets in question are pursuit cyclists, whose training is being tracked by a system derived from military technology.


With all eyes on Beijing, British Olympians and their coaches are already preparing for a record medal haul when London plays host to the games in 2012. While the athletes are sweating it out on track and field, an equally dedicated team of engineers is working behind the scenes to refine equipment, optimise training and squeeze out the miniscule improvements in performance that can spell the difference between gold and silver.

In its search for excellence, UK Sport, the governing body that directs the development of British sport, is enlisting the know-how of a diverse range of companies and academics whose fields of expertise would not immediately come to mind when considering enhancing sporting performance.

Of the £100m per year being ploughed into preparations for the 2012 summer Olympics and the 2010 Vancouver winter Olympics, £1.5m has been earmarked annually for developing new technology. Dr Scott Drawer, the organisation’s technical adviser, has high hopes for a strong return on its investment.

‘It’s very much focused on medals,’ he said. ‘We aim to be fourth overall in the medal tables for able bodied and second for Paralympics in 2012, compared with an anticipated 10th and eighth in China.’

As well as developing hi-tech equipment and clothing, Drawer explained that engineers can play a part in boosting the medal haul in a number of less obvious ways.

‘There are lots of new ways to train, to recover and new ways of looking at how to measure performance in the field and provide much better feedback on athletes - 99 per cent of their schedule is about training. By being much smarter about the advantages coaches can get from those types of input, you’re going to make significant advances,’ said Drawer.

Although reluctant to reveal too much about the exact developments that could help UK athletes secure a competitive advantage, Drawer confirmed that no stone will be left unturned in the search for potentially useful technologies.

‘You can look at real-time displays to provide information on how someone is performing, building on technology for fighter pilots, for example. There’s also the possibility of using measurement technology from F1,’ he added. UK Sport has enlisted eight technology partners to achieve its goals, including ‘podium partner’ BAE Systems, which developed the cycle-tracking radar, dubbed THUMPER. The developers decided to adapt battlefield ‘friend or foe’ identification technology, having dismissed the original idea of using RFID tags, which were not accurate enough and interfered with the crank technology that measures power output.

Vince Handerek, senior principal research engineer in the electro-optical sensors group, explained: ‘An interrogatory laser is shone in a fan-shape across the target area. A tag made of retro reflector material, like that used in road signs and cat’s eyes, is fitted to the front axle of the bikes.

Each tag is identified with a series of black bands of variable thickness, like a barcode, to make a spatially modified retroreflector.

‘This is targeted by a spatial module slightly to the side of the transmitter. The coded signal is relayed to the timer, with a reference for the gate. It is sent back to a central computer to display timings for each cyclist and the data is processed to record intervals with millisecond accuracy.’

For eye safety, the interrogatory laser was taken down to a non-damaging frequency in the invisible spectrum and is targeted using a co-located green beam. To account for banking, it is set parallel to the track, however steep the angle, to capture all the riders.

Despite this, obscuration is still a problem if cyclists are directly in line, as they could be in a team pursuit event. A possible solution could be to affix the system above the track.

Another initial problem was that the Velodrome is electromagnetically active and interfered with the signal from the first prototype tested there, but later models were better shielded.

BAE also hopes to boost British cycling’s medal hopes by developing a precision-engineered component known as a Hirth coupling, which could provide cyclists with advantages in power transmission and reduced drag.

The device, which forms part of the bottom bracket where the crank is attached to the pedals, was made by Terry Whybrow, a keen cyclist and rapid processing technician at BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre.

‘As part of our partnership with UK Sport, we were approached by Dimitris Katsanis, an engineer and aerodynamics specialist who has been responsible for revamping the team’s equipment,’ Whybrow said.

The design was intended for use in the 2008 Olympics, but although BAE Systems managed to make the unit in a few weeks, rather than the usual development time of six months, the team narrowly missed the deadline.

Another BAE Systems collaboration, Solitaire, is adapting sailing technology to monitor training for the winter Olympics skeleton bob event.

Senior scientist Andy Cooke has been working with Andreas Schmidt, head coach of the skeleton bob team and a former gold medallist for the sport.

‘[Solitaire] stemmed from a requirement to be able to monitor speed and position of the sled at more positions along the track than the few timing gates on the courses,’ said Cooke.

‘We use an inertial measurement unit (IMU) fitted to the sled, which measures acceleration and rotation. We can take measurements up to 100 times a second to gauge what the sled is doing round the corners.’

The kit was adapted from hardware developed by UK data-logging specialist Pi Systems for the Royal Yachting Association. It is now lighter, weighing no more than 500g, and smaller, being around the size of an A5 sheet of paper.

It records the data on to a small removable disk from which the information can be offloaded after training and analysed.

Cooke said that feedback from the system will be used to inform design of the sled and help improve training, by allowing the coach to help the slider steer the optimum course around the track.

Intriguingly, because the prototype of Solitaire was completed outside the season for ice tracks in the Northern hemisphere, the team decided to test it on rollercoasters at Alton Towers theme park, where it recoded the kinematics of the rides accurately.

James Gerard, who manages BAE’s partnership with UK Sport, added: ‘Solitaire could easily be transferred to other high-G, high-impact, high-manoeuvring sports, such as rowing and cycling, and eventually in the Paralympics.’

The Solitaire research will dovetail with a parallel project at Southampton University, which will combine experimental and modelling techniques to help improve the understanding of skeleton bob performance, including the aerodynamics and the effect of the slider’s physique.

Another of UK Sport’s partners is Loughborough University Sports Technology Institute, a £15m warren of laboratories crammed with technology that would make James Bond’s Q division jealous. Football-kicking robots, golf ball driving machines and a customised shooting stool for a Paralympics archer are just a few of the systems under development at Loughborough.

One of the projects aimed specifically at 2012 athletes is investigating the use of a type of rapid prototyping technology known as selective laser sintering to develop sprint spikes customised for each athlete.

Project leader Neil Hopkinson explained that by using the technique to tune the longitudinal bending stiffness characteristics of sprint spikes, performance gains could be achieved.

‘In the elite athletes we studied, wearing the shoe optimised for them approximately doubled mechanical energy at the ankle, compared to barefoot conditions,’ he said.

The researchers adjust the sprint spike’s stiffness using geometry, changing thickness profiles and putting in features to change stiffness without affecting weight, but Hopkinson conceded that overall feel and perception is more important over short sprint distances.

Hopkinson has also experimented with changing material characteristics and infilling in different ratios of nylon and glass to increase the spike’s stiffness. He said that while this made the spikes slightly less flexible, overall it is a much cleaner approach to changing stiffness than the geometric technique.

Another of UK sport’s technology partners, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), has been hugely influential in stimulating the development of technology that could help in the quest for medals.

In a series of ‘Going for Gold’ workshops in 2006, EPSRC identified the key research areas that it thought could produce a competitive edge for athletes. Chief among these was the need to develop technology capable of providing real-time feedback of athletes’ performance to coaches.

Several highly promising EPSRC funded projects are under way. In one of these, a team a team led by Imperial College’s Prof Guang-Zhoung Yang is developing a range of miniaturised, wireless, body-sensor network devices to provide real-time feedback and in-situ analysis of various biomechanical indicators in athletes.

These devices are typically built into a wearable device or a patch. One example is an activity recognition sensor worn in the ear, which can provide information about shockwave transmission, body trunk position and other biomechanical indices used to infer performance and help coaches fine tune training.

‘Putting a sensor on the ear to try to work out from shockwave transmission what is happening to lower-body joints, such as the knees and ankles, sounds counter-intuitive, but it is learning from how the inner ear controls balance, using the body, and the skeleton, as a high-frequency wave transmitter,’ said Yang.

The ear-worn device, which is the size of a fingernail, incorporates three accelerometers. It has eight channels, so could also include sensors to monitor other indicators, such as heart rate and temperature.

To minimise power consumption, the device uses application specific integrated circuits (ASIC). The aim is for most of the processing to happen in the device, to minimise the power needed to transmit it. Yang’s team is working with researchers at Bath University, who are concentrating on improving sprinting performance.

Elsewhere, a team led by Prof Chris Cooper at Essex University has designed a system that uses Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) to measure levels of muscle oxygenation, then transmit the information wirelessly to the athlete’s coach in real-time.

The technology, which is being developed in partnership with a team at University College London, consists of two fibre optic leads that are attached to the athlete’s leg muscle by sticking plaster. One shines near-infrared light into the muscle, while the other detects the optical absorption of blood and therefore its oxygen content. Highly oxygenated blood is bright red and depleted blood has a bluer colour.

‘The device that sends the information is still a bit bulky - about the size of a heavy mobile phone,’ said Cooper. ‘We’re trying to make it small enough to integrate into clothing and make it waterproof to get feedback during swimming, as there are very few ways to test how good swimmers are.’

The device is being tested in the lab by elite triathlete Abbie Thorrington and in the field by student athletes.

Olympic cyclist Jason Queally, who won a Gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, underlined the importance of training feedback.

‘Any feedback we gave in the past was subjective, based on how we felt,’ he said. ‘But if you can find and measure what you were doing, that will give you objective feedback. We can now accurately say “today you struggled a bit and I think you should take some time off to recover”. Through science we’re greatly increasing the percentage of objective information we can use.’

From bike-tracking lasers to running spike manufacturing techniques, the technologies under development are as varied and eclectic as the Olympic events they are designed for. But they will all help achieve the same end results: more medals for Great Britain when the Olympic party arrives on these shores in four years.

‘This is about giving British athletes the best opportunity to succeed at the highest level,’ said UK sport’s Drawer. ‘It’s a competitive world - every other country has been pursuing particular avenues they believe will give them the edge, but we want to retain our competitive edge and ensure that we’re top.’