Science of sports: The latest technology can engineer gold-medal performances

July 19, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Mike Powell is surrounded by an entourage larger than the posse that escorts Eddie Murphy through Hollywood.

He has two massage therapists, a physical therapist, a general therapist, a water therapist, a chiropractor, a sports psychologist, a biomechanist, an orthopedic surgeon and a head coach.

There is a state-of-the-art weight room in his garage, a pool for exercise in his back yard and a fax machine in his den to communicate with his array of advisers. His jumps are videotaped and then broken down step by step, to reveal the tiniest flaws.

"If you want to push toward the envelope of human performance, you have to lean on science," said Powell's head coach, Randy Huntington.

And you thought the Olympics was just about sports.

The world's biggest sporting event is also the planet's largest science fair. On display are athletes sculpted by machines, poked by doctors, analyzed by engineers. The goal is to win gold medals in events in which a fraction of a second -- or an inch -- can mean the difference between first and fifth.

Sports science on an Olympic scale was introduced by the Soviets, perfected and in some cases misused by the East Germans and finally refined by Americans.

"They're turning athletes into Ferraris," said John Hoberman, a University of Texas Germanic language professor and author of the book, "Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport."

"It is of their own free will, of course," Hoberman said. "But it reminds me of the German athlete who once said, 'I don't care what they do, I just want to be on the victory stand.' You have a competent adult voluntarily surrendering his rights in order to win. Is it bad? That is what gets to the heart of what makes us uneasy."

A visit to the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., reveals the new sports science. Housed in an old army barracks, the complex contains treadmills for runners and cyclists, equipment to evaluate everything from cardiovascular fitness to the speed and velocity of boxing punches.

There are offices for sports psychologists. Rooms with pod chairs and portable CD players. Relaxation tanks.

Swimmers can take a dunk in a huge, $15 million tank of rushing water. Their strokes are videotaped, their bodies analyzed to the minutest detail.

Presiding over most of the gear, and the U.S. Olympic Committee's $2 million-a-year sports science program, is Jay T. Kearney, a former flat-water canoeist who received his doctorate in exercise physiology from the University of Maryland.

"It is our purpose to try to help any athlete achieve his highest level of performance," Kearney said. "To be internationally competitive, not only does an athlete have to have the genetic potential, but he has to come as close as possible to optimize every aspect of that potential."

So you have athletes monitoring every aspect of their lives, from sleep to diet to training. Heavyweight wrestler Bruce Baumgartner views "food as fuel," eating a diet rich in carbohydrates, ladling on pounds for a purpose. Sprinter Leroy Burrell has changed his diet more often than Delta Burke, swaying from meat and potatoes to vegetarianism.

The runners are also beginning to sound like football coaches. After winning the men's 100-meter -- at the U.S. Olympic trials, Dennis Mitchell said he would have to look at the videotape to know how well he ran.

Scientists have also transformed the dynamics of sports. Fiberglass poles and foam landing pits helped pole vaulters soar above once unthinkable heights. Running shoes became lighter and more comfortable.

Now, table tennis players practice against a robot. Cyclists ride on doughnut-shaped wheels developed in a wind tunnel. Canoeists and kayakers grab hold of new, lighter paddles cut from aluminum molds. Gymnasts catapult over the horse with the aid of a new anti-slip cover device.

"Everything is advancing, from athletes to equipment," said Don Peters, the 1984 U.S. Olympic gymnastics coach. "The technology has transformed a sport like gymnastics. The balance beams are softer. The mats springier. The bars have more give. The Olympic all-around champion of 1992 will be better than the all-around champion of 1988. And in 1996, someone better will come along."

Within a generation or two, geneticists may even enter the Olympic picture. This isn't some Frankenstein project. In their quest to locate and analyze genes, researchers could hit upon the secret keys of human performances.

"We're coming close to having some of that potential available," Kearney said. "But it is at the absolute outer edge of fantasy and science fiction to say you could create athletes. The singularly most important aspect of Olympics performance is the selection of your parents."

The right genes can yield the most medals.

Still, a support system helps. Just ask Powell, surrounded by a coach, therapist, doctors and biomechanist.

"We're a team," he said. "In the end, I jump. But you need to have people around you to help you."

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