Technology offers an Olympic edge

Training: Cameras and computers are the state-of-the-art equipment athletes are using to help them go for the gold.

August 19, 2004|By Terril Yue Jones | Terril Yue Jones,LOS ANGELES TIMES

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The U.S. Olympic Training Center is bristling with laptops, cameras, PCs, sensors and wireless data transmitters designed to give U.S. athletes an advantage in Athens.

Cutting-edge technology also has been installed in the U.S. Olympic Committee's two other training centers, in Chula Vista, Calif., and Lake Placid, N.Y.

Long jumpers use the gear to download the last gold medalist's winning leap to compare with their own. Gymnasts can see why not gaining enough elevation or coming out of a tuck too early made them blow their dismounts. Soccer teams can stream video archives of an opponent's penalty kicks to seek clues about where a striker is likely to aim the ball.

"The progress in technology in the last few years has been exponential," said Tanya Porter, the training center's head of performance technology.

The big breakthrough since the Sydney Games was in the portability of notebook computers and the power they pack. Today's laptops do the complex data processing that only a few years ago required high-end desktops costing twice as much, Porter said.

Laptop-equipped coaches and athletes can connect wirelessly from a stadium or an airport lounge to servers in Colorado Springs and access statistics on thousands of athletes around the world.

The technological progress hasn't been universal. Competitors from many countries can't afford the basics, such as gymnasiums, pools and proper training shoes, let alone laptops, video cameras and state-of-the-art software. The Olympic committee for Laos, for instance, can afford only a single notebook PC.

Technology has played a role in elite athletic competition since electric timing was introduced at the 1908 Summer Games in London. By the time the Summer Games arrived in Los Angeles in 1984, the it involved 16-millimeter film. Peter McGinnis remembers shooting athletes with a bulky camera, then developing the film, digitizing it and manipulating it to obtain stick-figure animation sequences that showed athletes how they could improve performance.

"The film was expensive, and it took a turnaround of six to eight months for athletes to get it," recalled Peter McGinnis, a professor of biomechanics at State University of New York at Cortland. "It was mostly helping to plan training for the next season."

Laptops are the latest must-have equipment for athletes in training. The U.S. team uses them to tap into hundreds of hours' worth of archived workouts and competitions.

Athletes and coaches can compare two competitors side by side or superimpose one on the other for a more direct comparison. For instance, a video of two women performing the same dive off a 10-meter platform showed that the one who got slightly less altitude at takeoff had a split-second less to straighten out before ripping into the water's surface.

There are advantages today that athletes didn't even have as they trained for the Sydney Olympics. In 2000, people were only beginning to load home videos onto computers, and Internet connections were painfully slow by today's standards.

The pace of technological change is "amazingly fast," said Greg Seremetis, a marketing executive with Gateway Inc. who is in Athens to hook up Wi-Fi wireless networks to link the U.S. team to the servers in Colorado Springs. "Wi-Fi was hardly available just four years ago. Now it's in most laptops."

To some, the technological disparity is merely a new manifestation of a condition that is as old as the modern Olympic movement, launched in 1896.

"It never has been a level playing field," said Kevin Wamsley, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies in London, Ontario. "Even training and funding of sports is related to the GDP [gross domestic product] and the economy."

The International Olympic Committee tries to mitigate the imbalance by offering monthly stipends and training abroad to promising athletes through its Olympic Solidarity Program and other assistance efforts. But it's not enough for an athlete to buy a computer with, said Emmanuelle Moreau, a manager for institutional affairs with the International Olympic Committee, which is based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In any case, she said, "the majority of athletes in developing countries are more concerned with basic training facilities."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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