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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Truth About Olympic Records

I have been thinking about this too. I don't think Michael Phelps deserves a lot of credit for breaking several world records, he owes these records to technological innovation. Here is an article from Slate explaining the records:

A new record means that an athlete using today's equipment outperformed an athlete using yesterday's equipment. It's not a fair fight.
In swimming alone, today's advantages include:
1. LZR Racer suit. It reduces friction (compared with skin) and is structurally designed to compress and streamline the body for maximum speed. Estimated drag reduction: 5 percent to 10 percent. Estimated average improvement in top swimmers' best times: 2 percent. Designed by NASA scientists and computers, among others. Cost: $500.
2. Pool depth. This is the deepest pool ever used in the Olympics. Depth disperses turbulence, reducing resistance.
3. Pool width and gutters. Two extra lanes at the margins disperse waves to gutters, reducing ricochet and resistance.
4. Lane dividers. The plastic ones in Beijing deflect turbulence down instead of sideways, reducing resistance.
5. Starting blocks. Nonskid versions have replaced the old wooden ones, boosting dive propulsion.
6. Video. Recordings and analysis identify target variables such as stroke distance and turns.
7. Medical tests. Swimmers are blood-tested after each race to measure lactic-acid buildup.
8. Sports scientists. They run the monitoring and analysis. The U.S. swim team has four.
And here's a partial list of advances in other sports:
1. Lighter shoes. The latest material is carbon nanotubes.
2. Asymmetric shoes. Stronger carbon base in the right shoe tilts you to the left to increase speed as you round the track. Left shoe is designed to stabilize you.
3. Ice vest. It lowers your temperature before the race so you can delay overheating for better performance.
4. Hypoxic tents. Sleeping in low-oxygen chambers increases red blood-cell levels.
5. Aluminum javelins. They reduce vibration compared with the old carbon ones.
6. Bicycle wheels. Front wheels with fewer spokes (eight instead of 32) reduce weight and air resistance. So do composite one-piece rear wheels. All frames are carbon.
Michael Phelps' coach says the LZR suit is fair. "Everybody is in the suit so it's across the board," he
argues. That may be true of today's top swimmers. But it's not true of yesterday's. So comparing today's performances to the performances of 20, eight, or even four years ago—which is what "new Olympic record" means—is generally unfair.