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The ATHLETE of the FUTURE : How Sports Scientists Are Harnessing the Mechanics of Motion, the Chemistry of Strength and the Power of the Mind

March 19, 1989|PATRICIA LOVEROCK | Patricia Loverock was a member of Canada's 1976 Olympic Track and field team.

A RESEARCH SUBJECT NAMED Orel Hershiser appears on a movie screen in an Inglewood laboratory. Hershiser is pitching the ball for the sake of science, so rather than Dodger Blue he wears only a baseball glove, shorts, socks, shoes and an array of electrodes and wires. As he throws, the upper body that looks slightly skinny on the mound is remarkably muscular and fluid. He uncoils and explodes across the screen in slow motion--frame by frame--hands, wrists, arms, trunks, hips and legs flowing together in perfect synchronization as he winds up and lets the baseball go.

Three 16-millimeter move cameras are filming front, side and overhead views of the pitch at 500 frames per second. On an 8-foot-high console, 2,000-foot reels of 1/4-inch magnetic tape record microprocessed signals from every twitch of Hershiser's muscles. An oscilloscope's electrical wave traces his muscular activity, and a printer simultaneously spews out a copy of the image appearing on the scope. An electronics technician intently monitors the performance of these data-collection devices.

Hershiser's cooperation with the scientists at Centinela Hospital Medical Center is helping define the path of athletic excellence to come. On film and on an electrical-energy graph, Hershiser is part of a study of human movement that seeks to enable doctors to understand how muscles function--and malfunction. The information they're gaining could allow them to diagnose and treat injuries without surgery, and ultimately help prevent sports injuries. It's just one of the experiments being conducted in biochemistry, biomechanics, psychology and even genetics that may change the way American athletes are trained, treated and expected to perform in the next century.

Surprisingly, in this country, "the whole idea that science has something to do with the performance of athletes is new," says Dr. Harmon Brown, chairman of sports medicine and science for the Athletic Congress, the governing body for track and field in the United States. Americans, he says, have been slow to accept the idea of sports as a legitimate focus for research. The Soviets pioneered the field before the 1952 Olympics, traveling around the world to film outstanding athletes and study their training programs. Then, in 1952, instead of copying what they had seen, they began designing their own research. The results were dramatically apparent in the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, when Soviet athletes, who just four years before had won 29 gold medals to the United States' 45, came away with 50 gold medals, besting the Americans' 33. Equally striking was the improvement of the East German team, which won nine gold medals in 1968 but took home 20 in 1972 and 40 in 1976. That showing helped jolt Congress into passing the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, giving the U.S. Olympic Committee the authority to fund research and create an organization to raise money for scientific support programs and research committees.

As the fledgling U.S. sports-research program begins to bear fruit, it is changing the shape and psyches of American athletes, who are feeling increasing pressure to turn to sports science not for the quick fix of steroids and illegal performance enhancers but for safe, sophisticated ways to reach their potential. What follows is a sampling of the ideas and experiments that could help create the American sports superstars of the next generation.

The Mechanics of Motion

THE SCIENCE of biomechanics is based on observation. Watch the body perform a movement, analyze that motion and use the findings to adjust the next performance. Increasingly, scientists and coaches are using advanced technology to observe activity that is not readily visible to the eye, breaking a single motion into finer and finer parts and, theoretically, perfecting it. In coming decades, experts say, they'll be watching athletes move from the inside out.

Biomechanical computer analysis established its place in sports training when the United States women's volleyball team won its first Olympic medal, a silver, in 1984. Head coach Arie Selinger gave much of the credit to Gideon Ariel, a Coto de Caza biomechanics expert and computer specialist. Using computer technology he developed in 1968 when he "married WordStar to 'Rocky,' " Ariel converted videotape images into colored stick-figure-type drawings that move in three dimensions. The simple images on the computer screen allowed Selinger and Ariel to see what a trained human eye missed: the precise angle of the players' joints as they jumped, served, blocked and spiked. Movement of the joints is a clue to the workings of the muscles, showing which muscles are working the hardest and pinpointing possible weaknesses. Selinger and Ariel used the computer data to adjust the team's training programs and, Ariel says, to make medalists of what might have been a 15th-place team.

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