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Training Olympians Try Data Crunches

Sensors, video and laptops have become essential gear for U.S. competitors in Athens.

August 13, 2004|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Super-heavyweight power lifter Shane Hamman squeezes his face into a grimace as he grips a metal bar and hoists nearly 400 pounds of iron disks over his 62-inch chest, past his signature braided goatee and above his spiky brown hair before letting the weights crash to the platform.

Sheer strength, of course, is largely responsible for the performance. But so is a setup known as a bar tracking system -- a collection of wires, sensor pads and a video camera that records his lifts.

When Hamman calls up a clip of one of his lifts on a computer screen, accompanying charts and graphs tell him where he put pressure on his feet, how much power he exerted and whether he was able to keep the bar horizontal, among other sorts of feedback.

The Olympian uses the data to adjust his stance in various ways to make his lifts more effective. America's strongest man -- so called for his U.S. record of lifting 518 pounds -- credits the technology for perfecting the technique he hopes will propel him onto the medals podium in Athens, after having finished 10th at the Games in Sydney four years ago.

"I feel a lot more confident with this new technology," said Hamman, a native of Mustang, Okla., who at 32 is probably competing in his last Olympic Games. "I'm able to see I have room to improve, and this shows me the way to do it right."

The U.S. Olympic Training Center here is bristling with laptops, cameras, PCs, sensors and wireless data transmitters designed to give U.S. athletes an advantage in Athens. Cutting-edge technology has also 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 Sydney 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.

Even the U.S. Olympic Committee isn't sure how much is spent to keep American athletes technologically up to date. Dozens of governing bodies, covering sports as varied as archery and yachting, acquire their own computers and other gear, and no official keeps a tab on the total.

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 cutting-edge software. The Olympic committee for Laos, for instance, can afford only a single notebook computer.

So athletes from less-developed countries find themselves at a disadvantage even before the opening ceremonies begin tonight in Athens.

"There are certain sports that are completely technology-driven," said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Book of the Olympics." For instance, sailing, rowing, archery, shooting and even canoeing involve complex machinery and high-tech materials such as Kevlar. "You're not going to see many countries win medals," Wallechinsky said, "because not many can afford to build the machines."

Technology has played a role in elite athletic competition since electric timing was introduced at the 1908 Summer Games in London. By the 1940s, pole vaulters were using poles made of fiberglass, whose flexibility allowed athletes to launch themselves over higher bars. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries developed sophisticated sports labs with specialized training equipment to turn out top athletes who would win international prestige, Wallechinsky said.

By the time the Summer Games came to Los Angeles in 1984, cutting-edge technology 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 McGinnis, a professor of biomechanics at State University of New York at Cortland. "It was mostly helping to plan training for the next season."

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