Image: Wind-tunnel test
Calspan / Business Wire
Daron Rahlves, a member of the U.S. alpine men's ski team for the Turin Olympics, tests his equipment and his technique in Calspan's Low-Speed Wind Tunnel in Buffalo, N.Y. Wind-tunnel testing has become routine in Olympic preparations.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 2/8/2006 6:46:09 PM ET 2006-02-08T23:46:09

To sharpen their competitive edge, some of the U.S. Olympic athletes have been playing brain-controlled video games. Others have gotten room makeovers. Still others are wearing tighter clothing. And almost all of them have been caught on video.

Believe it or not, this is serious stuff: Such technological tricks could make an athlete a fraction of a second faster, or just a little more alert — potentially spelling the difference between a medal-winner and an also-ran. But how do you separate the winning formulas from the high-tech hoohah?

Bill Sands, head of sport biomechanics and engineering for the U.S. Olympic Committee, has seen both sides of the high-tech equation: He says he's sitting on some not-yet-publicized innovations in training that have yielded "staggering results," but he's also turned down plenty of "hare-brained ideas" that he feels aren't worth the athletes' time.

"It's our obligation to do good science," he told MSNBC.com from his office in Colorado Springs, Colo. "People have come up with ideas for performance enhancement that they think are really cool and oftentimes seem logical. But when you test them, they just don't work."

The aerodynamic edge
So what does work? Sands points to the trend toward lighter, aerodynamically designed uniforms for speed-oriented sports such as skating and skiing. "I think we can pretty confidently say that those things work," he said. "The question might be how much of a contributor it is."

Image: Hockey uniform
Nike
The U.S. hockey team's uniforms were redesigned to cut down on aerodynamic drag and improve venting.
Consider the somewhat less baggy uniforms that the U.S. hockey team will be wearing this year at the Turin Olympics. Nike redesigned the jerseys to cut down on aerodynamic drag, developed lighter and better-fitting skates and even reduced the weight of the socks by 40 percent, said company spokesman Nate Tobecksen.

During testing, the tighter uniforms made skaters ever-so-slightly speedier: "From red line to red line, it's like a blade's-length difference in speed," Tobecksen told MSNBC.com. "So it could mean the difference for getting to the puck as opposed to being taken off the puck."

Nike also used new breeds of polyester materials to create short-track speed skating suits that are half the weight of the previous models. Meanwhile, Spyder outfitted the U.S. ski team in suits that that incorporate a material designed to harden upon impact, protecting vulnerable joints from injury. Spyder's suits, like Nike's, have been extensively tested in wind tunnels.

"We can make a suit even more aerodynamic," Spyder spokeswoman Laura Wisner told MSNBC.com, "but it wouldn't be race-legal."

Wind-tunnel testing has become routine for checking the aerodynamics of sport equipment ranging from ski poles to bobsleds, as well as the technique of Olympic racers in skiing, skeleton, skating and luge events.

Instant replay
Another high-tech routine has to do with video monitoring of the athletes' performance. During training, the Olympians face almost as much video-based second-guessing as the tribes in the "Survivor" immunity challenges. One of the leaders in the field is Swiss-based Dartfish, whose video analysis software is being used by nine national Olympic teams, including the U.S. team. (The technology will also be on display in NBC's Olympic coverage.)

"We can superimpose two different ski runs, put them side by side and see why one was going faster than the other," Dartfish spokeswoman Nicole Hill told MSNBC.com. She said the applications for the software were spreading to other pursuits as well, ranging from physical therapy to dancing to cheerleading.

Sands said the scientific value of video analysis was virtually a no-brainer: "You'd be pretty hard-pressed to find someone who would say seeing something and understanding it better doesn't work. Most of science — like X-rays, or thermal imaging — involves the application of technologies that just help people see things in ways that they haven't seen them before. And slow motion is a classic example of that."

So what specifically doesn't work? Sands says he's heard claims for products ranging from bee pollen and turtle soup to high-tech shoe insoles. "Our typical response is, where is the data?" he said. "Show me where you've tested elite athletes with or without the insoles, and where the ones with the insoles have jumped higher. ... If you don't have the data, then I can't help you. I'm a scientist. I get swayed by the data."

Mind games for Olympians
In addition to the clear wins and the questionable claims, there's a wide gray area in performance-enhancing technology: ideas that are supported by data outside the sports world, but haven't yet been fully tested by elite athletes.

Take the example of the brain games. Actually, they're screen simulations of bobsled runs, devised by Play Attention to train the women's Olympic bobsled team. The game is controlled by a sensor-lined helmet that "picks up brain-wave activity indicative of cognitive activity and focus," said Peter Freer, Play Attention's developer and the founder of Unique Logic & Technology.

"What we provide is a 3-D simulation for the women, where they can drive a bobsled down the track by mind alone," Freer told MSNBC.com. "The less they focus, the slower the screen goes."

Theoretically, the software should train the athletes to maintain their mental focus even in the face of rough spots or other distractions on the course. They should be able to get their head back in the game faster instead of dwelling on their mistakes.

At least that's the theory.

Image: Play Attention simulation
Play Attention
Play Attention's software displays a simulated bobsled run that the player controls by brain waves alone. Electrical signals associated with cognitive activity and mental focus are picked up by sensors mounted inside the helmet.
The Play Attention system has been used in hundreds of school districts over the past decade to help kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, but Freer said this marks the first time his biofeedback system has been applied to Olympic-level sports.

"What we want to do with this is to get the data from the coach to show that we are making progress with this," Freer said. "We can create application after application which will mimic the situations that sports athletes find themselves in."

Sands said the U.S. Olympic Committee was interested in methods to help athletes recover from miscues, although he couldn't say anything about specific recovery strategies. "To be honest, there isn't much scientific data out there that shows that it really works, but even I would say there has to be something there," he said.

Gold-medal remodel
And about those room makeovers: The Hilton hotel chain offered to remodel 160 rooms at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and former NASA researcher Mark Rosekind was called in to optimize the rooms for peak performance. For Rosekind, who is now president of Alertness Solutions, that meant making the environment as conducive to a good night's sleep as possible.

Image: Remodeled room
Hilton Hotels
After remodeling, speedskater Apolo Ohno's room in Colorado Springs looks less like a dorm room and more like a ... hotel room?
Although there hasn't been a lot of work done with athletes on the effects of sleep disruptions, the ill effects of sleeplessness have been well-documented with astronauts, Rosekind said. "For an eight-hour sleeper who gets two hours less, that two hours of sleep loss can impair performance to the equivalent of a .05 blood alcohol level, which is the same as having two or three beers," he told MSNBC.com.

So in each of the dorm rooms, the spartan twin bed was replaced with a plush full-size bed. Blackout curtains were added to the windows and extra lamps were installed, giving the residents more control over the lighting. "A lot of these athletes take afternoon naps because of their practice schedules," Rosekind explained.

The athletes gave Rosekind high scores: "It sounds simple, but getting the proper rest really does increase my confidence and abilities on and off the track,” Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno, the first dorm resident to get the remodel, said in a Hilton news release.

Although the rules don't allow for remodeling the rooms in Turin's Olympic Village, the athletes have brought along bedding and alarm clocks identical to those used in Colorado Springs. In addition, Rosekind has drawn up custom sleep schedules for the traveling athletes, to minimize jet lag.

"Sleep, which is pretty critical for everybody, has been kind of ignored," Rosekind said. "Even though it's not rocket science, it's interesting how much people ignore it in their own lives."

Big bets vs. little bets
Could a couple of extra hours of sleep, or a few rounds of biofeedback training, really make the difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? Sands said sport scientists may never know.

"From my experience, it's almost never one or two things," he said. "A zillion things have to come together at just the right moment for superior performance to occur."

Every once in a while, Sands and his colleagues come across scientific findings worth publishing in a medical journal — and he said some of those findings are due to come out in April, weeks after the Olympics end. "We've gotten staggering results, but unfortunately you'll have to wait until April," Sands said.

More often, scientific and technological advances improve athletic performance by only a percentage point or so, just a little bit above what would be expected based on an athlete's natural variability. Fortunately, all those little bits add up.

"Most of what happens in sport science isn't what I would call the big-bet hypothesis," Sands said. "What we find is that we chip away at it. We find a little piece of the puzzle that makes some thing work a little bit better. What I think really happens here is that we make millions of small bets."

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