Olympics 2021: How science helps runners

  • By Fernando Duarte
  • BBC World Service

The finish line in the men's 100m at the 2012 London Olympics

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The 2012 men’s 100m final in London, which featured seven of the eight finalists in under 10 seconds, was a harbinger of the future.

This is a seismic change to the main event in athletics, but spectators in London’s Olympic Stadium during the 2012 Games were unlikely to notice. They were understandably distracted by the sight of Usain Bolt crossing the finish line in the men’s 100m.

The Jamaican star won another gold medal that night and set the Olympic record in 9.63 seconds.

“It was one of the best races ever,” said Steve Hack, professor of sports engineering at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK.

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But Hack doesn’t sing Bolt’s praises. His comment is driven by the overall performance of the peloton: Seven of the eight athletes competing in this final crossed the line in under 10 seconds, which is unprecedented.

The 10-second barrier was first crossed in 1968, and it continues to be a major achievement for runners: a badge of honor that sets them apart from their peers.

But the number of “under 10 seconds” runners has exploded in recent years.

Data from World Athletics, the sport’s governing body, shows that in the four decades between 1968 and 2008, only 67 athletes crossed the barrier. Seventy more joined the club in the ensuing ten years.

growing club

Scholars like Haake believe it’s a combination of factors that start with increased participation in track events around the world. Then comes the access to better training methods.

“More and more athletes around the world are taking advantage of elite training and the help of sports science and technology to improve their chances of running faster,” Hack adds.

The proof is that the Under-10 club has expanded beyond the usual powers of the United States and Jamaica and countries like Britain and Canada – all of which have won at least one medal, an Olympic gold in the men’s 100m.

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In the women’s 100m, the 11-second barrier has been repeatedly crossed

Nigeria, for example, shares with Great Britain the third highest number of athletes to break the 10-second barrier with 10, while newcomers to the club are Japan, Turkey, China and the United Kingdom. Excellence in the enemy.

Similar results were obtained in 100m women as well. The 11-second barrier was first crossed in 1973 by East German runner Renate Stecher. In 2011, 67 other athletes achieved this. Ten years later, the total is 115 and also includes less traditional nations in the event.

Footwear, Tracks and Sports Science

Technology has really helped: Today’s runners run with lighter shoes – the latest models can weigh less than 150 grams.

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Running shoes have definitely come a long way…

Running tracks have also come a long way since the days when elite athletes would run on mud or grass surfaces in competition.

Synthetic tracks debuted at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, providing better protection for athletes’ joints and promising a springboard effect that allows for faster times.

At these same Games, American runner Jim Hines became the first human to run the 100 meters under 10 (9.95 seconds).

The search for faster tracks than ever means that even the shape of the vulcanized rubber granules used to build the running surface is now taken into account.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Italian paint manufacturer Mondo celebrated the five world records set on the track it provided for athletics competitions, almost as well as the runners.

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…and racing tracks too

Science has also played a role in nutrition and training. These days, runners can be deeply analyzed and adjustments can be made to their technique and reaction time.

Research has identified the muscles most important to runners’ success.

Last October, a team of scientists from Loughborough University, a leading institution in sports science studies, discovered that the gluteus maximus (the muscle that makes up the bottom) is essential for athletes to achieve maximum speeds on the track.

“So we may soon see runners specifically working on this development.”

Is the obstacle also psychological?

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American sprinter Jim Hines ran the world’s first under-10m race in 1968.

In an interview with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper on July 9, local runner Ryota Yamagata did not hesitate to attribute his under-10-meter crossing a month earlier to “the work of scientists over the past 20 years.”

No Japanese sprinter had broken the 10-second barrier until 2017. Since then, Yamagata and three other countrymen have succeeded.

It also appears that expanding a team under 10 seconds in number and variety makes the barrier less intimidating for athletes.

That is the view of China’s Bingtian Su, who in 2015 became the first man born in Asia to run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds.

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For Chinese runner Bingtian Su, the 10-second barrier is above all a psychological challenge.

“I think the barrier is more psychological than physical,” he said in 2019.

Who dominates the medals?

Obviously, these developments are not an automatic guarantee of success in breaking the barrier.

To this day, for example, many countries, including India, and even an entire continent (South America) have yet to produce a less than 10 runner in the men’s 100m or a sprinter in the men’s 100m. Less than 11 in the women’s 100m .

In fact, the expansion of the Under-10 Club has not upset the competitive balance in terms of medals.

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100m is still a duopoly between the USA and Jamaica

For both men and women, American and Jamaican runners have consistently dominated the Olympic and World Championship podiums since the 1980s.

On the men’s side, for example, Canadian Donovan Bailey was Canadian Donovan Bailey at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

On the women’s side, Yuelia Nestyarinka’s victory at the 2004 Athens Games was a surprise even for the Belarusian sprinter, as American athletes had won the race in the previous five Olympics – Jamaicans duly won all three of the following.

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