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Science on the Track: Exploring the Summer Olympic Games

Biomechanical Marvels

If you have ever visited our Sports Lab here at the Connecticut Science Center, you have learned about how important science is in sports. Today, we are going to talk about how track runners are biomechanical marvels. First, let’s start out by defining biomechanics, which is the study of the movement of living organisms. So how important is a runner’s biomechanics during the race? Running required greater balance, muscle strength and joint range of motion than walking does, making it a more difficult skill for humans to master.

Learn even more about why this is all so important as researchers analyze what makes Usain Bolt, the fastest man in history, a biomechanical marvel. Check out this National Science Foundation feature on the Biomechanics of Usain Bolt.

It’s not about how fast you run, it’s how you run fast! Watch the video below to learn how you can improve your technique and run faster.

Timing Is Everything

With the level of competition increasing across the Olympic Games, and across sports in general, photo finishes have now become the norm rather than the exception. That means the technology needs to be spot on to decide the difference between a first and fourth place in many cases.

In track and field events, all aspects of timekeeping are electronic, from the starting gun to the finish line. The electronic starting “gun” is connected to speakers located behind each of the runner’s starting blocks. This ensures that all runners hear the starting sound at the exact same time. The system is also connected to sensors in the starting blocks that are able to measure false starts. If the sensors detect pressure in under 100 milliseconds, faster than a human can react to the sound of the starting fun, then a false start is declared. At the finish line, a laser is projected across all eight lanes. As the runner crosses the finish line, they disrupt this beam. This disruption sends a signal to the timing system, automatically recording the runner’s time.

The 100-meter men’s final race in Tokyo this year shows just how important having accurate and precise timekeeping is. We witnessed not only a difference of .09 seconds between the gold and bronze finalists but also a false-start disqualification.

The women’s 100m hurdles race from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games once again shows how critical this technology is to accurately award the top performer. See the video below for the photo finish and how technology helped to keep the race accurate. (Start video at 4:30).

There are some races where the above technology just does not work as well, such as longer marathon races. The large number of runners that participate in this event makes it impossible for them all to leave the starting line at the same time. At the end of the race, there can be dozens of runners crossing the finish line at the same time. It is for these reasons, the block sensors and laser beam do not work to measure the beginning and end of a marathon race. In marathon races, each runner has a radio-frequency identification tag attached to their shoe. Mats at the starting line, finish line, and throughout the course pick up each runner’s signal and records their time.

Science of the Long Jump

The long jump has been described as one of the most technically challenging events in track & field competition. There are four phases that need to be taken into account when looking at the long jump: the run up, the take-off, the flight, and the landing. All three need to be perfectly timed to complete a successful long jump. Speed is a critical component of the long jump, but it remains just one component. In long jumping, the human body becomes a projectile flying through the air. To maximize trajectory, a long jumper must maximize their horizontal velocity (how fast they run down the runway) and their vertical velocity (their speed at takeoff). The distance traveled by the long jumper is ultimately decided by the launch angle, which is the angle the athlete jumps at when they hit the board. The ideal launch angle is between 18 and 22 degrees. These launch angles allow the jumper to maintain the velocity they built up during their run down the runway once they leave the board.





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Katelyn Rutty is the Communications Coordinator at the Connecticut Science Center where she manages all of the online content platforms. She has a Masters in Business Administration from Western New England University.