2012 Summer Olympics: Lolo Jones & US Athletes Seek Science to Gain an Edge

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2012 Summer Olympics: Lolo Jones & US Athletes Seek Science to Gain an Edge
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones dons a selection of what appear to be white ping pong balls as she sprints and leaps her way down the 100-meter track. By day's end, a computer will inform her what she is doing right and where she can improve.

Welcome to Mathletics, the 21st century approach to running a faster race.

With the help of Red Bull Project X, Jones is learning how to better her chances of winning a medal in London by taking performance science to an Olympic level it has never quite reached before.

From Optojump LEDs to Phantom Flex Video, Jones is learning precisely how—from where to position her right hand at one second into her race or what part of her foot to jump off of at seven seconds. Jones and coach Dennis Shaver are hoping that the team at Red Bull, led by chief scientist, Richard Kirby and functional sport expert Vern Gambetta, will come up with technological advice so perfect that—assuming likewise flawless execution—Jones will have no other option than a podium finish in London.

Prior to the 2010 Vancouver Games, Winter X-Games hero Shaun White employed Red Bull scientists in his quest to perfect what would later become a gold medal-producing Double McTwist 1260.

Meanwhile in the pool, Arena has unveiled the Powerskin Carbon-Pro to assist athletes in their quest to glide effortlessly along the water. As Michael Phelps' swimming coach Bob Bowman said, "The suit does matter, it does help."

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
The LZR Racer, Speedo's trademark 2008 suit

After Speedo debuted the LZR Racer prior to the Beijing Games, the swimming world tried to keep pace with the spiraling technology, effectively banning rubberized bodysuits in 2009 while inserting stringent rules that required all suits used this season to have been submitted for approval on July 1, 2011. Unapproved suits would remain banned.

At the peak of the so-called "supersuit era" in 2009, 43 world records were set at that year's World Championships in Rome. In stark contrast, just two world records were broken at the 2011 Shanghai World Championships, one by American Ryan Locthe in the 200-meter individual medley and the other by China's Sun Yang in the 1,500 freestyle.

Yes, in the world's grandest sporting consortium, where the closest race is sometimes too close to call, even with high-speed cameras and all the power of precision timing, the stakes are high and no scientific leap is too large.

Yet at the same time that sprinter Tyson Gay is in the midst of his return from hip surgery—another scientific breakthrough of years gone by—scientists are stumped. Though Bloomburg University professor Reza Noubary hypothesized that the "ultimate time" for the 100—the point at which a human can run no faster—is 9.44 seconds, Usain Bolt has already told CNN, "If it's possible [to run faster], I'll be the one."

The way Bolt has been running, it looks very possible and given that Gay has already beaten the Jamaican once, having a dual sub-9.5 100 seems improbably attainable within the next decade. If anyone can break through professor Noubary's 95 percent confidence interval, surely it must be the best athletes in the world.

Still, as NBC demonstrated through their "NBC Learn" initiative in 2009, and in partnership with the National Science Foundation, physics and athletics go hand-in-hand.

Every Olympic Games, both summer and winter, athletes encounter physical properties—inertia, lift, drag, kinetic and potential energy, friction and, lest we forget—and if we do, just watch the pole vault—gravity.

As if that weren't enough, divers, synchronized swimmers, tri- and decathletes and gymnasts must contend with the complicated mathematical formulas that comprise an Olympic score.

As anchor Lester Holt explains, every Olympic sport is "math in motion." 

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