Olympic athletes have become increasingly reliant on scientists as advisers. A Wired article by Mark McClusky explores the efforts of sports scientists to improve athletic performance as gains have become harder to achieve. The Australian Institute of Sport is leading the charge; its success is best-demonstrated by an example from the skeleton, a sledding event that was recently reintroduced as an Olympic event:
They determined that one significant predictor of success had nothing to do with the sled itself or even the skill of the pilot. The faster a competitor pushed the sled through the 30-meter start zone before jumping on it, the better they performed. So researchers set up a national testing campaign, looking for women with backgrounds in competitive sports who excelled at the 30-meter sprint. They also evaluated candidates to see how well they responded to feedback and coaching. Eventually, they picked a group of 10 athletes—including track sprinters, a water skier, and several surf lifesavers, an Australian sport that requires sprinting through sand.
The athletes were given access to the best coaching, equipment, and sports science. Every training and competitive run was analyzed and dissected as coaches looked for places to improve start and steering techniques. Specialized strength and conditioning programs targeted the needs of the sport, especially explosive power and sprint speed.
The program was a success: An Australian racer qualified for the Olympics just 18 months after she first saw a sled. Amazingly, she had completed only 220 runs before qualifying. (A typical US skeleton racer makes upwards of 2,000 runs before appearing in the Olympics.)