Olympic Success: it’s a numbers game


So, there it is, 2012 is now 2013.  Olympic year is officially over, leaving emotional memories and a heavily worn box-set of BBC highlights.  In Singapore in 2005 after we won the Olympic bid, I vowed that I would have some influence on London 2012, whether it be volunteering or selling flags.   I can now say that we did 30 projects for 15 sports that provided coaches and practitioners with platforms to enhance athletic performance.  The point?  To win more medals.

 This work, and the platforms we created were not quite what we expected when we set out.

Blog version

Between Athens and Beijing, my team at the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield worked on ‘traditional’ mechanical engineering projects: aerodynamics, design, finite element analysis etc.  However, after Beijing, we found ourselves working on technical performance analysis systems.

What is Technical Performance Analysis?

Traditionally, much of Performance Analysis has been limited to taking video, analysing it manually over many hours, and producing a set of results for the coach.  Technical Performance Analysis uses modern sensors and image processing to automate the laborious video analysis so that analysis is almost instantaneous.  There are a number of features to Technical Performance Analysis: there is a single storage vault for all the data, a simple front end for retrieval, automatic analysis, and feedback of results in an appropriate way.

The simplest and most effective of our systems appears pretty dull:  an app to allow video, data and reports to be transferred to coaches and athletes smart phones and tablets.  The most complicated tracks trajectories of objects in the air in 3D and relays the data straight back to the coach.  Without giving anything away, I’ll let you work out for yourself which flying objects we’re analysing.

Of course, its the athlete who wins a medal, not a remote computer system, but given this, how can I be sure that our projects had any effect?  Firstly,  the performance analysts we are working with tell us the difference our systems have made.  Secondly, the budget we had to work with was pretty small, projects were carefully selected with the help of UK Sport on the principles of value for money and, more importantly, their likelihood of medal success.

2012 may be over but we are now working on systems to help win medals in Rio 2016.  If Team GB is to win more medals in Brazil, it will be the first time any host country has bettered the number of medals won at home.  It really is a numbers game, and Technical Performance Analysis will play a major part.  A popular quote by one of the 20th Centuries leading strategists (Arie de Geus) points the way:

The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.

About stevehaake

Steve did a first degree in Physics at the University of Leeds before landing two job offers: the first with BT turned out to be in a porta-cabin in the middle of a marsh, while the second was supposed to be image processing but was really smart-bomb design. This left a third option – a PhD in the mechanics of golf ball impacts on golf greens for a person who’d never hit a golf ball. It was a simple choice (the PhD if you didn’t guess) which led 25 years later to being head of a research team of 30-40 looking into similarly unlikely topics. Highlights of the career so far? The early years setting up the ISEA with the likes of Steve Mather, Ron Thompson, Clive Grant and Ron Morgan; the fact that the 1st International Conference on Sports Engineering in Sheffield in 1996 didn’t also turn out to be the last; and getting out the first issue of the first journal on Sports Engineering in 1998. The absolute high point, though, was being in the British Club in Singapore as a guest of the High Commission when the bid for the 2012 Olympics was announced. This has led to the team delivering projects with Olympic athletes that every scientist with a love of sport can only dream of. Steve is now a Senior Media Fellow funded by the EPSRC to encourage the public to engage in science, particularly in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.