Olympic Tech in China

Let the Games begin!

The torch has made it to Beijing, the world's elite athletes have assembled, and the opening ceremonies are now just two days away. Soon gold medals in some 300 events will be up for grabs.

At the Summer Olympic Games, the challenge for the athletes will be to embody the creed "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" through their superb physical and mental abilities. Still, there are going to be a few cases where technology will offer a helping hand. We'll take a look at such cases in a special blog during the Games over the coming weeks.

To jump right into the pool, let's discuss one of the most dramatic instances of athletic tech appearing in Beijing: a swimsuit engineered with space exploration in mind. According to a report from NASA, the U.S. swim team will be outfitted with suits made of an advanced material tested in one of the space agency's laboratories.

Known as the Speedo LZR Racer, the high-tech suits for both the men's and women's squads were developed by Warnaco Group Inc., of New York City. The secret to their advanced design lies in the material the firm's researchers settled on with feedback from NASA engineers. Warnaco's Speedo division calls the fabric FastSkin, which it developed by testing dozens of materials for surface smoothness.

The technical key to improving the performance times of swimmers (beyond enhancing training regimens) is cutting the drag the athletes create as they move through the water. So Speedo approached the space agency for a paid research project in one of NASA's low-speed wind tunnels. The tests took place at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The winning material was the one that showed the least resistance to the flow of air moving over it, or the least drag. Because air and water have similar dynamics in motion, the Speedo researchers concluded that the new fabric selected to be FastSkin would offer swimmers the best chance to lower their times.

PHOTO: NASA/Kathy Barnstorff

And have they ever. At the U.S. Olympic trials, world records fell like dominoes. The Americans wearing the new swimsuits have topped 48 of 50 world records since the LZR Racer debuted in February.

The leader of the men's squad, Michael Phelps (pictured center above), has his sights set on winning eight gold medals in Beijing (see this Reuters report), which would eclipse the record set by fellow countryman Mark Spitz in the water at the Munich Games in 1972. Phelps won six gold medals four years ago in Athens. Should he win just four more events this year, he would become the all-time top medalist in all Olympic sports, surpassing the nine victories posted by legends Larissa Latynina, Carl Lewis, and Paavo Nurmi.

The Speedo LZR Racer could be just the thing to give him a physical and mental edge to pull off his ambitions. He was recently quoted as saying of the outfit, "When I hit the water, I feel like a rocket."

Back at NASA's Langley facility, someone who works on rockets and the components they carry into space will be following the performances of the U.S. team with particular interest. Aerospace engineer Steve Wilkinson, who admits to knowing very little about swimming (but a lot about laminar and turbulent boundary layer physics) said he will be wondering as he watches the swim meet whether the champions are wearing the material he tested in his lab.

"I'm also going to be paying very close attention to the time," Wilkinson added.

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