Summer Olympic Science

The delayed 2020 Olympic games are almost half-way through, with athletes making us armchair spectators feel as though we should be more active. Whilst this year’s summer Games are anything but normal during a pandemic, the athletes continue to perform and push themselves to the edge of what we can physically achieve as humans. Here we will explore the science of the Games.

Much has changed since the ancient Games first held in Olympia, Greece, with the first modern Olympics held in 1896 (Athens). Whilst the ancient Games relied on natural human ability, today’s athletes utilise the expertise of sports scientists to build upon natural ability and excel in their chosen field. Such scientists can optimise an athlete’s training, performance and recovery, maximising an athlete’s performance and minimising their injuries. At Olympic level, athletes work with numerous people who will break down their discipline to the science involved. Whilst runners understand how different muscle fibres impact their race performance, rowers need to understand fluid dynamics to optimise their timings; science is at the heart of world-class sport. Let’s take a look at the science of a few events.


Whilst genetics plays a large part (at just over 5ft and with a slight fear of the water, I’m not a natural swimmer), a scientific understanding of the sport can take an athlete from country to world champion. For example, swimming is much more than knowing how to do breast stroke and breathe at the right time (something I’ve been told I’m not great at…), flexibility and strength are both required too. Flexible joints (elbows, knees and ankles), allow a swimmer to move through the water with minimal resistance. They must also consider hydrodynamics (the forces on a swimmer as they move through the water), adopting more streamlined positions to compensate for drag created as they cut through the water. Even biochemistry plays a role. Lactic acid is more likely to build up in strokes such as the butterfly, obviously limiting an athlete’s performance. The lactate threshold is the maximum speed you can maintain without quickly tiring. Swimmers aim to train to increase their threshold but two further aspects can impact an individual’s peak lactate level too: nutrition and recovery.


As someone who danced throughout their childhood, I find myself transfixed by the gymnastics. From gravity defying tumbles on the mat, to holding-my-breath balance beam routines, gymnastics is full of physics. Let’s consider just the dismount from the women’s uneven bars, where they must interchange force and energy between themselves and the flexible bar, whilst pointing their toes and looking graceful. To begin the dismount swing, the gymnast must start in a handstand above the bar, as they drop, there is friction between their hands and the bar, reducing their rotational velocity (i.e. the speed at which they are spinning around the bar). To compensate, the gymnast will drop their legs and bend at the waist slightly (to also avoid the lower bar) and before being vertical below the bar, they must arch their backs to increase the rotational velocity again. At this point in the swing, the athlete can reach between 4 and 7 g’s. They complete the upswing by thrusting their hips, pelvis and stomach to swing their legs forward, pulling their centre of gravity closer to their centre of rotation. When they dismount, the flight time is usually less than 1.5s, during which they have to include a number of acrobatic tumbles. WHILST REMAINING GRACEFUL. I salute you gymnasts.


The Olympics is obviously about the athletes, but many will use equipment, all of which is scientifically fine-tuned for best performance and much utilises materials science. For example, pole vaulters have their own vaulting poles, designed for the user’s weight and height. Current poles are made from three layers of fibreglass and/or carbon-fibre cloth. The inner two layers are key to strength and flexibility, whilst the outer layer determines the stiffness. From athletics to cycling, where differences in cyclists’ bikes, wheels, their skinsuits and even helmets can influence their race time. This has been more evident than ever this year as, after the six hour men’s road race, silver and bronze medals had a photo finish. These people are not buying their bikes from Halfords like the rest of us. Materials scientists even influence cyclists skinsuits now, designing them to cut down on drag, increasing aerodynamics and speed. These are the milliseconds within which medals are won. You can read more about this amazing technology HERE.


Finally, just as the Games always close with athletics, let’s look at running. While you or I may aim for a personal best on our 5K (or even jog a little to make it to a train on time), the Olympics sees competitors completing distances between 100m to marathons (26.2 miles). For marathon runners, their aerobic efficiency is of most importance, specifically their oxygen absorption maximum (VO2 max), which is almost twice that of an average person. The harder your train, the higher your VO2 max becomes, allowing you to run farther and faster. To maximise oxygen use for muscle stamina, elite marathon runners’ muscles are largely composed of slow-twitch fibres, whilst for sprinters, their VO2 max is much less important and a higher percentage of fast-twitch fibres are needed. Fast-twitch fibres contract up to 10 times faster than slow-twitch, vital for super-fast starts and those blink-and-you-missed-it 100m races. Such sprinters can have up to 80% fast-twitch muscle fibres. Judging by the time it takes me to get out of my office chair, I do not…

I’m not a particularly sporty person, but the Olympics are so enjoyable. With over 11,000 athletes competing across 33 sports (339 events), there is something for everyone to get invested in. When you find the event that transfixes you, remember science, and in some cases technology, are pushing these athletes to the boundaries of human capability.

While You’re Here

If you are asking yourself questions like “how do I perfectly dunk my biscuit in this cup of tea whilst I watch the shot put?“, “should I move about a bit more?“, or even “do my genetics effect my weight?“, you should use the links below:

The Perfect Dunk

The amazing Netflix documentary series, The Last Dance, tells of the incredible basketball career of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. If you’re looking for a dunk in basketball terms, I suggest you watch it. Here we’re going to talk about tea and biscuits, sorry basketball fans. Tea lovers, you’re going to want to fetch the biscuit tin for this one…


Read more…

Is Sitting the New Smoking?

I recently heard this line in an episode of popular American sitcom Modern Family, “sitting is the new smoking”. It was an off hand comment but during the pandemic, lockdown and general office-style working, sitting has risen exponentially. What evidence is there that sitting is bad for our health?

Read more…

Skinny Genes

Last Friday (25th Jan) the media went mad for “skinny genes”, something in our genetic code which meant that people had a predisposition to staying skinny or becoming obese in later life. How much of it is genetics and how much is environmental?

Read more…

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