Innovation

How wearable sensors helped the US Olympic team win 121 medals at Rio

In preparing for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the US team employed a handful of wearable devices to analyse the performance of its elite athletes.

At the end of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the United States walked away with the most medals, claiming 46 gold, 37 silver, and 38 bronze for a total of 121—almost double that of second place United Kingdom, which pocketed a total of 67 medals.

Of the 121 medals, the track and field team won 32 and the country's top swimmers walked away with 33—65 medals from just two teams. Those two teams fall under the "sportfolio" responsibility of Phil Cheetham, a senior sports technologist for the US Olympic Committee.

It's Cheetham's responsibility to make sure the elite athletes are performing to their full capability, taking advantage of technology and wearable devices in particular to achieve this.

SEE: Internet of Things policy (Tech Pro Research)

Speaking at the December 2017 WT Wearable Technologies Conference in Sydney, Cheetham said he has been spending a lot of time on innovation and technology in preparing athletes for the world stage.

"We formed a technology and innovation group around a year ago and we have that separately funded, so I have the luxury of starting to look at different and new technologies across the board that can help improve performance for our athletes," he explained.

He later explained that it "doesn't matter what technology it is, if it can help us improve performance, and if it can help us win medals, then we're looking at it and it's [across] all sports."

Cheetham, who himself was in the Australian Olympic team for gymnastics at both the Montreal and Moscow Olympics, is based at the Athlete Training Centre in Chula Vista, CA. His sportfolio covers what he called a "mish-mash" of what was left over after separating disciplines: Swimming, track and field, weight lifting, equestrian, and shooting.

Where track and field is concerned, Cheetham shared the story of two shot put athletes, Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs, who walked away with gold and silver medals respectively at Rio in 2016.

"Radar technology, which sends out a doppler radar pulse, can look at the shot put as it's flying through the air and give us velocity, take off height, distance, and several other parameters," he explained. "That's one that helped us win the gold and silver in Rio."

Crouser and Kovacs use radar technology to measure their throw; they also receive an instant video of the shot they have just thrown so they can analyse their performance.

Sensors pick up and report immediately on the athlete's throw height, distance, speed, angle, and direction, as well as a sector map that shows where that throw went, in addition to the video.

"Back in the old days we used to give them a USB drive or CDs and DVDs—that was very inaccessible and you'd lose them all the time," Cheetham explained.

"Now with the cloud, it is much more accessible; we'll upload it to the cloud, they'll go home in the evening and download it from the cloud or watch it online—very simple.

"In fact, they don't even watch it on the computer anymore...every athlete that we have does everything on their phone now so if it's not mobile compatible, you're old history," Cheetham said.

What's important to Cheetham when it comes to employing wearable technology is that it serves a purpose and must not affect training.

"If [it's] not applied appropriately, it's going to be thrown away, and I've seen that happen often," he said. "The athletes—I don't want to say they're prima donnas, that would be too harsh—they don't want to be messed with during their training session, so we don't interrupt what they do. You have to be pretty much invisible to the athletes."

He also found early on in the process that the device needs to be quick and easy to attach, which is often on clothing so the athletes are not even aware of being measured.

"They can't think about these things, they need to just train," he added.

Leading up to the Olympics, the shot putters had three electromagnetic sensors that were placed on their back, hips, and wrists. However, being "suited up" got in the way, so radar technology was introduced to initially be used side by side.

SEE: Wearable Device Policy (Tech Pro Research)

While the athletes took to the technology, it was a different story for the throws coach.

"The throws coach was the best in the world but he was a little bit old-school, didn't like the concept of technology. 'Oh, I can see that with my eye, I know what's going on. I'm a coach, I've been doing this for 20 years, I don't need any of this technology,'" Cheetham recalled.

Cheetham convinced the coach that adding technology would remove the need for him to use a tape measure.

"We sold it to him; we put the sugar in the medicine and we spoon fed it to him," Cheetham said. "The nice thing was, he would get the measurement immediately after the throw and so after about a month or so he started looking at some other numbers."

Cheetham also joined the diving team as a biomechanist looking at the application of technology for improving synchronicity, as one example.

Via inertial measurement unit (IMU) sensors, the divers would have data points recorded such as their maximum speed velocity, maximum twist velocity, and take-off angle.

"That technology, although it was in its prototype phase, did allow us to measure those and we ended up with two medals," Cheetham said.

"In the future, some concepts we've got now are putting an inertial sensor underneath the springboard...that will be a biofeedback tool that will be linked with video," he said.

Now, Crouser and Kovacs are centimetres away from beating the world record, and Cheetham is convinced the way to beat the long-standing title is through technology.

Also see

chula vista CA olympic center

United States Olympic and Paralympic training facility in Chula Vista, California

Image: Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center

About Asha McLean

With a degree in Communications, and a background in technical writing, Asha has left the engineering world and joined the ZDNet team in Sydney as a journalist.

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