Confessions of an Olympic Junkie

It’s time for the biannual event of bleary eyes and arcane sports again, otherwise know as the Olympics.

Summer or Winter, my wife and I have always been huge fans of the Olympic Games. While it’s very easy to get jaded because of the commercialism, nationalism, and hype of the Games, we prefer to take a simpler view – we are seeing men and women function at their peak performance, often putting years of training, hardship, and practice on the line for a few minutes in which they will be remembered (for a while) or forever forgotten.

Over the next few weeks, I will probably interrupt the usual flow of 27gen to drop in an Olympic-themed post from time to time. And to launch these posts, a fascinating story from Wired magazine with this assertion:

Olympic athletes are made, not born.

Forget about recruiting the best athletes; if you really want to build a great athletic team, it’s time to recruit the best PhDs.

Following the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, in which Australia won just one silver and four bronze medals, a throughly embarrassed Australian government created an academy modeled in part on the sports factories of the Eastern Bloc. They hoped to capture the intensity and success of the Soviet academies without going to the same excesses. The idea was simple: Get the best coaches and the best athletes together on a year-round basis, without any distractions, and hope that athletic magic would result.

It worked well: Australia won 14 medals in 1988 and 27 in 1992. But in 1993 when it was announced the 2000 Summer Games would be held in Sydney, the Australians decided that a standout performance was crucial, and athletic funding was radically increased. Rather than smaller efforts based around a specific athlete, the scientists at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) were able to take on larger projects that had a profound impact for Australian sports as a whole.

AIS researchers:

  • set out to find new ways for wringing more performance out of every Australian athlete
  • conducted research highlighting the benefits of altitude training for aerobic athletes
  • studied techniques to help athletes recover after a workout
  • developed a tracking device that allowed for instant motion analysis of athletes during competition
  • pioneered programs to identify athletic potential
  • developed a blood test for the banned drug EPO, hoping to level the field for Australian athletes

The results were astonishing: At the Sydney Games, Australia won 58 medals, placing it third in the podium count. That performance was even more stunning on a per capita basis. Australia’s population was a little over 19 million, meaning the country received one medal for every 328,000 citizens. China, which also won 58 medals in Sydney, scored one medal for very 21.7 million citizens.

“For every swimmer in Australia, there are three swimmers in the USA and 10 in China,” says Bruce Mason, head of aquatic training and research at AIS.

Australia had used technology to close the gap. They are now a global leader in merging science with athletic talent.

You can read the entire fascinating article online from Wired here.

It will make a great warm-up for armchair athletes like my wife and me as the 2012 London Olympics begin tonight.