Olympic technology -- how US is and isn't boning up in the lab

Jim Moriarty remembers it painfully well. At the 1976 winter Olymipics, Mr. Moriarty, then a member of the US luge team, watched as the West Germans showed up on the last day of practice with specially designed sleds and racing suits.

The sleds, in fact, were radically different from anything he had seen. They had aerodynamic features befitting an airplane wing more than a piece of sports equipment. Unusual jellybean-shaped helments cut air drag, too. West Germany won three medals in the luge that year -- partly, Moriarty is convinced, beacuase of their improved equipment.

The story is a reminder that physics and engineering can play a role in Olympic competition, too. Not as much, to be sure, as athletic ability, training, and coaching. But when tow equally talented cyclists, for example, step into a velodrome, a special bike tubing can mean the difference between a medal and disappointment.

As the 1984 summer and winter games approach, the United States is probably making the mose concerted effort ever to bone up in the laboratory.

And well it should.

The country has been making strides in recent years in using the latest research and high-tech tools to enhance training. At the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., runners pad for hours on treadmills, while chest-high machines monitor breathing rates. Computers and high-spped photography are being harnessed to analyze everthing from a discus thrower's delivery to a long-jumper's landing. In fact, biomechanics -- applying engineering principles to the movements of the human body -- is becoming as popular as Gatorade.

But in another key area -- sports equipment -- the technology-rich US badly lags behind foreign competitors in many fields.

''It is increasingly becoming a high-tech race,'' says Andras Toro, a former canoeing medalist who now heads a US Olympic equipment and technology committee looking into the problem. ''If other countries are playing the game, we have to, too.''

The high-tech ''gap'' is by no means uniform. I some sports -- skiing, for example -- US equipment sands up to or exceeds any in the world. This is because plenty of cutting-edge industry research goes on in fields where where there is a big consumer ''aftermarket'' for the goods.

But in more specialized equipment-dependent areas -- bobsledding, luge, kayakig, and canoeing, among others -- athletes often have to do their own backyard improvising. Lacking, many experts say, is the knd of coordinated thrust in new materials, design, and other countries utlize.

''In the more obsure sports, athletes have been working on equipment out of their garages,'' says Joe Gripo of SRI International, a California consulting firm that recently did a study for the US Olympic Committee on equipment needs. ''We have the best athletes in some of these areas -- and they just aren't being supported by the equipment.''

The SRI study divided sports up into three categories: high technology (such as cycling, yachting, biathlon); medium technolgy (archery skiing, speed skating); and low technology (diving, gymanastics, weightlifting). The US was found to be the leader in one-third of the low-tech sports, 15 percent of the medium ones, and none of the high-tech areas. The disadvantges go beyond simple equipment performance. Knowing an opponent has the technological edge can mentally unsettle an athlete, too.

Many countries have centrally funded sports research programs. Others fetch what they need. the Danes design the best racing canos. The Soviets were among the first to use interchangeable skate blades so figure and speed skaters could adjust to different ice conditions. The West Germans, using Du Pont technology, have developed some of the best luge suits.

In the SRI study, the Soviet Union, East Germany, and West Germany were the leaders in the high-tech events. the strenght of the soviets, though, doesn't lie so much in their javelines and bobsleds.

''They don't have the sophisticaion to manufacture the advanced equipment,'' says Dr. Michael Yessis, editor of the soviet Sports Review, a quarterly California journal. ''Their research is on how to make the athlete better.''

US Olympic officials are trying to set upa network of industry and academic researchers to work on equipment. Graduate engineering students andothers are being tapped. But most of this knowhow isn't expected to help US athletes until the 1988 games. Some efforts, nevertheless, are under way: * Two years ago Ed Burke went around to colleges and sporting-goods companies to drum up support for new bicycle research. Engineers and aeronautical experts were called in.Wind-tunnel tests were conducted. Result: a complete redesign of the cycles the US team will take into the Los Angeles games next summer. Racers went to 24-instead of 27-inch rims on bikes, aerodynamic teardrop tubing was put in the frames, special tires were imported from Italy, radios were implanted in cycler's helmets -- the first country to do so -- so coaches can talk to athletes during a race. ''We ere always a year ro two behind with our equipment ,'' says Mr. Burket, technical director of the US cycling team. ''We feel we now have as good equipment as anyone in the world -- if not better.''

* In the 1976 Olympics, luge racer Moriarty figures he was wearing a stretch suit ''eight years out of date.'' So he has been working with a Vermont clothing manufacturer on a special polyurethanne that should ''equal'' any that will show up at the 1984 Winter Games. US lugers have alos been experimenting with new riding positions as a reslut of wind-tunnel tests. A Buffalo businessmen recently volunteered his time -- and company's wind tunnel -- for the team to use. It's too late, says Moriarty, now chairman of the US Luge Association, to put many of the ideas to work for next year's games. But he thinks new sled designs, runner coatings, helmets, and suits can vault the US forward later this decade.

* US archers have been holding special seminars during the past two years to brush up on the latest technology and techniques. High-speed photography has been used to study the dynamics of the arrow when it leaves the bow. Archers have also been working with a new aluminum carbon arrow.

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