Many factors account for the dominance of the Great Britain cycling team in the last two Olympics. Strategic investments in sports made by the government ahead of the 2012 London games proved fruitful, as did a special focus on cycling, the hiring of experienced trainers, and an incredibly talented generation of young riders. And, it appears, obsessive hand washing.
The Great Britain cycling team is uncompromising when it comes to keeping their hands clean. The team’s sports scientists are adamant that hand washing is the most efficient way to cut down on viruses and bacteria and avoid infection—a critical objective during the Olympics. A study conducted by the International Olympic Committee found that 7% of competitors in the London games suffered from a medical condition during their competition, be it a cold or food poisoning, which could affect performance. Hand washing is part of the general “marginal gains” philosophy of British cycling guru Sir David Brailsford.
In a 2012 interview with the BBC, Brailsford explained that "the whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” This kind of approach is especially important in the Olympic disciplines, where athletes need to be at peak performance for a few days at most, sometimes even just for a few seconds. When you’ve worked four years towards a goal and the difference between first and fourth place is sometimes a few tenths of a second or a minor change in arm placement, it is the marginal gains that make the difference.
And it is the marginal gains that the Olympic Committee of Israel, an umbrella organization for Israeli sports that represents Israel internationally, hopes to achieve by partnering with Israeli research university the Technion Israel Institute of Technology.
In December 2018, the committee and the Technion set up a joint research center headed by Alon Wolf of the institute’s mechanical engineering faculty, which aims to improve Olympic sports in Israel in line with American and European models.
Israel must look for its comparative advantages, Gilad Lustig, the committee’s secretary general, told Calcalist in a recent interview. Israel does not have a wealth of professional athletes, but by leveraging the country’s scientific expertise the athletes at the top of the pyramid can be taken to the next level, he said.
The collaboration between the committee and the Technion can boost Israeli athletes’ performance by 5%-10% and be the difference between making and not making the finals, Lustig said. Following the Rio games in 2016, the committee has created a professional scientific support envelope around the athletes, and beginning with the Tokyo 2020 games, the Technion will be part of that envelope, he said. “The purpose of the collaboration is to enable opportunities to integrate science, innovation, and technology into Israeli sports,” he said. “In the very first meeting, we met researchers who told us we should have come sooner, they could have assisted us in the previous games. Our objective is very focused: improving performance.”
Wolf makes it clear that the collaboration is not about patents that will win medals, but rather the creation of an entire scientific approach that will be integrated into Olympic preparation and training.
It is always hard to single out something that will improve performance as there are many contributing factors, said Muli Epstein, the chief scientist of the Israeli Olympic committee. If in the past the focus was on “how much”—the distance an athlete ran or lifted, the hours they put into training—today the focus is on more precise, monitored, and personalized training programs that will improve performance on the day of the event, he said. This pertains to nutrition and medical care as well, he said.
Training optimization requires elements such as continuous collection of data, regular checkups and reviews, and deep learning, which can then be used to decide the right intensity and structure of each training session, Epstein said. “A personalized training session each morning can take an athlete farther than we managed before.”
“Data mining is a field we work in and will continue to work in,” Wolf said. “What does it mean? For example, I know what a good result is but I don’t know which factors are responsible for it. That’s where mathematics and big data come in—you map the things that contributed to the desired result and achieve a better ability to predict your required course of action.”
The Technion-committee collaboration has already borne its first fruits. Gur Steinberg, who coaches the Israeli windsurfing team, attributed the youth team’s success in achieving the minimum Olympic qualifying standard in August to working with the Technion.
Windsurfing especially has much room for improvement when it comes to surfer-equipment interface, Epstein explained. The first challenge they tackled was the fins. The fins of the Olympic model RS:X are all manufactured in one place according to a single standard, but they can have a difference of up to 30% due to components like glue, and each surfer responds to each fin differently, he said. “In the lab, engineers empirically tested the bend, flexibility, material quality, and more, and that’s how we can help each surfer pick the fin most suited to them.”
The Olympics are the only competition where athletes do not bring their own equipment, but rather choose from what is supplied just before the race starts, Epstein said. Despite the standard, there are differences, and today the committee can provide athletes with scientific tools to make better equipment choices.
Other sports the Technion’s researchers focus on include rock climbing, weightlifting, and cycling.
Another domain that is receiving increased scrutiny is injury rehabilitation. “An Olympic athlete will come into our lab, put on the sensors, and we will test his biomechanics, his movement patterns, measure the forces active, the angles. We can then recommend a change in movement patterns, or help that athlete change his technique,” Wolf said. “You can learn a lot by recording a jumping athlete with sensors. You can see during both the jump and landing if he has a predilection to a certain tear or certain damage to the muscle, for example.”
Such tests have already been on the market for some time—New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady underwent a similar test to change his running style, and Golden State Warriors player Stephen Curry did such a test to fix his injury-prone ankle movements. But the private companies who offer these tests charge hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Movement pattern analysis is one of the pillars of the collaboration between the Technion and the Olympic committee, Epstein said. They can help pinpoint areas that are more prone to injury or wear, they can help narrow down the changes an athlete needs to make to his or her movement pattern or technique, and they can identify if a certain problem is medical or anatomical, he said.
According to Lustig, the responses from the participating athletes are phenomenal. They understand that the difference between victory and defeat is in the small details, he said. “Some coaches are a little wary about innovation,” Lustig said. “Maybe they are afraid of new things, maybe they are worried they will seem less knowledgeable or won’t be as needed. But a high-level coach needs to make use of every factor that can make a difference.”
“We need more people who want to rely on science, empiricism, and objectivity,” Lustig said. “Young people are looking for ways and opportunities to be better, and they have no problem with testing an app if that is what will make them better.”
A study conducted several years ago at Stanford University discovered that increasing the average sleeping time from 6.5 hours per night to 8.5 hours improved the basketball team’s throws by 12% and the speed of athletes sprinting 80 meters by 13%. A performance increase of 12%-15% is usually attributed to performance-enhancing drugs—meaning a good night’s sleep can have a crucial impact. This explains why the Great Britain cycling team uses specially developed mattresses and pillows, and why all the big sports teams employ sleeping specialists.
The Technion has a sleep lab, and the Olympic committee has been collecting sleep data from its athletes, so some improvement might be expected in that area. As far as its preparation for the Paris 2024 games, the Technion’s researchers want to keep their efforts under wraps. Among the technologies we can expect are computer simulations to assist surfers, wind tunnels, and technologies borrowed from the auto industry, following a lengthy conversation with the head designers at Ferrari.