Rio 2016: the physics behind the stars

16 Aug 201612 Shares

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How does Usain Bolt run so fast?

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With the Rio 2016 Olympic Games now nearing a conclusion, viewers are probably sick of repeating: ‘How do athletes do that?’. Here’s the answer.

The Olympics is an event of numerous phrases. ‘It’s the taking part that counts’ at one end of the competitive spectrum, ‘silver medal is first loser’ at the other.

But it’s official motto ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ means faster, higher, stronger. But how do athletes jump so high, run so fast and twist so much?

It’s obviously down to application, effort, training and some level of natural ability, but there is something else, something altogether less variable: physics.

Synchronised divers rely on the laws of gravity to fall at the same rate, boxers rely on balance and force, athletes on aerodynamics and swimmers on reduced resistance.

Rio 2016

The Irish Research Council is already working on projects to help future athletes marry the physics of their disciplines with expert training and preparation, long after Rio 2016.

“What many fans may not realise is the key role research plays in driving the ongoing development of sports, ranging from GAA and rugby to showjumping and greyhound racing,” said Dr Eucharia Meehan, director of the IRC.

“The research being conducted in Ireland at present is enhancing sports at all levels, from local community games right up to the Olympics and other international competitions.”

But from a physics point of view, things are simpler. Thanks to Canada-based Perimeter Institute, a research hub “devoted to theoretical physics”, we can reveal even more.

For a Rio 2016 digest, here are 15 disciplines, and 15 explanations.

01Archery Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? 03Gymnast Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Jumper Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Tennis Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Sprinter Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Rowers Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Javelin Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Football Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Weightlifters Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Runner Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Discus Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Trampoline Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Cyclist Physics of Olympics: How do they do that? Rugby Physics of Olympics: How do they do that?

Main sprinting image via Pete Niesen/Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt is a journalist at Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com