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Science predicts which Olympic events will be most exciting

Science predicts which Olympic events will be most exciting

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What happens when you mix physics and past Olympic performances? You get an inkling of which races will be nail biters and which ones won't.

The Olympics are quite the challenge.

Not just for the athletes, but also for the viewers.

After all, there are multiple events happening at once, and, if you don't have the advantage of knowing the result in advance, you can't just keep tuned in to the Olympics all day. I mean, we've all got other things to do.

So, how do you make sure that when you do tune in, you're going to get the most bang for your viewing buck?

Steve Haake has the answer.

As the director of the Center for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, Haake spends his time trying to scientifically quantify a number of things about sports.

In a recent article for Physics World, he explained why performance in sports has improved over the years -- gradually due to factors such as better coaching and nutrition or population increases -- and also in steps due to factors such as new technologies or changes in the rules.

And with this analysis, he has been able to identify which events will see records being smashed and which will be more run of the mill.

Rating performance

He and grad student Leon Foster looked for the 25 best performances by the 25 best athletes across a range of sports and events. (They counted each athlete only once so that there would be 25 different athletes in each set.)

They then created the Performance Improvement Index (PII), which would help them understand how much "work" went into a performance (work as defined by physics -- the product of force and direction exerted on an object). While the javelin throw is an obvious sport for calculating it since there is an actual object, this can also be calculated for events in track and swimming in which the object is the force of drag.

Then, using the work values, Haake can compare how much performance has improved or declined between any two years, and express that number in a percentage.

When looking at percentages across events and sports, he can see where athletes are improving and where their performance has plateaued.

For instance, PII for swimming spiked in the later 2000s, but is now down. The culprit? The LZR full-body swimsuit that gave swimmers an advantage by reducing drag and giving them added buoyancy. It was all the rage at the 2008 Olympics, when records were falling all over the place, but was banned in 2010. So, fewer records were broken in swimming in London.

Meanwhile, according to Haake's analysis, short sprinting events seem ripe for records to be broken. Longer distance running events not so much. As Popular Science reports,

In fact, both men’s and women’s short sprinting events look good from a PII standpoint. Races are going to be close, records could be toppled, and the gold is generally up for grabs. But this is less and less true the longer the distances grow, Haake says. In the 400 meter race we might see some competition, but in the 800 and 1500 definitely not.

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via: Popular Science

photo: Oscar Pistorius and other runners in the 2012 Olympics (p_c_w/Flickr)

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure