Today's Olympic swimmers are really, really fast. And they're fast not just because of training either. New swimsuits helped them shatter world records at the last olympics. And this year, the innovation comes in the form of starting blocks.
The big difference between the normal starting blocks, and the ones in London, is that while the old ones were perpendicular to the ground, the new blocks are set at a slight angle, like the blocks that track sprinters use.
At Wired, they explain just why the starting blocks are so important. It's important to first understand how a swimmer dives off the blocks. They explain:
Let me start with a simplified case of a swimmer on a flat block, even if the old-style blocks weren’t exactly flat. If the swimmer wants to dive off, he must push on the block to accelerate into a dive.
There are three forces on a swimmer: the gravitational force, the force of the block pushing up and the friction forward pushing in the direction of the acceleration. Remember, these are forces on the swimmer, not forces the swimmer exerts on the block.
After some math - which you can see on the Wired blog post - they conclude that "the maximum horizontal acceleration just depends on the coefficient of friction."
Okay, now what about the slanted block? Doing the same sorts of calculations with forces and friction, Wired concludes that the new version "allows for a greater acceleration off the starting block."
So, you're probably thinking: duh. Obviously a slanted block is easier than a flat block, I didn't need physics to tell me this. Well fine Mr. Smarty Pants, but you probably didn't know exactly why that was the case. And now you do. So there.