Science, Engineering and Technology and the Olympics

by Chris Marker 2012

This year the world’s largest sporting event returns to Britain and London for the first time in 64 years. Back in 1948 the worlds of sport and science hardly interacted whereas these days everything from GPS to biomechanics is used to help sports people achieve the best possible results. The engineering and technology behind the games has also changed dramatically from 60 years ago. This article will look at the science, engineering and technology behind sport and the Olympics. There are over 1300 records on the Inspec database on the Olympics in general with 90 being on the London 2012 Olympics.

marathon runners



Biomechanics, the study of the structure and function of biological systems by means of the methods of mechanics, is increasingly important to today’s sports people. Biomechanics is used to give a greater understanding of athletic performance. With biomechanics you can work out the optimal angle you should release a javelin at or the exact position a body should be in a dive. Biomechanics can also be used to look at the stresses the human body goes through during sports in order to decrease the likelihood of injury. Prosthetics used by paralympian, such as the “blades” used by Oscar Pistorius, will have had biomechanics used in their design.

Controlled Terms:

a8745 Biomechanics, biorheology, biological fluid dynamics
a8745D Physics of body movements
a8770J Prosthetics and other practical applications
a8770J Prosthetics and other practical applications
b7520E Prosthetics and orthotics

Materials science, aerodynamics and fluid dynamics are used in the design of many pieces of sporting equipment. Racing bicycle design has for example changed greatly during the years. New lightweight materials such as carbon fibre have meant bicycles have become faster whilst the use of wind tunnels and computer simulations have allowed them to become more aerodynamic, reducing drag (this applies to helmets as well). Canoes and rowing boats have also benefited from the study of fluid dynamics, enabling designs which slide more easily through water.

Controlled Terms:
sports equipment

e1780 Products and commodities
e3690 Other manufacturing industries

Person kayaking


Building the facilities for the Olympics is a major engineering challenge. Although some existing venues are being used, the main Olympic site including the main stadium has had to be built from scratch. The main site is 2.5 km in size (357 football pitches) and over 46 000 people have worked on the site. Before any construction could begin on site 52 electric pylons had to be removed and the electrical systems rerouted underground. The main stadium took three years to construct and uses 10,000 tonnes of steel.

Controlled Terms:
civil engineering
construction industry

b8699 Power applications in other industries
c3330 Control applications in building and civil engineering
c7440 Civil and mechanical engineering computing
d2115 Property market and building industry applications of IT
e3030 Construction industry

It is estimated that there will be over 20 million journeys made by Olympic spectators during the games, with over 3 million happening on the busiest day. This is in addition to the normal journeys made by people working and living within London. There have been numerous transport projects undertaken in preparation for 2012. There has been an expansion of the London Overground's East London Line and upgrades to the Docklands Light Railway and the North London Line.  The high speed train Javelin travels between St Pancras International station and Ebbsfleet International station, via Stratford International station which is in the Olympic park area. There is also the "Thames Gateway Cable Car" which links the O2 venue on the south of the river with the ExCeL Centre on the north. It will carry up to 2,500 passengers an hour at a height of 50 meters in the air. Then there are the improvements to roads and bridges both around the Olympic park and the wider areas.

Controlled Term:
light rail systems
rapid transport systems
cableways systems
railway industry

a8620A General transportation (energy utilisation)
a8620E Rail transportation (energy utilisation)
a8620F Other transportation (energy utilisation)
b8520 Transportation
c1290H Systems theory applications in transportation
c3360 Transportation system control
c3360H Control of lift and aerial cableway systems
c3360D Rail-traffic system control
c7490 Computing in other engineering fields
d2090 Leisure industry, travel and transport applications of IT
e1830 Goods distribution
e3650 Transportation industry
e3650E Railway industry
e3650Z Other transportation industries

A purpose built energy centre has been set up for the Olympics in order to provide power, heating and cooling across the Park for the Games and for the new buildings and communities that will develop after 2012. This centre is designed to use renewable and energy-efficient technology. It has a biomass boiler that uses woodchip as fuel to generate heat, and a natural gas powered Combined Cooling, Heat and Power plant

Controlled Term:
bioenergy conversion
renewable energy sources

a8610A Biofuel and biomass resources
a8620H Heating (energy utilisation)
a8620K Refrigeration and cooling (energy utilisation)
a8620Q Buildings (energy utilisation)
b8210 Energy resources
b8230 Thermal power stations and plants
b8460 Other direct energy conversion


Technology plays a critical part in the way the games have been planned and the way they will be delivered. Video boards, score boards and public announcement systems will be used to inform the public within stadiums. Technology is also instrumental to the business activities of the various organizing bodies providing the IT systems and security essential for the smooth running of the games.

Timing for various sports is an important area of technology. In the past stop watches were used whereas nowadays electronically recorded times are the norm. Athletes these days can wear individual transponders that send and receive radio signals in order to get a time. Even this is now outdated with continuous tracking of athletes, even in team sports possible as the transponders no longer have to be worn by athletes. The timing system is not just the “watch” it also the contact pads on swimming lanes, the photofinish shots, scoreboards, miles of cables and optical fibers which all go towards giving the public and officials information on how the athletes have performed.

Controlled Terms:

Scoring for some sports also relies on technology. In taekwondo scoring is based on hitting opponents. In Beijing 2008 scoring was performed by four judges who would press a button to award and deduct points. For a point to register, at least two judges had to press their buttons. This led to several instances where a clean hit was missed and almost led to a lost medal for British competitor Sarah Stevenson. Now the World Taekwondo Federation is testing an electronic scoring system with sensors fitted into players' body armour and socks. Fencing also uses an electronic scoring system although a referee has some input as well.

Controlled Terms:
pressure sensors

a0630N Pressure measurement
a0670D Sensing and detecting devices
b7230 Sensing devices and transducers
c3240 Transducers and sensing devices
e1780 Products and commodities
e3608 Clothing industry
e3612 Footwear industry

Many sports these days use Global Positioning System (GPS) data as part of training or analysis of performance. GPS is a space-based satellite navigation system that gives location and time information. GPS has been used in football to track the movements of players, looking at how far they run and the amount of times they receive and pass the ball. This information can then be fed into analysis packages such as prozone which then allow areas that need improvement to be identified. GPS is also obviously useful to runners, cyclists and open water swimmers.

Controlled Terms:
Global Positioning System

b6330 Radionavigation and direction finding
b6250G Satellite communication systems

Video motion analysis through the use of slow motion video is important to sportspeople both in training, to look at exact body position (aided with biomechanics) and for analysis of actual performance. Slow motion is also an obvious tool for broadcasters to use during the Olympics to provide the public with a clear picture of what happens during events. This is especially the case for fast moving events such as sprints, hockey, etc.  Slow motion video works by capturing each film frame at a rate much faster than it will be played back.

Controlled Terms:
image motion analysis
Video signal processing

a4230V Image processing and restoration
b6135 Optical, image and video signal processing
c1250M Image recognition
c5260B Computer vision and image processing techniques
c5260D Video signal processing