NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY

The Science Behind a Faster, Higher, Stronger Team USA


Team USA stamps
Team USA stamps

In 2012, my eyes were glued to the television screen for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. I joined millions of television viewers around the globe again watching the Summer Olympics in Rio, Brazil—the first South American host city. The international spotlight focuses on the achievements of more than 10,000 individual and team athletes from approximately 200 countries. But, as I wrote in my 2014 Winter Olympics blog post, the unsung heroes behind the 2016 Summer Olympics were the scientists and engineers whose inventions and innovations help these athletes strive toward the Olympic motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” (Hopefully without illegal assistance from performance-enhancing drugs, the negative aspect of scientific advancements that casts a shadow over this and past Olympic games).

Red, white, and blue gymnastics leotard
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Invention and innovation in sports are driven by the needs and expectations of professional and amateur athletes who seek ever more sophisticated ways to extend and enhance human capabilities. This is a fun, rich topic that the Lemelson Center has been actively exploring for years. Below are a few fascinating resources for learning more about the science, technology, and engineering behind the wide range of sports we'll be watching over the next two weeks.

Woman passes ball during wheelchair basketball game
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The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Education Association both provide an array of excellent Olympics-related educational content, hands-on activities, videos, and other references for K-12 students (and their parents and teachers). Personally, I enjoyed watching the “Science of the Summer Olympics” videos produced by NBC Learn and NBC Sports in partnership with the National Science Foundation. The “Designing Safety Helmets” video features engineer and professor Nikhil Gupta of NYU’s Polytechnic Institute, who speaks about the important topic of advances in safer, stronger, more comfortable sports headgear. (You should also check out this blog post about this issue in terms of football helmets). Of particular interest to me was the “Engineering for Mobility” video featuring engineer, professor, and Paralympics competitor Rory Cooper from the University of Pittsburgh, who introduces the technology and science behind Paralympics sports such as wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball.

Over two decades, the Lemelson Center has featured relevant accessible sports-related inventor stories and artifacts, including inventor Van Phillips’ “Cheetah leg”—one of the now controversial prostheses for runners—and a lesser-known accessible snowboard. These are part of NMAH’s ever-growing sports and leisure collections, from which artifacts and archival materials are occasionally on display at the Museum or have toured in exhibitions such as the Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers exhibition.

Red, white, and blue USA cycling uniform
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As you join me in watching this quadrennial summer sports extravaganza, controversy and all, pay close attention to the clothing and equipment being used the athletes, as well as their stories about training and nutrition. Then think about—and thank—the scientists, engineers, and other people behind the scenes who have given their time and expertise to help these athletes along their way to the Olympic games!

This post was originally published on the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation's blog on August 11, 2016. Read the original version here.