The Science Behind London Olympics’ “Springy” Track

When the athletes hit the track at this summer’s Olympic games, they’ll be stepping onto a surface as finely tuned as they are

The 400 meter race on 1984 Olympic track
The 400 meter race on 1984 Olympic track Ken Hackman

The humans at the olympics are at the height of athletic achievement, finely engineered bodies for very specific tasks. But beneath their feet is another highly engineered entity: the track.

London’s track was designed by Mondo, the same company who designed the track for Barcelona’s Olympics, back in 1992. There are a few cool things about the Mondo track, the BBC reports:

Unlike other track designs that combine traction and shock-absorption in an upper layer of rubber granules, the Mondo track separates these functions, with a cushion backing for shock absorption and a solid upper layer that optimises slip resistance, traction and durability.

That means that the spikes that some athletes wear on their shoes to grab onto the track don’t need to be as long to get a good hold. Which, if you’re a sprinter, is great, because that means less energy is going into penetrating the track and then ripping those spikes out as you run. It might seem like a tiny difference, but when a race is won by fractions of a second, every bit counts.

Another cool thing about the track is how the rubber layers are stuck together. Joe Hoekstra, the man in charge of Mondo’s projects in London, explained the process to the BBC. “The two layers are vulcanized, a process which cross links the molecular structure of the different materials and makes the surface more uniform, stronger and elastic.”

Perhaps the key component of any track is its springiness. Runners want as much energy back from the track as they can get. But tracks that are too springy aren’t good either, since they don’t allow the foot to roll naturally as it hits the ground.

Just like throwing a javelin, or running a mile, the track in London has to keep a fine balance of spring, durability and grip.

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