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Olympics 2008: Tips from Indiana University

IU experts comment on the emerging issues of the Beijing Olympics:

Fullbody swimsuits -- changing the sport as we know it?
Tibetan independence
Protecting pandas
Faulty starting system could cost athletes meters and medals
Law, the olympics and entertainment

New generation bodysuits -- hype (again) or expensive performance enhancer? For Olympic champions, their swim times boil down to years of dedication, hard work and sacrifice. For exercise physiologists and swimming experts at Indiana University, it's a matter of statistics. These researchers can successfully predict winning swim times based on previous years' performances, drawing attention to when anything other than chance -- such as doping or high technology swim suits -- gives athletes a boost. Eight years ago, when the first generation of bodysuits was introduced prior to the Olympics, swim time predictions by researchers at IU's Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming were so accurate that researchers concluded the suits had no impact on swim times. In Beijing, it could be a different story. At the U.S. trials in June, Counsilman Center researchers called all but two of the women's individual races but accurately predicted only one of the men's races. "The men swam faster than expected," said Joel Stager, director of the Counsilman Center and a professor of exercise physiology. "Something not taken into account in previous races contributed to the performances." If the high-tech swimsuits alter buoyancy, it would make a bigger impact with men because women generally are more buoyant, he said. Or, because men swim faster than women, the effect of lowering drag might also be more obvious. Stager said the majority of the swim coaching community is in favor of banning high-tech swim suits in age-group competition because their high cost raises equity issues, places an extra financial burden on athletes and swimming programs (swimming is not a revenue-generating sport) and could represent a major change to the sport -- and one introduced by business interests. Stager notes that Olympians do not pay for their suits. "The issue is half a million swimmers feeling forced into purchasing $500-plus swimsuits in order to be competitive," said Stager, a coach and United States Masters Swimming champion. "Everything is based on impression." Stager said athletes report the new bodysuits last for only six to eight races. "If all athletes are wearing these new suits, then what's the point?" Stager said. "All we have done is artificially elevate performances across the board. The new suits are only effective if only 'some' athletes have access to them."


  • Big jump in times? Over time, swim times improve in smaller increments as swimmers approach a theoretical limit to human performance. The top eight swimmers in the men's 50-meter freestyle in the 2004 Olympics, for example, swam .08 seconds faster than their peers in the 2000 Olympics. This represents a .3 percent improvement. The mere nature of water also makes incremental improvements more challenging. The IU researchers say resistive forces caused by the water increase exponentially with an increase in swim speed. Thus, to swim a little faster (at high speeds) becomes more difficult because propulsive forces must increase exponentially to mirror the exponential increase in resistive forces of the water. "If the suits make a 10 percent, or even a 2 percent difference, as predicted by the manufacturer, it's phenomenally fast when compared to annual improvements of much less than 1 percent," Stager said. "What this forces you to do is to start asking, how fast would Mark Spitz have gone in 1972, how fast would Jim Montgomery have gone in 1976, if they would have had one of these suits? It places all the previous records sort of out of context."
  • Equipment? International rules that govern swimming prohibit the use of equipment (or rather, "devices") that improves performance or increases buoyancy, which is why swimmers do not compete using such training devices as fins, paddles or neoprene wet suits. Since Speedo introduced its new LZR bodysuit earlier this year, dozens of world records have been set. Normally, around 10 world records are set in a given year.

Stager is attending the swimming events at the Olympics as a spectator. He can be reached at The Counsilman Center is in IU Bloomington's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation's Department of Kinesiology. Top

Tibet's most recent period of independence between 1912 and 1951 is very much present in Tibetan perceptions of their past, according to Elliot Sperling, associate professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. The Tibet issue has remained a problem for China since Tibet's incorporation into the People's Republic of China in 1951. During the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, Tibet had been a dominion within a Manchu Empire that included China, but had not been appended to the Chinese portion of that empire. "Ongoing Tibetan resentment of China's presence in Tibet has precipitated resistance and protests. On top of this, China's human rights record in general, and its handling of Tibetan protests in particular, have made Tibet a foreign policy problem as well," Sperling said. "China is expecting and on alert for pro-Tibet protests by activists coming to Beijing for the Olympic games. Given the embarrassments that Tibetan discontent has generated for China in the international media, the Chinese government is taking the probability of such protests very seriously."

Sperling can be reached at 812- 855-7344 or Top

Vicky Meretsky

Vicky Meretsky

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Protecting endangered wildlife. Jingjing, the cute cartoon panda who serves as one of five mascots for the Beijing Olympics, was designed to send a message that China cares about its endangered animals. In fact, China's performance in wildlife protection has improved -- especially when it comes to the giant panda -- says Vicky Meretsky, associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington. "With pandas, they've made progress both in the wild and in captive breeding," she said. "There are a series of panda preserves, primarily in Sichuan Province but also extending out into other provinces. And there is currently work going on to get better connections between the preserves." The giant panda is endangered, Meretsky said, in part because of habitat loss. Pandas feed primarily on bamboo, which experiences natural, cyclical die-offs. Connections between preserves are important so pandas can move in search of bamboo. But while China is improving protection for pandas, the nation is a huge and growing market for trade in parts from endangered animals, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. For example, paws, gall bladders and bile from bears that have been killed illegally are sold in China. "As the population has grown and as people develop richer lifestyles, China's desire for wild animal parts now threatens animals in other parts of the world as well as in China and its neighbors," Meretsky said. While the Olympics may focus attention on China's need for clean air and clean water, she said, the host country's responsibility for protecting endangered wildlife may remain a lower priority.

Meretsky can be reached at 812-855-4944 or Top

Getting off to a good start -- or not. In elite track and field contests, races begin with one of two starting systems -- a traditional loud starting gun or a silent gun system that transmits an electrical signal through a wire to a loudspeaker next to each athlete. The loud gun likely will be used at the Olympics despite concerns by track and field experts, such as Indiana University's Jesus Dapena, that it puts athletes in the outer lanes at a disadvantage. The disadvantage, says Dapena, can cost athletes meters and medals. The starter's gun in the loud gun system is attached to a microphone, which also transmits the sound to the athletes' loudspeakers. In theory, the two systems should work equally well, but Dapena said they don't. "In fact, with the loud gun system, the athletes behave almost exactly as one might expect if the microphone-loudspeaker system were not working at all," said Dapena, who has studied and written about the issue. "It's as if the athletes were not reacting to any sound coming through the loudspeakers, but instead waited for the sound that traveled from the gun to the athletes' ears through the air."

  • Background: With the silent gun system, the loudspeaker emits a pinging sound, which athletes essentially hear instantaneously because the signal travels at the speed of light, compared to the sound of the loud gun start, which travels at the speed of sound. The microphone and loudspeaker should solve the problem in the loud gun system, but Dapena said that athletes farther from the loud starting gun still begin moving later than when a silent gun starting system is used. Dapena is a professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation's Department of Kinesiology.

Dapena said the problem has been pointed out to track and field officials since 1996 but Olympics organizers still have chosen the loud gun system. He said the handicap can amount to almost .2 seconds, which might seem small, but in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games a silent gun system would have given the U.S. men's 400 meter relay team a gold medal instead of silver.

Dapena can be reached at 812-855-8407 or Top

Gary R. Roberts

Gary R. Roberts

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Law, the Olympics and entertainment. It is impossible to predict what legal issues will arise during Olympic Games, says sports law expert Gary R. Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. But there almost always will be issues related to doping and drug use, with various explanations to follow, hearings, controversy and ultimately, medals taken away. Why do athletes use illegal substances when they get caught time after time? "They don't know they'll get caught," said Roberts. "Most athletes today aren't stupid enough to take something they know is illegal in a time frame during which they know they'll test positive. But it's a very sophisticated world out there -- there are ways to take substances in ways unlikely to be detected. There are substances for which there are no good tests." The concern that sports officials have to justify anti-doping rules is that these athletes set a poor example for youth, and that fans will lose interest in sports if they think everyone is cheating. "But we have no evidence that fans are losing interest," Roberts said. "Nobody doubts that there are a significant amount of premier baseball players who for years have taken steroids, but attendance at baseball games is setting records, TV ratings are up and sales of memorabilia are booming. The people who run sports seem to care, and there's a legitimate reason to care because these athletes are considered role models. But the public, who just want to be entertained? We're like the old Romans who like to see people kill each other -- we don't care if these people are ruining their bodies, we just want to see a good performance."

Roberts is a nationally known sports law expert. He co-authored the leading casebook on sports law, served in various leadership positions for sports law organizations, including The Sports Lawyers Association, for which he is an officer, board member and editor-in-chief of its monthly online newsletter, The Sports Lawyer. He also has served for many years on committees for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Roberts can be reached at 317-274-2581 and Top

For more Olympics media tips involving the impact of political turmoil on athletes, pollution and the increased world interest in Chinese politics, visit