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Four women, Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo, did something no American women had done in 20 years – win a medal in track cycling at the Olympics.

Their incredible story of training and triumph are told impactfully in the documentary, Personal Gold. You can find a summary of their story at this link here. This post is about the amazing transformation sports performance sciences is undergoing, and how biometric data is making an impact on the training and performance of athletes today.

With incredibly little resources available to them, Reed called her former USA Cycling teammate, Sky Christopherson, who was well on the way of making a marked transition from athlete to entrepreneur. Christopherson had become convinced that digital medicine would become a vital tool for high performance athletes. Understanding how to uncover insight from big data is hugely important in marketing, financial services, economics, and is now a big part of health and human performance sciences.

Due to the relatively low support of the women’s cycling track team by USA Cycling, Christopherson recruited volunteers to help him gather individualized biological and genetic data on each of the four cyclists, data that was being generated by sensors attached to the athletes bodies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and then to analyze it.

According to Christopherson, who was also the producer of the documentary, Personal Gold, the amount of information available to them was overwhelming, not only for Sky and his team, but for his computers, which in the early days crashed in trying to cope with the number crunching.

But once Christopherson recruited a big data analysis firm to volunteer their time and expertise, they began to take note of insight they could use. And all the data told them that each cyclist had unique characteristics and individual needs, and thus training them all the same way could at times be detrimental to the individual’s performance and growth. Here are a few examples pointed out by Christopherson at a recent speaking engagement in Tokyo, sponsored by the US Embassy:

  • In Hammer’s case, blood tests showed she had Vitamin D deficiencies, made worse by training indoors most of the time. Having normal levels of Vitamin D is key to getting the most out of one’s training, so Hammer was working harder than she needed to due to her deficiency.
  • Bausch, whose experience was greater as a distance cyclist and was struggling at sprinting speeds, was found to have what is known as the “sprinter’s gene”, which according to this Wired article, boosted her confidence.
  • Sensors noted that Reed was not getting enough deep sleep. More and more research is revealing the importance of deep sleep. In the case of athletes, the longer and deeper you sleep, the more HGH (human growth hormones) like cortisol or testosterone, is released naturally into their systems. These hormones are essential to faster recovery, and thus the ability to train longer at peak performance.

The data can also tell an athlete when an athlete can train hard, when the body is ready for it, or when to rest. This is key because as Christopherson advised, this knowledge can prevent injuries from occurring.

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Trailer screenshot

I asked Christopherson if this was a case of “Moneyball“, where the women’s team had access to insight that other teams didn’t have, using that information arbitrage to their advantage unbeknownst to the heavily-resourced cycling giants.

“We were grassroots and so we were very nimble and could innovate and change very quickly,” Christopherson told me. Being a small, low-budget operation forced them to be innovative, using whatever resources were available to them in the world. In fact, he felt that the well-financed teams, whose funds came from sponsors, often limited their flexibility. While teams are obligated to using the products of sponsors, the American team had no such limitations, and Christopher told the audience that they had the flexibility to change sensors and equipment as they saw fit.

The proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention”, was never truer.

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Wheelchair racers whose legs are paralyzed, but whose leg muscles are electro-stimulated to move

 

We cringe when we hear about yet another doping case in sports. Dopers are cheaters! We hope that international bodies like World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) can stay close with the shadow chemists who continue to devise new ways to mask the fingerprints of performance enhancing agents.

We thrill to see a double amputee sprint on carbon-fiber blades, but we worry if they will one day far outpace sprinters who race on legs they were born with. Unfair advantage!

The truth is science and technology, if it had a will of its own, is ever eager to advance, solve problems, and push the inside of the envelope. The infamous Oscar Pistorius was allowed to compete at the 2012 Olympics on his blades, running in the 400 meter and 4X400 meter competitions. Technology in this case did not afford the runner an advantage to take him to the elite levels of sprinting.

But we all know, it’s a matter of time. The “Six-Million Dollar Man” Scenario, where a given person with various prostheses and enhancements will be “better than he was. Better….stronger….faster.” The Six Million Dollar Man debuted on American television in 1973. If the main character, Steve Austin, wanted to participate in the 1976 Olympic Games, he would have won gold in almost every athletic event. Why he wasted time as a secret agent for the OSI is beyond me.

The Six Million Dollar Man

So what does the future hold? Clearly, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs will continue to look for ways for people with disabilities to return to so-called “normalcy”. They will also look for ways to give “normal” people super-human abilities. In the case of organized sports, the nature of competition will continue to change. In fact, it already has.

When technology creates a totally different standard of performance, new competitions arise, as was explained in this Wired Magazine article from 2012.

When such devices are perfected to the point that they can be used for athletic purposes, we’ll be looking at an entirely new concept of sport. It’s doubtful the Olympics will ever feature exoskelletally assisted runners or weightlifters, but what’s to say that a different type of venue won’t arise for such a thing? “I think that once the technology is proven to exceed normal human function, then the stage will be set for the introduction of a whole new type of enhanced sporting entertainment,” said Matthew Garibaldi, director of the Orthotic and Prosthetic Centers for the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at UC San Francisco.

In fact, two competitions that put technology front and center have emerged. As explained in this Inverse.com article, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich organizes a competition called the Cybathlon, the next one scheduled on October 6. It’s similar to the Paralympics, in which disabled people use technology, like a prosthesis, and the athlete