Southampton’s Science Successes at London 2012


Much has been made of our athletes over the past two weeks and this will continue over the next few weeks while London hosts the Paralympics. One thing all athletes, gold medal winning or not, have in common is their public thanks for the support they receive. In this article we look at the scientific support the University has given to some of Team GB’s athletes.

Engineers and PhD students at the Performance Sports Engineering Laboratory at the university have had a close working relationship with UK Sport since early 2005. They have helped support the performance of the athletes that won 16 of the 20 gold medals won by Great Britain in the Beijing and Vancouver Olympics and numerous cycling, rowing, canoeing and swimming medals in this year’s Olympics with many more expected at this year’s Paralympics.

This partnership with UK Sport has been focused on sports involving high speed where there are potential gains in the aerodynamic and hydrodynamic characteristics of the athletes and their equipment.

This has been done using the Wolfson Unit which is a wind tunnel normally used for testing Formula One cars but more recently cycling equipment, towing tank testing, software development and general consultancy have all occurred in the tunnel to find areas which aren’t aerodynamically efficient and could add unnecessary time to an athlete’s performance.

Initially, work concentrated on cycling, where results have proved to be dramatic. From placing third in the medals table at Athens Britain took the top positions in 2008 at Beijing and at London 2012, with numerous world championship titles and medals along the way. Progress in cycling technology has most likely also assisted one of Britain’s most successful athletes of all time, Sir Chris Hoy.

Jody Cundy at Southampton’s Wolfson Unit Image courtesy of University of Southampton

Within British cycling the research and development has long been accredited for the success not just by the backroom staff but by the athletes themselves in post race interviews and it has become the envy of the cycling world. However, much of the research and development in cycling remains top secret to gain maximum effectiveness at international competitions.

British swimming, however, have been more open about its work with the university. British swimmers have been working with engineers and PhD students from the university since 2009 in Project SwimSIM.

The aim of this scheme was to identify exactly what the swimmers were doing, showing areas where drag has unnecessarily increased and thus identifying areas in which the swimmers could become more efficient and swim faster.

This was done using a tow rig system which involves using a winch with a tow line, attached via a small belt to the swimmer. This winch sets a constant speed for the tow line which is slightly beyond what an individual swimmer can actually do, the individual then swims at their maximum capability to put their technique to the test showing both flaws and strengths, visually and quantitatively.

In addition to the tow rig there’s a camera at the side of the pool to capture footage of the swimmer in action. The tow data is synchronised with the video footage where it is displayed on a big screen at the pool side and can be analysed by coach and athlete.

So despite only being halfway through the successes of London 2012, the University of Southampton can be proud of its input in the performance of British athletes at London 2012.


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