When the British sprinters take to the starting blocks at the Olympic Games, a researcher from the University of Bath will be monitoring their every move. Dr Aki Salo, a senior lecturer in sport biomechanics, will be part of an expert team of support staff who help the athletes to excel.
Dr Salo has worked with elite athletes for over 20 years, studying the fundamental principles underlying performance to improve their technique and efficiency, specialising in sprinting and hurdling.
“The Olympics is the pinnacle of an athlete’s career,” he said, “so anyone who works with athletes wants to get them to the best possible condition.”
Dr Salo combines his academic expertise with an inside understanding of athletics drawn from his experience of coaching international athletes in his home country of Finland.
His research focuses on mathematical modelling for sprint starts, investigations into sprinting on bends, for example in the 200 metres, and work with 4×100 metre relay teams on the efficiency of baton exchanges.
He films athletes on the track and analyses their movements through specialist software, eliminating the traditional reliance on practical trial and error to perfect performance.
Sometimes results can be surprising, in the case of sprinting on bends, analysis has directed coaches to use techniques that seem to be counter-intuitive but prove effective.
Dr Salo has worked with athletes who have achieved medal success, notably the winning 4×100 metre men’s relay team at the Athens Olympics 2004, including Bath’s Jason Gardener.
“When the team took the gold in Athens I had already flown home from the preparation camp, and I was screaming at the television from the sofa,” he said.
“I lived every moment of it but it’s so difficult to describe because it’s such a unique experience.””
Dr Salo has high hopes for the British performance at London 2012. “London is going to be a huge sporting success for the British team,” he said. “Home nations always exceed predictions.”
At the Games Dr Salo will be in the Olympic Stadium filming races to review technique with coaches between heats. “When you’re actually in the stadium and the race starts it’s nerve-wracking, but at the same time I can’t be nervous because I have to hold the camera steady to be able to analyse the race!”
To be part of the team that will help the host nation’s athletes go for glory is a high point in Dr Salo’s career. “London 2012 is going to be the closest I can get to a home Olympics, as Finland will never host the summer Games, so naturally I’m really excited,” he said. “The athletes are so motivated and there’s definitely an extra buzz. It’s great to be part of it.”