BMW technology helps U.S. long jumpers

U.S. long jumpers, such as four-time world champion Dwight Phillips, can analyze their jumps like never before thanks to technology from BMW. Yes, that BMW. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

When seen by the naked eye, the long jump appears to be a simple task. Run fast. Jump high. Travel far. Want to travel farther? Run fast, jump higher. But how fast? How high? And at what angle?

Until recently, long jumpers had to rely mostly on their instincts to answer those questions. But thanks to the USOC’s partnership with BMW -- yes, that BMW -- their instincts get a competitive boost from cold, hard, glorious data.

The use of technology is nothing new in the long jump; coaches have long used high-speed cameras to capture athletes’ jumps and then break them down frame by frame to find flaws in form and technique. But immediate quantitative feedback has been all but nonexistent.

Enter BMW’s velocity measurement system, which the German auto company developed after signing a six-year deal with USA Track & Field in 2010. The system engineers set up a 3-D stereo camera -- wired to a computer -- next to a track. The long jumper is then outfitted with a special white hat, which the camera is programmed to track and record while he or she leaps. (The head is the most stable part of the body during a jump.) Special software on the computer then uses the images captured by the camera to instantaneously determine horizontal velocity, vertical velocity and jump angle.

“Now it’s not just feeling,” says Bryan Clay, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon. “After a jump, I can look at the screen, see my measurements and know that if my takeoff angle was, say, 45 degrees and I needed to be closer to 25, then I need to push out instead of up. There’s less guessing, so instead of taking two to three more jumps to figure it out, I can make the adjustment right away.”

That means more efficient training sessions and fewer overuse injuries. “Every car has a dashboard. This is our athletic performance dashboard,” says Phil Cheetham, senior sports technologist for the USOC. “With it, we can start to tune the athlete according to the feedback. It’s a step into the future.” Or perhaps one giant leap.