Sunday, July 15, 2012

Olympics : Brief History of the Modern Games - Evolution of starting blocks

Starting a race requires great amount of strength and power and neuro-muscular coordination. Starting blocks help competitive runners quickly initiate acceleration by giving them something to push off from at the start of a race. Prior to the introduction of starting blocks runners dug their own launching pad (in the ground) at the start of race. In the days before synthetic track surfaces, competition was contested on cinder or clay tracks. This technique worked well.

By the 1920s some athletes began using starting blocks. Some sport historians believe Charley Paddock may have been the first Olympic athlete to use a starting block. The first patent was registered in 1935, and the International Association of Athletics Federations, recognized starting blocks as official part of sprint races in 1937. Many of the 1936 Berlin Olympic finalists still dug their own starting blocks. Once officially recognized by the athletic authorities they could be used for any race up to and including the 400-meter sprint. Runners in the first leg of the 4 x 200 m and 4 x 400 m relay events could also use starting blocks.

Starting blocks were first used in the Olympics during the 1948 London Summer Games. Initially the use of starting blocks was quite controversial with claims they gave advantage so some competitors.

Several types of starting block patents have been filed. Blocks with foot plates low enough to expose the heel were popular during the 1970s. Low blocks (with the heels exposed) are considered to give a runner greater inertia output generated by the stretch reflex in the gastrocnemius muscle.

However, higher blocks, which supported contact for the entire foot, became common during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Short blocks came back into style during the 1996 Olympics, and high blocks returned in 2008. There is no right or wrong starting block but it is important for athletes to find the proper and effective start position. The theory behind the higher block was it gave greater force applied through maximal contact. Ben Johnson leapt out of his blocks with both feet at the same time, similar to a swimmer. Sprinters crouch down with their feet pressed against the starting block and hands touching the ground to begin a race. When prompted with "On your marks!" by the starter, they drop one knee to the ground, and, after hearing "Get set!", runners raises their knee and prepare to launch from the starting block as soon as the starting gun fires.

Michael Johnson at the 1996 Olympics used short blocks,” but later preferred high blocks.

In the 2008 Olympics, Usain Bolt used raised starting blocks with his heels exposed to give him an added stretch reflex.

New models of starting blocks from 2011 have a small speaker installed for initiating races, and motion triggers to detect false starts.

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