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London’s Olympic Stadium on track for fast times

Workers prepare membrane covered with meadow flowers and turf outside the Olympic Stadium ahead of the Opening Ceremony in the London 2012 Olympic Park at Stratford in London July 13, 2012.


The 2012 track and field competition can't get started soon enough – for both the track's designers and the people charged with the responsibility of ensuring Olympic Stadium's legacy long after the last medal is handed out in London.

The stadium has turned into a political nightmare and for those with memories of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the notion that future tenants are worried about the facility's sustainability conjures up memories of the Expos trying to make a go of it in an empty, soulless concrete shell.

This Olympic Stadium will be home to one of London's English Premiership soccer teams and, next month, the various agencies responsible will try for a third time to render a decision that won't result in a legal challenge.

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Whomever wins would dearly like the running track torn up, because fans are already grumbling about how removed the seating area will be from the pitch.

This has nothing to do with the people at Mondo, the Italian-based company that designed the patented vulcanized running track that has been used for the previous nine Summer Games, starting with Montreal.

They're counting down the days to world records and, yes, they do keep mental notes.

"When the competitors run fast and tell us how much they love our track, it is a real source of pride," said Chad Luttrell, national track division manager for Mondo USA.

"[2008 Beijing triple gold medalist] Usain Bolt says he flies on our track. For us, that's just a testament to everything we're trying to do."

Olympic running surfaces have come a long way since rubber and asphalt first started being combined to make tracks in the 1950s, let alone since Jesse Owens ran on a cinder track at the 1936 Berlin Games.

But, according to Luttrell, it is what you don't see underneath the patented, vulcanized track that is one of the keys to force reduction and energy return – the important technical elements that determine how fast a track is and, ultimately, how many world records are set.

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"The real magic of this track is its hexagonal backing," Luttrell said.

"That's what makes it fast. It optimizes the force in the compression and the energy return to the athlete. If you think force going in and out, in equal and opposite directions, the idea is to make sure there is less wasted energy."

It took three months to construct and install the London track, which is 13-millimetres thick and covers 8,700 square metres. It has nine oval lanes as opposed to the normal eight, and approximately 54 tons of rubber were utilized.

The surface was manufactured in Italy and delivered to London in 875, 200-kilogram rolls measuring 1.22 metres by 15 metres. The track is made of sustainable materials, including renewable natural rubber, and is 100-per-cent recyclable.

Installation was done by hand – tightly seamed together along the lines of the running lanes. And while it was formally unveiled in October of 2011, its first official event was the British Universities & College Sports championships in May.

Sprinter Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, who ran on that weekend, has a habit of dropping a cricket ball on every track before he races. "On a normal track, it bounces to knee height," he told the Daily Mail. "On a Mondo track, it comes up to your hip, so everything you put into it, you get back."

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Each track needs to strike a balance between the demands of sprinters and distance runners, with Mondo being criticized in the past for creating a track surface too rigid for distance runners. Luttrell said the International Association of Athletics Federations grades tracks for force reduction, or a measure of hardness. The IAAF aims for 35-per-cent to 50-per-cent reduction, with 35 the hardest end of the spectrum. He estimates the London track came it at 38, which earned it a Class 1 ranking.

"For training, all runners prefer a softer and more comfortable track," Luttrell said. "However, for speed, 'harder' does not necessarily mean faster. Mondo was able to patent our system so that it is both comfortable and fast, by both increasing the contact area of the foot while decreasing the pressure on the foot."

By optimizing the shock absorption and energy return in the bottom layer, Luttrell said, a "softer" feel results that also increases flight time, step length, energy return and contact area. Pressure on the foot decreases.

The surface is impervious and cross-sloped to allow water to run off. And while some older tracks will change their performance dynamics as they age, despite being "basically inert," in Luttrell's words, the Mondo-built track doesn't change its geometry.

At the formal unveiling of the track, Lord Sebastian Coe – a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500-metres and chairman of the London Games organizing committee – ran the track along with British 1,500-metre world silver medalist Hannah England and gold-medal Paralympian Dan Greaves.

Coe spent the morning meeting with members of the IAAF, pressing London's case for the 2017 world athletics championships, in a move that brought into the spotlight one of the overriding concerns about the stadium: it's suitability as a venue whose main tenant will be a soccer club after the completion of the Olympics.

Four groups have filed bids for the Olympic Stadium, including Premier League soccer club West Ham. The companies are bidding for leases of up to 99 years to use the stadium from 2014, when it will be downsized from 80,000 to 60,000 seats.

That was challenged by another Premiership outfit, Tottenham Hotspur, and League 1 side Leyton Orient, both of which made clear they would remove the track after the 2012 Olympics to make the stadium more intimate.

Those teams pulled out of the picture, but further legal challenges meant a third deadline for bidding was set for July 12, with West Ham still the lead bid but now with significant leverage. Might they ultimately decide they don't want the track?

It would cost upward of £10-million ($15.8-million) per year for the London Legacy Development Corporation to leave the facility vacant, and the matter has resulted in a series of high-profile resignations including one earlier this month by LLDC chief executive officer Andrew Altman.

So the story of London's Olympic Stadium is as much one of political science as sports science. Sounds familiar, eh?

This is the ninth part in a 10-part series on the science behind athletes' preparation for the London 2012 Summer Games. Next week: Doping

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