Gideon Ariel is a
fleshy man, with direct, hazel eyes and a shock of black curls graying at the
temples as he enters his 39th year. His accent bears a resemblance to that of
Alan Arkin playing Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, but he shouts more.
Occasionally brilliant explications to visitors or students are followed by
awkward silences because his Hebraic rhythms have made "quats" and
"kets" of quartz and cats. Because photography is crucial to
biomechanical analysis, Ariel speaks often of "fillums." But it is
Ariel's work, not his speech, that has made him a hero to hundreds of
In November 1975
the U.S. Olympic Committee assembled the 12 best American discus throwers in
Los Angeles where high-speed cameras photographed them in action. The film was
flown to Ariel's lab in Amherst, where he calculated the forces and
accelerations of the athletes' body segments. Ariel himself flew back to
California with the results, plopping 50-to-80-page computer print-outs into
the bemused throwers' laps. One recipient was Mac Wilkins. The sheets of
numbers meant little to him, but not Ariel's interpretation. "He pointed
out that my front leg was absorbing energy that could go into the throw,"
says Wilkins. "I had to begin to change my whole conception of throwing. I
used to think I had to put as much of my speed as I could in the direction of
Newton's law about every action requiring an equal and opposite reaction, said
no. "It's vital to have everything stopping in the discus. In the best
throws, we found a pattern. It is like using a fly rod, or snapping a towel.
You have to decelerate the heavy parts, the legs and the trunk, so you can
accelerate the light parts, the arm and the discus." Ariel spoke to Wilkins
with special care, because the analysis had shown him generating incredible
speed in one section of his spin. "He was like 30% faster than the rest,
even though he was dissipating it at the end. But if you see that, you know the
potential is there." The computer found that with a perfectly timed
summation of his forces, Wilkins could throw the discus 250 feet.
"It seemed a
little far at the time," says Wilkins, whose best was 219'1". Indeed,
the world record was 226'8". But the second and third times Wilkins put
Ariel's advice into practice, he broke the world record, eventually reaching
232'6" and winning the Olympic gold medal at Montreal. He continues to
throw, calmly maintaining he has not lived up to his potential, and for once
that is a judgment supportable with clear evidence.
Albritton's mistake was similar to Wilkins'. "That front leg has to be the
solid block you throw from," says Ariel. "What Terry was doing, bending
that knee, was like trying to throw from a trampoline or shoot a cannon from a
canoe." A year ago Ariel told Albritton he could be the next world-record
holder if he'd stop doing that. A month later Albritton was the next
world-record holder, with a put of 71'8½."
camera and computer happen upon events that bluntly refute accepted theory.
Long jumpers have all trained by rising to their toes under heavy weights,
strengthening their calves for the last push from the board. Ariel's analysis
showed, however, that the best jumpers don't point their toes until the pushing
foot is already two feet off the ground. "Far more important than the
jumping leg is the free leg," says Ariel. "It and the torso accelerate
as the planted leg decelerates. Then the jumping leg is yanked off the ground.
That leg isn't pushing, it's trying to catch up."
In a study of
Kansas City Royals pitchers, another commonsense belief fell to clear
measurement. "You'd think if the forearm muscles that flick the wrist were
stronger, you'd move the wrist faster and throw harder," says Ariel,
illustrating by flapping a limb in the manner of a rather aggressive princess
thrusting her hand out to be kissed. "But no. Because of the whip action,
the concentration of force from the legs and back and shoulder, the forearm is
like the end of that snapping towel, the wrist snaps far faster than any muscle
can contract. It just goes along for the ride, so it is absolutely useless to
train the wrist."
No sport is
immune to Ariel's iconoclastic examination. Not long ago, he and his staff
spent 4,000 hours analyzing the behavior of tennis balls, filming them at
10,000 frames per second as they struck rackets and assorted surfaces.
people think they can feel the ball on the racket. They talk as if they can do
things to control it then," says Ariel, waving an imaginary racket. "We
discovered that a tennis ball is on the racket approximately four milliseconds.
Four one-thousandths of a second. Human reaction time is 120 milliseconds or
more, so that ball is long gone before anybody feels it. It is off the racket
even before the racket gives." Such a sharp jolt obviously packs a great
deal of energy into the briefest of moments. "The muscles can't react to
it, so the elbow, which is a single plane joint and can't pass any of the shock
along, can briefly receive a hundred times the force it does when you throw
something. No wonder people get tennis elbow."
The tennis ball
study was commissioned by a manufacturer who will use the results to design
balls that remain on the racket longer. But Ariel was most fascinated by having
to devise a new equation to describe the behavior of elastic objects colliding
at oblique angles, because these didn't seem to follow textbook physics.
"The point of maximum compression is not the point of maximum force,"
he says excitedly. The commercial overtones of the research did not hold his
interest. "They talk about light balls, heavy balls. Such craziness. All
the brands were so much the same it was like they were made by the same