SI Vault
Kenny Moore
August 22, 1977
If you want to run faster, throw farther or jump higher, call on this electronic mastermind, who will photograph you in action, digitize the moving parts of your body and feed the data into a computer, which in turn will spew out reams of athletic advice no human authority can provide
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August 22, 1977

Gideon Ariel And His Magic Machine

If you want to run faster, throw farther or jump higher, call on this electronic mastermind, who will photograph you in action, digitize the moving parts of your body and feed the data into a computer, which in turn will spew out reams of athletic advice no human authority can provide

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There are times when Ariel becomes unabashedly sentimental about his U.S. experience, and this memory triggers a paean to the American system. "There was a time when we needed to know relative weights of body segments. We wrote to NASA research and they sent back books of data. No charge. That was a tremendous help. We couldn't have gone on without it. But in East Germany they would say, 'Confidential, classified.' Here, people are open-minded."

As if in recompense, Ariel has offered his services at cost to the U.S. Olympic Committee as it readies for the Moscow Olympics. "Until 1964," he says, "talent alone still worked. Since then sport has been a science, not an art. There is no way anyone is going to beat the talent in this country if it is properly prepared." Since May, Ariel has been spending half his time at the newly opened Olympic Training Camp at Squaw Valley, Calif. (page 46), working with field hockey players, soccer players, women's basketball players, kayakers and swimmers. As usual, he has doled out hours of fascinating advice. What is the optimum free throw? "The more limb segments you use, the more chance for error in coordination," he says. "The best players just use the knees for lift, and flip with the forearm. Simplest is best." In a skill as basic as jumping, Ariel brought about a two-inch improvement in one female basketball player whose coach had had her bending her knees too deeply before ascent.

The ice hockey coaches were reluctant to use Ariel's services until he explained to them, for the first time, just how it is that a slap shot by a small player can attain much greater velocity than a sweep shot by a monster. "The better shooters hit down on the ice behind the puck and bend the stick so it becomes loaded with energy. Then they flick the puck, like this," he said, flipping paper balls at the astonished and somewhat embarrassed coaches.

Indeed, Ariel's findings and progress in biomechanical research present a challenge to all coaches. After he stops calling them witches and predicting that a computer-monitored individual training system will do away with them, he backs down a bit, saying, "I can't coach the Dallas Cowboys, but I can give them more information. I can tell them where and how to hit the other players, how to create the greatest force in blocking, how to brace knees, improve helmets. People cry about removing the art from sport. But they started it. Why do you time a runner, or measure a jumper, or count goals? Maybe we shouldn't. But once you decide to use all those numbers, O.K., let's really use them." This has some added force, said as it is while Ariel dramatically unfolds a printout of thousands of multidigit measures of Offensive Tackle Rayfield Wright's center-of-gravity fluctuations, the paper spilling across his desk and onto the floor.

Ariel's old boss, Track Coach O'Brien, has thought about the threat he poses to old-school coaches. "Gideon assumes, rightly, that most coaches don't know biomechanics, physics or biology, and haven't got a burning desire to learn. Coaches just use what has seemed to work in the past. It's true that you can't see enough. We see positions, we see lines, but we don't see magnitude, how hard that foot is pushing. If we are willing to admit we're inadequate in those areas, we will use the techniques he has developed."

O'Brien sees a possible source of resentment in the necessity of coaches relinquishing athletes to outside analysts like Ariel. "Nobody likes to share the credit." O'Brien has observed Ariel's presentations to several coaching clinics. "He's a good entertainer. You pretty much have to respond to the force of his personality, so it is illuminating to watch the people when he's done. Some rush him for more and more. They're all saying the same thing. 'Where can I use it? How the heck can we make it available?' The others are turned off. They drift out shaking their heads, sullen."

One sees the same dark clouds on the brows of corporate sporting-goods executives that fogged the brains of Galileo's judges. Science is no respecter of tradition, and Gideon Ariel is a man of pure, almost innocent, science. In his lab is a scientifically designed shotput shoe. It has laces inside its laces and is twisted, as if a truck had run over it. "Did you ever see anyone put the shot while standing up straight? No. This shoe cocks the foot into position and the double laces save energy. It works." No manufacturer will touch it. "It wouldn't look so good on display," Ariel says. "And how many shotputters are there in this country?"

A maker of golf shoes wanted C.B.A. to prove its shoes were the most comfortable, comfort being the basis of its advertising. Science had other ideas. "What is 'comfortable'?" Ariel demanded. "Does that mean a man can swing better? What if the best shoes for golf shots make a man limp down the fairway? You cannot high-jump in comfortable shoes. You cannot shoot a cannon from a canoe because the canoe is going under the water...." The golf-shoe people departed with pinched expressions. Later they retained Ariel's services, warily.

A ski-boot company once got Ariel up to Vermont to analyze the forces on the ankle joints of a downhill skier. He proposed, for safety, the use of electric strain gauges on the bindings. "It was as if someone said to General Motors, 'Make an electric car.' It was too revolutionary. There is one word that seems to paralyze these people—that is 'retool.' "

Yet Ariel does not brood over temporary setbacks. His company owns outright all of his equipment, so if contracts or grants should dry up, he could press on with research. And his own competitive juices still surge. Recently, he got a call from an old hero of his, Al Oerter, the 40-year-old, four-time Olympic discus champion. "We, he and I, are going to reenter the ring," Ariel says, his eyes gleaming. "We will put him in a more efficient position. We will cut down on shoe friction. We will overcome physiological deterioration with scientific advance!" Ariel listens to his own echoes in the lab. "He was so nice on the phone, I had to say yes. He told me, 'We competed in the same Games.' But I didn't ever make the final."

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