How BMW could help American long jumpers win Olympic gold

May 3, 2012

BMW Olympics
BMW Olympics

Like many sponsors of the U.S. Olympic team, BMW does more than write checks. Which helps explain how a group of BMW engineers in California adapted vehicle sensors into a new system that could help U.S. Olympians win a sport they hadn't even placed in during the 2008 games -- the long jump.

Long jumps were part of the ancient Greek games and have been held in the modern games since they resumed in 1896. Yet while most Olympic and world track and field records fall every year, progress in the long jump has stopped. Only two long jump records have been set in the last 44 years, the most recent 21 years ago by Mike Powell of the United States, who jumped 29.4 feet at the 1991 World Championship games in Tokyo.

At the 2008 Beijing Games, Americans won no medals, and the best U.S. jump by Trevor Quinley of 25.82 feet wasn't enough to even make the final round.

A year ago, BMW signed on as the Official Mobility Partner of the United States Olympic Committee, and the USOC soon asked a strange question: Could BMW help improve the performance of American athletes in the long jump? Academics had attempted to use technology for years to refine long jumpers' performance, but with little result.

Researchers with the U.S. Track and Field team told BMW what they needed to measure: the jumper's speed before the take-off board, their vertical velocity and their launch angle. What the team envisioned was a system that could measure all three statistics in real-time, so the jumper could make adjustments on instant feedback.

BMW screenshot
BMW screenshot

Chris Pavloff, the BMW advanced technology engineer leading the project, was already familiar with BMW's use of cameras in its vehicles. He started with an off-the-shelf stereo camera that was able to 'see in 3D, then began creating software that would use the camera as a velocity measurement system, similar to technology BMW was testing in active safety systems.

The first problem was finding what to measure. A long jumper at the point of launch has to throw their body up while at the same time moving their center of gravity down with their arms, creating too much motion for a camera system to track. The solution: A white cap for the athlete's head, which works as long as the jumper isn't also wearing white shoes.

At take-off a jumper exerts up to 15 times his weight, and has only so much energy to exert in a training session. Phil Cheetham, a senior sports technologist for the USOC Training Center has high hopes for the system over the long haul, says having immediate data should "cut down in physical stress."

BMW handed over the system recently to the U.S. Olympic Center, where it will be used to help America's long jumpers prepare for the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. starting on June 22. A little more than a month later, the London Olympics will open -- and U.S. athletes will see whether BMW technology helped them turn into the ultimate jumping machine.

Photo: AP