How BMW helped USA clinch those gold medals

Proving yet again that when it comes to efficiency, no one beats the Germans.

Meryl D'Souza August 14, 2016

The United States is now the first nation in the world to make it to 1,000 Summer Olympic gold medals. No other nation is even marginally close to duplicating that tally, let alone overtaking it.

To give you perspective, before going into the Rio Olympics, the US total for gold medals was 977. In second at 395 was the now obsolete Soviet Union and Great Britain – the United States’ only real competition – sat third with 245 golds.

The biggest contributor to that 1,000 gold medal haul is swimming. The US has a history of dominating the event with multiple gold-clinching athletes at every tournament. In total, American swimmers have notched up 248 of the 1,000 gold medals in the US trophy cabinet.

This year has been no different for them. While Michael Phelps has increased his own gold medal tally to 23, Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel have led the charge for female swimmers. 

According to a 2010 study by the University of Memphis that was commissioned by USA Swimming, 68.9 per cent of African-American children possessed "no or low swim ability". The number for white children was 41.8 per cent, and according to USA Swimming, African-American children drown at a rate that is three times higher than Caucasian children. It speaks volumes then that Simone Manuel, the first African American woman to win an individual Olympic gold, won the 100m freestyle competition in record time.

Less than 18 hours after the 20-year-old from Texas created history, her roommate would do the same. For Katie Ledecky, it was never a question of whether or not she would win the 800m freestyle competition. The pressing matter was by how much.

By the time Ledecky reached 100m, she was already two body lengths ahead of everyone else in the pool. The US team’s youngest member (at 19 years old) not only shattered her own world record by nearly two seconds, but did it with an incredible 11.38 seconds to spare before Great Britain’s Jazz Carlin came in for the silver.

Realising what a gold jackpot this event has been for its country, USA Swimming pulled out all the stops to push these athletes even further ahead. They didn’t do it alone though. In that quest for gold, USA Swimming turned to German efficiency to help its athletes.

For the second time since 2012, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, or BMW, used technology originally created for its autonomous driving systems to help the US clinch gold.

The ‘tail light solution’, as BMW calls it, employs LEDs similar to the ones used in the tail lamps of its cars to track swimmers. Smaller, lighter and nearly undetectable versions of these LEDs were attached to different parts of the swimmers’ bodies – knees, ankles, shoulders and hips.

These systems have been tweaked to help the swimmers track the trajectory of their laps and body movements while covering laps during training. Coaches use this input to correct a swimmer's movements and improve their technique as and when required.

The production cost for these LEDs per athlete is between $300,000 and $600,000 – about as much as a 30-second prime-time television ad. Trudy Hardy, BMW’s vice president of marketing for North America, believes it’s a small price to pay to showcase the brand’s technology and its application in sports.

This isn’t the first time BMW helped America win at such a grand stage. At the Sochi 2014 Winter Games BMW developed a two-man bobsled for the US that helped the men win a bronze medal – ending the US’s 62-year medal drought in the two man bobsled category.