Archive Gallery: The Secrets of Olympic Athletes

Training, gear, and sometimes, sadly, drugs, give the world's top athletes an edge in competition

Part of the fun of watching the Olympics is living vicariously through your country's team. We like to think that if circumstances had been different, if we watched a little less Netflix, if our parents had just made us take gymnastics at an early age, or if we hadn't quit swimming to be a townsperson in the school musical, maybe that would be us on TV telling reporters how "speechless" and "thankful" we are to have won in front of the whole world.

Of course, that's not true. Most of us plebes just don't have what it takes. But what does it take? We took a look through our archives to see some of the technology and training methods that help push already elite athletes over the top. Some of the techniques we found were unorthodox to say the least: belting a right-angled aluminum plate around your stomach while swimming, for one. But sometimes all it takes is one small adjustment - shifting your center of gravity on a high jump, for instance - to make a big difference.

Click here to explore the gallery.

We also break down how and why athletes keep breaking records, look at a silly endorsement by an Olympian of a product that probably didn't give him an edge and see how scientists test competitors for performance-enhancing drugs, to make sure their superhuman feats are, in fact, entirely human.

All this and more can be found in this week's archive gallery: a peek behind the curtain of Olympians past that will hopefully give you a little more appreciation for the men and women duking it out for their countries on our TV screen. And maybe you'll also be grateful you're enjoying it from your couch, and not from the arena.

Bathing in Artificial UV Light, October 1928

These English Olympians are basking under artificial sun lamps, hoping to get the health benefits of natural sunlight indoors. The treatment was developed by Lieutenant Colonel G. S. Hutchison after he took some British coal miners to Switzerland and watched them grow big and strong in the Swiss sunshine. He created these lamps for those who can't just jet off to the Alps for a little sunbathing. While users of these lamps may not have known at the time that they were roasting under rays of cancer, our article does caution that "even natural sunlight can be venomous, as anyone who has been severely sunburned knows." But physicians thought the benefits, such as curing rickets, killing germs or bulking up for the Olympics, outweighed the risks. Read the full story in Electric "Suns" Fight Disease.

Sprinting Starts, June 1930

Lawson Robertson, coach of the 1928 U.S. Olympic track team, grooms new sprinting stars using his invention: a steel cable fastened to the ground on one end, with a handgrip on the other. The device is supposed to help the runner find the sweet spot for his starting position--the one that will "give him the greatest forward impetus, without stumbling at the get-away." Read the full story in Track Device Teaches Sprinters Fast Start.

Questionable Diet Supplements Will Probably Not Turn You Into an Olympian, April 1961

In the long tradition of Olympians endorsing products by promising they will help you be like them, sprinter Bobby Morrow, winner of three Olympic gold medals in the 1956 Melbourne Games, wants you to try "Stim-O-Stam." Apparently it is a phosphate complex that "helps build up the vital storehouse of energy and muscle resilience needed by active people." However, "if your most strenuous activity is Tiddlie-winks, this message is not for you." See the full ad here.

Why We Break Records, May 1963

The human body certainly has limits, but we don't seem to have reached them yet. When this article was written, a pole vaulting height of 16 feet was something to marvel over; today the world record is higher than 20 feet. Every Olympic cycle, records are smashed, and in this article, we pinpointed five reasons why:

Stomach Shelves for Swimmers, May 1966

Drag is a crucial element of training for any serious swimmer. My high school swim team wouldn't shave our legs all season, because every hair of resistance counted. Then, before championships, we would shave it all off, theoretically also shaving seconds off our times. These Hungarian Olympic swimmers are using a more effective method of creating drag than relying on body hair. They've belted right-angled aluminum plates onto their stomachs, which create drag that strengthens their leg and arm muscles without affecting their form or center of gravity, like elastic ropes or weight belts sometimes can. Also they seem like they would be very convenient plates for a poolside lunch. Read the full story in Belt-on Trays Harden Swimming Muscles.

Adjusting for Altitude, May 1968

While preparing for the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, West German athletes were worried about how the altitude change would affect their performance (Mexico City is a mile and a half above sea level). To assess, they made use of this frightening-looking device, known as an altitude simulator. That far above sea level, the thin air causes long-distance runners to tire easily, but the athletes determined that the short, quick bursts run by the sprinters would leave them little time to be affected. Read the full story in Athletes Get Advance Sample of Olympic Air.

Custom Bikes, July 1996

This is the Superbike2, which, when it debuted at the 1996 Atlanta games under the butts of the U.S. Olympic cycling team, was reportedly the fastest and most aerodynamic bicycle ever built. It cost $1 million to create 12 of these bikes, which were developed in a wind tunnel at General Motors and built by GT Bicycles. The frame is made of rigid carbon fiber, which is strong enough that they could leave off the top bar, and also allows for faster acceleration. Read the full story in Superbike.

Testing for Performance-Enhancing Drugs, September 2000

Unfortunately, sometimes the secret of a great athlete comes in a vial. Leading up to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was struggling to develop tests that could detect evidence of blood doping - the common term for the use of the peptide hormone erythropoietin (EPO) to load the blood with oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Scientists at the Australian Institute of Sport and the Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory discovered that the use of EPO leaves several "fingerprints" that can be detected. For example, the percentage of young red blood cells is twice as high as normal, with more iron receptors. What's more, after a time, the body adjusts to added EPO by suspending its own EPO production. According to this article, the development of such tests put "enormous pressure" on the IOC to make use of them in order to keep drug abuse from tarnishing the achievements of Olympic athletes. Read the full story in Testing for Tainted Gold.