Examining What Separates the Best Olympians From the Pack

Over two dozen journalists worked on a series of articles exploring the extraordinary techniques of four athletes.

By Katie Van Syckle

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At the Olympics, big outcomes often hinge on tiny details. The angle of a climber’s knee. The timing of a gymnast’s midair flip. The position of a swimmer off the block. The takeoff mark of a hurdler.

To help readers understand the precise movements that can make the difference between a gold medal and no medal at all, a team of graphics editors created a series of interactive articles that break down the extraordinary techniques of four athletes competing in the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Combining animation, motion-capture technology, videography, drones and traditional reporting, the articles look at the swimmer Simone Manuel, the gymnast Sunisa Lee, the hurdler Dalilah Muhammad and the climber Adam Ondra.

“Excellence is something everyone understands to some degree, but these athletes take it to the next level,” Bedel Saget, one of the graphics editors who worked on the project, said. “I think readers appreciate the opportunity to understand what it takes to be the best at something.”

Over two dozen journalists worked on the articles as reporters, videographers, developers and animators. Much of the work began in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, but in some cases, the building blocks traced back years.

Mr. Saget saw Ms. Manuel swim at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she won four medals, and became the first Black woman to win an individual swimming event. Gaining access to elite athletes can be challenging, so he approached her parents in Rio and introduced himself. The meeting helped make it possible for The Times to profile her years later.

For the segment on Ms. Manuel, who just won a bronze medal in the women’s freestyle relay in Tokyo, the journalists traveled to the Stanford University campus in California, where she attended school. The seven-member crew, which included a photographer and underwater videographer, interviewed her coach and spent two days filming the swimmer.

To understand her technique the team consulted Greg Meehan, her coach, and Russell Mark, the high-performance manager for U.S.A. Swimming. They showed how Ms. Manuel enters the water, her powerful kicks and her stroke.

“Helping our readers understand these differences helps them appreciate and enjoy the performances they’ll see during the Olympics,” Mr. Saget said.

To present the techniques of Mr. Ondra, Ms. Lee and Ms. Muhammad, the journalists recorded their movements using high-speed and regular video cameras, as well as motion capture technology. The team also created virtual models of the athletes, which were animated using the video and motion capture data for reference. In Ms. Muhammad’s case, the journalists were able to show how saving a fraction of a second on each hurdle, through a near-perfect technique, sets her up to win over the course of the race.

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