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Olympic Math Boot Camp

Get a quick refresher on all the conversions and statistics you’ll want to know while watching the Summer Olympics. Then, enjoy the Games!

By
Jason Marshall, PhD,
July 27, 2012
Episode #115

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big fan of the Olympics. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m also a big fan of the numbers and statistics behind the games. That’s right—you might not have thought about it before, but the Olympics are chock-full-o-math. And knowing and understanding the math involved, really does enhance the experience of watching. Which is why today we’re headed to Olympic math boot camp to learn my top 7 tips for making the most of the Summer Olympic Games.

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Tip 1: How to Convert Between MPH and KPH?

Much to the chagrin of metric-holdouts in the U.S. and elsewhere, the Olympic games are pretty much a metric-only affair these days. Which means you should know how to make sense of distances in kilometers and speeds in kilometers per hour. We’ll talk about how to think about distances in kilometers in a minute, but it’s good to know that 1 mile is equal to about 1.6 kilometers and 1 mile per hour is equal to about 1.6 kilometers per hour. So to convert miles into kilometers or miles per hour into kilometers per hour, just multiply by 1.6.

Tip 2: What do Distances in Meters Really Mean?

How far is 800 meters? Or 10,000 meters? If you like to watch track-and-field events, developing an intuition for distances like this will give you a better feel for what the runners are going through. Since there are 1,000 meters in a kilometer, you can use the conversion from the previous tip to figure out how long these distances are in miles. And while that’s great, it’s also nice to be able to relate the lengths of these races to things you’re more familiar with. For example, 800 meters is about the length of 10 normal Manhattan city blocks. And although this might not be something you can directly relate to, it’s interesting to know that 10,000 meters is about the same distance as the height of Mount Everest!

Tip 3: How Fast is a Millisecond?

Most timed events in the Olympics are measured with millisecond precision. But what exactly is a millisecond? If you take a second and divide it up into 1,000 pieces, each of those pieces is a millisecond. How long is that really? Well, if you’re driving your car at 60 miles per hour, you only travel about 1 inch in a millisecond. Even a passenger jet cruising at 550 miles per hour travels less than 10 inches in a millisecond. So how much time is a millisecond? Not much!

Tip 4: How Fast Swimmers Swim and Runners Run?

When watching swimmers and runners, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that they’re moving really, really fast. How fast? Well, the world record time for the 50 meter freestyle event (which is a single lap of an Olympic pool) is just over 21 seconds. Which means that a sprinting swimmer moves at more than 5.25 miles per hour—faster than a lot of people can run! As for runners, the world record time for the 100 meter sprint is 9.72 seconds. How fast is that? Nearly 34 miles per hour (the speed of a reindeer!). And that’s only the average speed for the entire race…the top speed is even faster!

Tip 5: How Many Events Are in the Triathlon, Pentathlon, and Decathlon?

What do the triathlon, pentathlon, and decathlon have to do with math? In truth, not a whole lot. But there is a bit of math buried in their names. You’re no-doubt familiar with the prefix “tri” from “triangle,” and therefore you’d probably guess that a triathlon has 3 events just as a triangle has 3 sides. And you’d be right! What about pentathlons and decathlons? Well, the prefix “pent” means 5 which explains why the modern pentathlon includes an eclectic mix of 5 events. Similarly, the prefix “dec” means 10 which explains why the decathlon has 10 events.

Tip 6: How High and Far Vaulters Vault and Jumpers Jump?

The high jump world record is just over 8 feet…as high as the ceiling in most houses!

It’s easy to overlook just how high and far the vaulters and jumpers in track-and-field events are jumping. But you really don’t want to do that because the distances and heights are very impressive. The world record for the high jump is 2.45 meters. Big deal, right? Well, think about this: 2.45 meters is just over 8 feet…which means that it’s about as high as the ceiling in most houses! The long jump world record is 8.95 meters. Again, no big deal…until you realize that that’s just under 30 feet—almost as long as some city buses! How about pole vaulters? The world record pole vault is 6.14 meters or just over 20 feet—higher than a two-story building!

Tip 7: How Much Weight a Weight Lifter Lifts?

Just as with the jumping events, it’s easy to overlook the incredible feats achieved by the weightlifters at the Olympics. There are lots of different weight classes for the different sized competitors, so let’s just look at the heaviest and most burly weight class. The Olympic records for the two different weightlifting events in this class are 212 kg and 263 kg. How much weight is that? It’s a ridiculous amount—263 kg is almost 580 pounds…almost half the weight of a typical dairy cow!

Wrap Up

Of course, this list is really just the beginning…there are lots and lots of other fascinating numbers and statistics in the Olympics. Feel free to email me your favorites at mathdude@quickanddirtytips.com.

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Until next time, this is Jason Marshall with The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Make Math Easier. Thanks for reading, math fans!

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Woman running, Track, and Pole Jumper courtesy of Shutterstock

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