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Days of running, jumping and standing still

Jenny Houssart says the Olympic Games provide an excellent context for measuring and presentational work.

Our calendar has long had a ring round July 19, together with several asterisks and "end of term". The date is important for many schoolchildren and for the thousands of athletes who will then begin the centenary Olympics. Meanwhile, athletes will be busy training and the build up to the games will add interest to the many sporting activities occurring in schools in June and July. Schools sports vary, with both traditional sports days and variations involving a range of group activities. Some schools encourage children to improve on their own performance or "Personal Bests" rather than compete against each other. All these systems involve maths both in the initial measuring and in the presentation of information.

At this time of year school outdoor measuring equipment is likely to see the light of day. One must check that the trundle wheel hasn't lost its click and the wind-up tape measure still winds up, preferably without anyone spearing themselves with the sharp bit that supposedly sticks in the ground. A variety of measuring tools will probably be needed as those suitable for marking out a 50-metre running track will not be accurate enough for recording jumps or throws. Some schools will have a proper running track marked out for them, but there is maths in considering why it has a certain shape and size and where various races will need to start. Staggered starts merit investigation, too, as it is far from obvious that this is a fair system and that everyone runs the same distance.

Many schools will have jumping or throwing activities calling for fairly accurate measurement. Direction is a problem with throwing. Do you have to throw straight ahead? Will you be penalised if you don't? The Olympic way of measuring throws solves many of these problems and can be illustrated using polar paper. Finding the right spot for throwing events can be a problem for schools and Olympic organisers alike. The discus and hammer had a tendency to get stuck in trees during the Paris Olympics of 1900, an event which seems to have been nearly as chaotic as some school sports days.

Measuring long jump and similar events also raises the question of where you are measuring from and to. Some famous Olympic jumps have taken several minutes to measure. This is nothing compared to the time some children can take to work out where the tape measure goes. At least Olympic officials don't walk all over the sand obliterating the marks they are supposed to be measuring while scuffing their shoes. Those running the games in Atlanta will of course have the aid of sophisticated technology, though this has not always proved infallible. Bob Beamon's long jump of 8.90m in Mexico was too long for the electronic measuring device to measure.

Once results have been taken they still have to be recorded and devising an efficient way of doing so is a good data handling exercise. Results can be presented in a fairly public way or alternatively pupils can record or graph their own progress over a period of time, perhaps with the help of a computer database. Pupils can also calculate improvements in their performance or calculate the mean or median, often wanting to "drop" the worst results before calculation.

The events apparently requiring the most calculation of the Olympics are composite ones such as the decathlon, where competitors can often be seen waiting nervously for confirmation of results. Designing such a scoring system, which covers a range of events without unduly favouring the specialist, is quite a mathematical challenge. Having recorded their own times and distances children will be better placed to appreciate those in Olympic record books. Famous long jumping distances can be marked out on the field for demonstration purposes. We have all met an optimist who will then try to jump the distance!

Children may also be interested in a practical demonstration of just how heavy Olympic throwing implements are. With the discus at 1kg for men and 2kg for women and the shot at 4kg and over 7kg respectively, children may have increased admiration for those who propel them so far.

There is no shortage of Olympic figures with winning times, scores and distances available for all the games since 1896. For those who prefer to do their maths indoors these figures raise interesting questions. I have been fascinated by charting the improvement in winning performances over the century. As with all real data one must beware of traps, such as changes of rules or distances. Despite general trends, records do not improve evenly, and graphs can show interesting patterns. The least regular ones are probably in the men's long jump where distances jumped by Jesse Owens and Bob Beamon were unbeaten for years. It is interesting to compare the time knocked off the 100m with that knocked off the marathon and to compare improvements in the early years with more recent ones. Then, one can hunt for reasons behind the changed statistics. Why, for example have pole vault and discus records improved so much? Did the introduction of the Fosbury flop speed up the increase in the high jump record?

This summer will no doubt produce its own collection of human stories as well as a new batch of statistics. Perhaps a new Jesse Owens will emerge to make sporting history as well as producing irregularities in graphs. The new statistics could turn out to be almost as interesting as the old ones about the length of time to the end of term.

Jenny Houssart is a lecturer at Nene College, Northampton

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