The most accessible Games yet

Olympic Stadium plans. Photo London 2012

The London 2012 Olympic Games takes place between 27th July and 12th August 2012  with the London 2012 Paralympic Games taking place from 29th August to 9th Sept 2012. The scale and scope of the 2012 Games is mind boggling with 26 Olympic sports in 34 venues; 20 Paralympic sports in 21 venues; 10,500 Olympic athletes and 4,200 Paralympic athletes; 20,000 press and media and more than 9 million tickets.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) promised that the London 2012 Games will be the “most accessible Games yet” and The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) has been working over a number of years with the Games organisers to make sure this promise is kept and ensuring that there is a lasting legacy of access for blind and partially sighted people after the Games.

One of the main communication channels for the Games has been the website and RNIB has worked with the Games organisers to make sure that from volunteering to the ticketing and from the Mascots to the London 2012 shop, all are accessible. Blind and partially sighted visitors to the website can now also receive audio description for the torch relay film and London 2012 Mascots Mandeville and Wenlock’s journey to London 2012.

The London 2012 Games Maker volunteer programme is the largest peacetime mobilisation of workforce since the Second World War and RNIB has worked with London 2012 so that blind and partially sighted people could volunteer to be 2012 Games Makers. The Games will require up to 70,000 Games Maker volunteers and by Games time, Games Makers will have collectively undertaken 1.2 million hours of training, and will contribute eight million volunteer hours during London 2012.

In this time of economic downturn, employment opportunities are a huge consideration for people with disabilities and RNIB wanted to use the London 2012 Games as a catalyst to encourage people to try a new field or seek employment with Games associated employers. To date 42 blind and partially sighted people have gained full time employment with London 2012 Games organisers and associated 2012 employers.

London 2012 will also represent a huge shift in how the Games will be accessed by blind and partially sighted people as a result of the securing of live audio description in the stadia for each sporting events. Like a narrator telling a story, audio description (AD) is an additional commentary describing body language, expressions and movements. AD gives people with sight loss information about the things you might not be able to see, meaning that you can keep up with the action. So London 2012 blind or partially sighted ticket holders will for the first time be able to receive audio description live in the stadia.

For all the non sports fans out there, London 2012 will also see one of the largest Cultural Festivals take place throughout the UK. As well as the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, there will be lots of opportunities for people to take part in the London 2012 Cultural Festival. RNIB has been working closely with Games organisers so that blind and partially sighted people can participate in the ceremonies and also in the wide variety of genres that will be on offer as part of the festival programme.

By Alison Talbot, RNIB


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Bringing the skeleton out of the cupboard

Skeleton bob

Skeleton bob

At the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Amy Williams won a gold medal for Great Britain in the women’s skeleton event. An exceptionally talented and dedicated athlete like Amy, combined with word class coaching, sports science and medical support were, of course, key ingredients in any gold medal winning performance. But a key component in Amy’s success was her sled which was designed and built through a collaborative partnership between BAE Systems, UK Sport, University of Southampton and Sheffield Hallam University.

British Skeleton’s Performance Director, Andreas Schmidt, recognised that taking an innovative approach to the provision of kit and equipment could be the icing on the cake when attempting to take on and beat the world’s best winter sport nations. With this background, UK Sport and British Skeleton decided in 2006 to provide the British team with a radical new world-beating sled for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

As we now know, Amy Williams used this new sled in the Olympic Games to great effect, finishing a clear half second ahead of her nearest rivals (a considerable margin in the sport of skeleton). Now affectionately known as ‘Arthur’, the sled featured a range of radical new design features. The project team responsible for producing the new sled included Kelvin Davies and David Cocksedge from BAE Systems and Rachel Blackburn and James Roche from Southampton University. A key focus of this partnership was the application of ergonomic best practice to the sled design. Significant effort was put into understanding the requirements of the athletes, the interface between the athlete and the sled and the myriad of small usability refinements that, when combined, serve to provide Britain’s athletes with the incremental performance gains needed to win at international level.

The skeleton sled is far from being a passive vehicle. It is a complex machine, weighing in the order of 40kg. It must support the athlete on a steeply banked downhill track at speeds of up to 130km/h (80mph) and under stress levels of 4g or more. The sled frame is made of high grade steel and it is steered by the athlete through weight shifting and by direct steering inputs through the shoulders and feet. This frame is covered by padding on the top surface and an aerodynamic carbon fibre cowling on the lower surface. The runners on which the sled is supported are directly attached to the frame of the sled through a mechanism which allows them to be set up for different tracks and different ice conditions. The key adjustment is through the longitudinal pressure placed on the runners, which alters the amount of ‘bowing’ in the runner profile. (A concave form from front to back delivers a sled which tends to run in a straight line; a convex form provides a sled which is more agile in turning.)

The athlete rides the sled in a saddle, formed of two body contour shaped steel frames to left and right, serving both as push handles at the start and a support (both lateral and vertical) for the athlete during the high dynamic forces experienced during a skeleton run. There are a large number of ergonomic considerations in this complex mechanism including features related to riding the sled, setting up the sled and maintaining the equipment. It was these that were the focus of attention for the BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre’s human factors team working on the sled design.

Kelvin Davies, who led the Human Factors review of the sled, commented: “All those who work in the fields of ergonomics and human factors know how critical user-centric design can be to the development of successful engineering systems. However it is rare to have the opportunity to demonstrate this more effectively to a global audience than through contributing to the design of as high profile a product as Amy Williams’ sled.”

The world-first design features on the new sled include adjustable components as well as interchangeable structural parts, allowing bespoke design to the individual athlete’s size and sliding style. This makes the sled more responsive to the athlete and provides greater steering control. The sled also features a ratchet mechanism to facilitate fast, precise and repeatable setup of the runners, allowing for the changing condition of the ice.

The ambition of UK Sport and the team assembled for the new sled programme in 2006/2007 was to provide the British skeleton team athletes with a ‘sled for life’. Skeleton is a highly professional sport in the UK with a very motivated team of athletes and coaches at its core (see This professionalism is reflected in the success of the team over the past 10 years. In spite of the fact that the UK possesses no winter sliding sports facilities, the country is a world leader in the sport, and has won medals in the last three Olympics, culminating in a gold medal in Vancouver in 2010.

This professionalism was also reflected in the approach to building the ‘sled for life’. It was recognised early in the programme that the athletes’ requirements were key to designing the best equipment. During 2007 a full review was completed with the British skeleton team. All athletes and coaches participated in an extensive requirements capture and feedback session with BAE Systems’ human factors engineering team.

The review highlighted a number of clear areas for improvement. Amongst the key points were:

  • Existing sleds were ‘one size fits all’. It was difficult to adjust the sled to fit the physique of each athlete, resulting in a poorer sled/athlete interface than the ideal. Athletes were critical of the existing saddle and stated that it was difficult to adjust and far from a ‘snug’ and comfortable fit. Without a good fit the sled/athlete system was compromised, steering was less precise and performance suffered.
  • Sled maintenance was also found to be an issue. The more time it takes to maintain a sled, the less time available for training and racing. Therefore a focus was placed on ease of maintenance with good accessibility and a range of interchangeable parts.
  • Sled set up is critical. The performance on a particular track is dependent on selecting the correct settings for the sled. In much the same way as for a Formula 1 car, there are a number of sled parameters that can be ‘tuned’ to the requirements of each track. In particular the runners on which the sled slides can be subjected to a varying degree of bowing to suit different tracks and athletes. However the existing procedure for adjusting the runners was rudimentary and precision and repeatability suffered.

Analysis of the results from this extensive process revealed key athlete requirements. In the design stage, the human factors engineers worked alongside skilled mechanical design engineers from BAE Systems and Southampton University to incorporate the key ergonomic requirements into the new sled design.

Only with this clear list of priorities and requirements from the athletes was it was possible to design a new sled that included those key innovations which took sled design to the next level. Key improvements to the sled include:

  • Simple adjustability to the frame of the saddle to ensure that the sled can be accurately fitted to the body contours of individual athletes. This helps to improve the interface between the athlete and the sled. This improves comfort and enhances performance, particularly in respect to steering the sled with precision.
  • Accuracy in the set up of the runners using a ratchet system to pre-stress the runners to provide a precise and repeatable configuration for the sled. It is worth noting that Amy Williams broke the track record a number of times during the 2010 competition. The precision available to her in runner set up would have supported her in achieving this, allowing her to set up her sled repeatedly in precisely the same configuration.
  • Interchangeable parts to allow for quick and easy maintenance. As a high energy sport, skeleton sleds are prone to impact damage. With competitions across the globe, sleds may also be damaged in transit in spite of the precautions taken through using bespoke carrying cases. It is important that athletes are not distracted from the competition itself, therefore ease of sled maintenance is critical. This is greatly assisted through the design of the sled, the ease of access to the components and the use of interchangeable parts.

The quality of the ergonomic design, when combined with quality engineering and a world class athlete, was evident from the success achieved in Vancouver 2010. The new sled clearly demonstrated how well an integrated team can work together to deliver both innovative engineering and new technologies, and how these can contribute to making those vital fractions of a second difference on the skeleton track.

by Kelvin Davies

Kelvin Davies is Executive Human Factors Scientist at BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre.

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Ergonomics, jet lag and the London 2012 Olympics

Time zones

World time zones

One advantage bestowed to the British teams competing in the 2012 Olympic Games could be the relatively short journeys they have to undertake to get to London. For example, the Australian team will need to endure an ultra-long haul flight across 8-10 time zones before the finals. Some aspects of international travel are at most tedious and transient; other effects hinder good performances and may take many days to subside. Unlike domestic and youth teams who embark on international pre-season tours, most national teams have the time and the budget to arrive in the UK several weeks before actual competition in order to recover from the journey and become accustomed to the new environment. So what advice can an ergonomist give to the athletes and coaches?

There are circadian rhythms (time of day effects) in human performance, which can be resistant to change. When the world’s time zones are crossed rapidly the body’s internal clock tries to ‘retune’ to a new schedule and a new local time. This period of adjustment is associated with jet lag symptoms that are familiar to most of us: an inability to sleep at an appropriate time, loss of appetite, constipation, loss of concentration and drive, and headache. Although jet lag is only significant after more than a couple of time zones are crossed, it’s much more of a problem than travel fatigue. For example, a flight from the UK to New York across five time zones would be predicted to cause more problems than a flight from the UK to Cape Town across two time zones, even though total travel time to the latter destination is longer. This importance of crossing time zones compared to other travel factors (length of flight, change in customs, etc.) is also illustrated by the fact that the performances of American footballers and baseball players have been found to be affected by domestic flights in the USA that cross time zones.

Components of athletic performance such as muscle strength and reaction time are affected by jet lag, especially in the first few days after the flight. These effects depend on time of day. For a westerly flight across five times zones, jet lag symptoms and performance on the first day after the flight would be worst in the evening since this time of day is equivalent to the early hours of the morning according to the timing of the unadjusted body clock. Such times of day may be predicted in advance and should be used to optimally schedule training sessions in the first few days at destination. Jet lag seems to be more severe and last longer following an eastbound flight as opposed to a westbound flight through the same number of time zones. During the former, hours are ‘lost’ (rhythms need to be advanced for adjustment) whilst in the latter situation, hours are ‘relived’ (rhythms need to be delayed for adjustment). This fits in with the observation that the body clock runs slower than 24 hours when isolated from the external environment, so it is easier to delay than to advance circadian rhythms.

Unfortunately, there is no miracle cure for all the different symptoms of jet lag. A hormone, melatonin, has been found to reduce some symptoms of jet lag, especially those relating to poor sleep at night. However, melatonin can make you drowsy and impair human performance if taken during the daytime. Sleeping pills may improve the quality and duration of sleep but they could have hangover effects on daytime functioning. Sleeping pills are not recommended on the flight itself because this could increase the risk of deep vein thrombosis from being immobile for a long time.

The most useful and ‘natural’ treatment for jet lag symptoms could be based on the known effects of light on the body clock. Light can advance or delay the body clock depending on when you are exposed to it. For some long haul flights, the best time for light exposure might actually be when it’s dark in the new time zone, so light devices are invaluable in this respect. See the table above for more details. For example, a westwards flight from London to the USA crosses 5 to 8 time zones.

Morning (local time) should be avoided for light exposure. You should seek light in the afternoon (local time). This advice is based on the known effects of light on the timing of the body clock.

by Greg Atkinson & Andrew Thompson

Greg Atkinson and Andrew Thompson are researchers at the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, UK.
For more information, visit their research web page at

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Safety in numbers: modelling crowds in a hockey stadium

Over the last couple of years, architects, designers, builders and a whole host of other people have been busy constructing sporting venues and facilities in preparation for the 2012 London Olympics.

Hockey stadium

Hockey stadium

Human Engineering Limited (now trading as LR Scandpower UK) was part of this team, and was commissioned by the The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) to conduct a crowd modelling assessment of the multi-purpose hockey stadium to be located on the Olympic Park in East London.

Human Engineering worked closely with the LOCOG Venues Operations team and the architects responsible for the stadium design at the concept design stage to assess and ultimately help improve the overall usability, safety and efficiency of the proposed stadium design with respect to crowd movement.

The general remit for the assessment was to ensure that:

  • LOCOG’s operational goals were met (e.g. spectator processing, crowd management, tournament scheduling)
  • Spectators enjoyed their experience (e.g. efficient ticket scanning process, minimal crowding/ queuing, expedient stadium exit)
  • Spectators were safe (e.g. provisions for general circulation, emergency exit)

More specifically, LOCOG requested that the Human Engineering team conducted the assessment with a particular focus on a number of key operational parameters:

  • Number of turnstiles required to get people in (based on worst-case spectator arrival profiles)
  • Required capacity of holding area (transition area between the turnstiles and stadium concourse)
  • Width of concourses (general circulation and evacuation)
  • Number of exits required to ensure that the stadium can be emptied in the tight turnaround times between schedule matches

The crowd modelling assessment was based on a number of assumptions and known data pertaining to the design and operation of the hockey stadium. This included proposed event timetables, stadium capacity and likely distribution of spectators, spectator arrival profiles (including peak arrival times), and event turnaround times, time taken for ticket scanning and spectator processing and spectator flow rates.

Other key inputs to the assessment included:

  • Relevant human factors principles and guidance related to the built environment, crowd management and sports stadia
  • Crowd management standards (e.g. “Guide to safety in sports grounds”)
  • Standards and guidance related to accessible design for disabled people.

Based on these inputs and assumptions, Human Engineering reviewed the proposed hockey stadium design and presented recommendations to the design team aimed at addressing the specific operational parameters as defined by LOCOG (e.g. number of turnstiles, concourse widths) and also more general recommendations aimed at improving the overall usability and safety of the stadium design. The design was then modified by the architects based on the recommendations, and a follow-up assessment was conducted by the Human Engineering team.

The project proved to be a success. Through simple crowd modelling assessments early in the design process, Human Engineering was able to provide the LOCOG Venues Operations team and stadium architects with some valuable insight into how the stadium is likely to operate in terms of crowd movement and management, what can be expected in terms of crowd dynamics, and how the stadium design could be modified not only to more readily meet LOCOG’s operational goals but also the goals and expectations of the spectators. ?

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Paving the way to the Olympic Park

Stratford Regional Station

Stratford Regional Station

As with many other stations the growth in passenger numbers at Stratford Regional Station (SRS) has increased dramatically over the last couple of years, whilst planned events in the area mean that the station is due to expect greater numbers of passengers, than the infrastructure was designed to cope with, in the coming years.

It’s estimated that in 2016, approximately 87,700 customers will pass through SRS during the evening 3 hour peak, which is an increase of over 100% on 2006 levels. These figures were developed based on the proposed regeneration of Stratford and the surrounding area, including the development of the 2012 Olympic facilities and future rail services.

During 2005, Human Engineering Ltd (now trading as LR Scandpower Ltd) was involved with a project aimed at improving the infrastructure of SRS. Human Engineering provided a number of different inputs into the project, using a variety of methodologies to help the project team achieve their goals, and accomplish the following:

  • Develop new platforms
  • Widen existing platforms
  • Provide new lifts and access routes
  • Introduce a new mezzanine gate-line
  • Develop a new ticket hall
  • Develop a new satellite Station Operations Room (SOR)
  • Develop a new ticket office

The activities conducted as part of this project were based on a number of assumptions (e.g. future customer profile), known data pertaining to the design and operation of the station, proposed timetables, and staff activities. Other key inputs included relevant rail standards as well as human factors principles and guidance. A sample of the predicted future customer profiles is provided below:

Shopping Shoppers throughout the day and weekends.  Customers likely to be mobility impaired by shopping bags, children, push chairs, etc.
Leisure Cinema, health clubs and cultural centre to attract all ages throughout the day. Bars, clubs and cafes would attract younger customers travelling through the evening and early hours of the morning, possibly intoxicated.
Commercial Offices will generate 33,000 jobs split between living local and commuting to Stratford in morning peak and away in the evening peak.
Stratford International Station International traveller both business and tourist.  Customers likely to be mobility impaired due to luggage and have language problems with PA, signage and way finding.
Hotels & Conference International traveller both business and tourist.  Customers likely to be mobility impaired due to luggage and have language problems with PA, signage and way finding.
Residential Commuter and leisure traveller, familiar with area, key workers and special needs customers.
Community Facilities Local customers familiar with area, possibly mobility impaired from health centres.
Olympic and Paralympic Venues Customers arriving and leaving on mass for stadium, sporting events both during and after the Olympics.

Based on these inputs and assumptions, Human Engineering provided guidance on the proposed changes to the platforms and communal areas (based on passenger flow and wayfinding strategies, etc.), and provided detailed designs for the layout of the SOR and ticket office (based on relevant standards, human factors guidance and end user consultation).

The project was successful, and resulted in improvements across the station.  In particular it has been reported that access has been improved through the installation of 9 new lifts and 8 new stairways, an accessible mezzanine-level entrance which connects the station to the Olympic Park and Stratford City shopping centre, and the extension of the western and central subways which has helped to reduce congestion between platforms.  Whilst the opening of 5 new platforms has increased the number of train services, thereby reducing congestion and improving customer satisfaction.

By Anthony Lafratta and Tom Marsh, LR Scandpower Ltd

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Websites for sporting events – a lesson in usability

Video recorders were the ultimate in unusable technology, but nevertheless succeeded, at least for more than two decades. Dixons, the largest UK electrical retailer stopped selling them in 2005. Being able to view what you wanted at a time that suited was apparently worth the fight with the remote control. Even setting the clock was a major challenge with many homes permanently featuring a flashing 00:00 in the display.

Not only did we put up with unintelligible operating sequences, we also forgot what we had learnt the hard way when it was time to replace them, when we fell for the hype once again and paid for features we would never ever use. The industry was slow to recognise that usability was important.

Websites changed all that. There are so many competing websites for almost everything that we no longer need to tolerate poor usability. For most businesses, their competitors are just a click away.

In System Concepts, this has had two big impacts on our business. Firstly, we seldom need to persuade clients that usability is important (unlike the ‘old days’ when persuading managers that improving the ergonomics was good business, not just “being nice to staff”). Secondly, we now often deal with our clients’ own internal usability people, who understand the issues and use us to supplement internal resources or call on our specialist knowledge.

Sports-related websites are a bit different. They often do not really have any direct competition although some of their content will be available through news sites. Nonetheless, sports website providers are unlikely to ignore the usability of their sites, despite the lack of competition. They are often geared round specific events (so timing is critical) and attract a wide range of users from casual visitors to sports fanatics (or even participants). International events have to cope with people, whose first language is not English and who may be travelling a long distance to the event. And sports fans come in all ages and abilities.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) was well aware of these challenges. When the London 2012 website was launched (, they commissioned us to carry out a usability evaluation of it in order to determine whether the site was easy to navigate, intuitive and enjoyable to use.

We conducted combined user testing simultaneously at three locations across the UK in London, Edinburgh, and Birmingham, with a total of 34 participants, including some participants with accessibility needs. We combined and cross-analysed the results, to investigate regional differences in the user experience and perceptions of the website. And we produced a detailed report of our findings from the three locations, and held an interactive workshop with all the relevant stakeholders. The website has evolved taking account of many of our recommendations.

Initially the website was primarily for advance information and awareness but as the games come closer, the needs will change. Recently, there was major criticism of the ticket selling process in the UK. However, although there were some issues with the website itself, the biggest problem was that too many people wanted tickets – more a compliment for the 2012 team than a criticism.

As the games approach, the web will be one of the key methods for delivering travel and journey planning information and Transport Direct will be working closely with LOCOG to provide a journey planning engine.

During the games, millions of people around the world will take part through the web and the LOCOG team is busy developing a results website which will be able to cope with the volume of traffic, the huge quantity of information and the idiosyncrasies of the different sports (from terminology to scoring to how results should be presented).

As someone who passes the Olympic Stadium on the train on my way into work, I have been impressed by the way the iconic buildings have sprung up and am increasingly excited by the impending sporting spectacular (although we didn’t get the tickets we wanted!).

As a result, like millions of others around the world, I will be dependent on the world wide web for keeping me informed and helping me feel engaged. So I’m delighted that web usability and accessibility will remain key priorities for the 2012 team.

By Tom Stewart, Executive Chairman of System Concepts Ltd.

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Less than a quarter of a second: a critical time in kayak design

Kayaking. Photo Dale Mears

Stu Morris on the white water course in Nottingham. Photo Dale Mears

Canoe slalom is an Olympic sport and world class competitions are frequently won or lost by fractions of a second. The Men’s Kayak event is no exception with the recent 2011 World Cup race having a mere 0.24 second difference between gold and silver medal positions.
With such tight margins, athletes are always looking for ways to improve their performance. Ergonomics expertise, which involves designing with users’ capabilities and needs uppermost, can make a significant contribution in this area.

A successful slalom kayak has to be a compromise of speed, manoeuvrability and stability allowing the athlete to navigate a series of gates through white water rapids. Currently there is no method for selecting a specific kayak design, an athlete will choose a design based solely on the elusive feel on the water. There is no set protocol or scientific measures involved.

As a UK Sport Sponsored PhD research student in Human Factors & Engineering at The University of Nottingham, Olympic Boat Designer Stu Morris, is developing methods for both design selection and optimisation based on both objective and subjective measures to ensuring that an athlete has the best possible kayak in the lead up to the Olympic Games next year in London.

As well as being a designer, he has firsthand experience of the sport after competing as an elite GBR Team Canoeing athlete at World level for 13 years, winning the European Cup Series in 2006, is combining passion with technological expertise.
His research combines human factors methods of capturing athletes perceptions along with the engineering techniques for form analysis and hydrodynamic calculations to produce a complete and in depth measure for design and selection and optimisation for each individual athlete.

Stu says: “This method takes the guess work out of boat design selection for each individual athlete, and gives them the confidence that they have the right kayak for their individual needs on race day.”

For more details about Stu Morris, please visit his page at the University of Nottingham’s Human Factors Research Group.

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Ergonomics in sport

Ergonomists apply human sciences to people in the working environment. This environment can extend to professional sports as well as leisure and recreation contexts, where all the fundamental ergonomic principles can be applied.

The intensity of exercise can be monitored to ensure that the athlete is not over or under-loaded. Safety is paramount if training is to be effective and injuries often result from faulty techniques, equipment or training programmes.

It is often impractical to study ergonomics during actual sports competitions, so simulation of a task or activity is important. Such simulations can reduce the cost and risks associated with introducing ergonomic interventions in the real world.

In the lead up to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we’ll be bringing you articles about how ergonomics (human factors) can influence all aspects of the Games from the way competitors train and compete to how spectators find out about the games, travel to them, watch and enjoy them.

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