Maths + Sport: exploring the hidden maths behind the Olympics



By what length would Usain Bolt beat you if you raced him in the 200m? Are the long jump or shot put world records more likely to be broken in some Olympic host cities than others? Does the host nation for the Games have an advantage when it comes to winning medals? How does the geometry of the Velodrome contribute to speed?

Children around the country are exploring the answers to these questions by taking part in an inspiring programme highlighting the hidden maths behind the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The Maths and Sport: Countdown to the Games programme, which has been awarded the Inspire Mark, the badge of the London 2012 Inspire programme, forms part of the education legacy of the London Games.

It has been devised by the University of Cambridge’s award-winning Millennium Mathematics Project and features in the Practical Learning strand of Get Set +, the London 2012 education programme.

The free Maths and Sport website hosts a wide range of activities designed to give students in primary and secondary schools the chance to engage with maths in exciting real contexts.

The resources explore how maths plays a part in every aspect of the Games, from the sports themselves to the architecture of the Olympic venues.

For primary school children, activities range from using multiplication and fractions to work out how much performance in the long jump and high jump improves after training, to practical activities using schools’ sports equipment – basketballs, hockey balls, tennis balls – to help learn about the properties of circles and develop mathematical reasoning skills.

Sample activities for secondary students include helping to design a heptathlete’s training schedule, exploring the best ways for coaches and competitors to present sports data through diagrams and graphs, and investigating the mechanics involved in the pole vault.

Older students can work out what the probability is that an athlete who fails a drug test is actually innocent.

Challenges exploring how maths underlies Olympic architecture include designing the tiered seating for a sports stadium and working out the staggered starting positions for the 400m running track, where students put the geometry they learn in the classroom to practical use.


In addition to the classroom activities, the site includes feature articles of general interest about the role of maths in sport. For instance, Professor John Barrow, director of the Millennium Mathematicss Project and himself a former athlete, discusses how the wind can affect timings in races and what athletes can do to counter it.

Other articles look at engineering in Olympic and Paralympic sports equipment, and whether, after Usain Bolt’s amazing 100m performance in Beijing, mathematical models can help predict if there’s an ultimate lowest limit for the 100 metre world record which no human could run fast enough to break.

The resources for Key Stages 1 to 5 include detailed teachers’ notes giving ideas and suggestions for introducing the activities in the classroom.

The online resources are complemented by a Maths and Sport Roadshow, suitable for Key Stages 2, 3 and 4, which is visiting schools all over the UK to run special Maths and Sport events.

The Maths and Sport Roadshow has also recently worked with schools in Ireland and Gibraltar and will run several events in France during March and April in partnership with the British Council.

Professor John Barrow, director of the Millennium Maths Project, said: “The London 2012 Games offer a unique opportunity to harness the excitement about the Olympics to promote a deeper understanding of how maths is at work in the real world.

“The Millennium Mathematics Project is dedicated to inspiring students and teachers: we believe that the role played by maths in sport offers an exciting opportunity to enrich the teaching of mathematics in all schools and shed new light on sporting activity.”

Lord Coe, Chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, commented: “Maths + Sport: Countdown to the Games will encourage young people to fulfil their potential.

“I am proud that partners such as the University of Cambridge’s Millennium Mathematics Project are delivering on our vision to use the power of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games to boost participation in education.”

*Maths and Sport: Countdown to the Games is supported by grants from the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Commission of 1851 and by the award of the Gresham Prize from Gresham College.