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Biathletes get wireless weapon in Games

A transponder on a biathlete's ankle will be able to send a signal describing the location of the biathlete, information that the coach can use to advise the Olympian.

The biathletes competing for gold are the first winter Olympians to get an edge by wearing technology as they compete.

Marathon runners have already been using the same kind of wireless device during the Summer Olympics.

The edge biathletes get from the devices strapped to their ankles is faster assessment of "split times," or their time over just a small portion of the racecourse. "Splits" help coaches determine how much time athletes have to make up on their rivals, if they are behind in the race. It could mean a change in strategy that wins the gold.

Split times in biathlon races have always been done by hand at the Olympics.

A coach would be stationed at, for instance, the midway portion of the course. He'd use a stopwatch to time the biathlete's arrival, then radio the information to colleagues. The colleagues would do the math by hand to figure the split time, then radio back strategy advice. The coach would then shout the advice to the athlete if he or she hadn't passed by yet.

At this year's Winter Olympics, wireless will do all but the strategizing.

Light beams will streak across regular intervals of the cross-country course where the races take place. A transponder on the biathlete's ankle will help send a signal describing the location of the athlete, the athlete's identity, and current time every time he or she passes through a light beam. The information will be sent to the coach's laptop, where software programs will take a second to determine the split time.

"Our coaches can sit on the courses with their laptops and instantly tell their athletes that they are 22 seconds out of first," said Jerry Kokesh, development director for the U.S. Biathlon Association. "We used to have to do this all by hand."

These wireless Olympic signals are sent over an 802.11 wireless network, which offers high-speed Internet service without having to use cable modems or phone lines. They are growing in popularity because they use relatively inexpensive equipment, but they have raised security concerns. Hackers have continually shown that 802.11 networks can be easily abused.

Sharon Kingman, managing director of telecommunications for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, said biathlon federations had to get permission from Olympic organizers to install the 802.11 network.