Sat, Jul 07, 2012 - Page 9 News List

How athletes get the medals

Pressure grows to legislate on new equipment in many events as advances leave poorer countries without a hope

By Sarah Boseley  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Lance Liu

Ever since the first ancient Greek chipped away at a lump of stone to give it the smooth, aerodynamic properties of a discus, sportsmen and engineers have been looking at ways to enhance athletic performance — while some of those denied medals have been crying foul.

A new report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers suggests that technological innovation is now an integral part of sport at the highest level, and that Olympic competition is not just about who is fastest — but whose gear is smartest.

Many of Britain’s Olympic athletes will have had clothes and helmets individually designed for them, following a full body scan to establish exactly what contour will give them the most aerodynamic shape. Mountain bikes and sailing harnesses will have nano-coatings that repel liquid, preventing drag from mud or water. Boxers have trained with overhead cameras that track and record every weave and punch. Divers get post-training feedback on their iPods from poolside computers that measure the angle of their bodies in the air.

“Technology is as much a part of an athlete’s armory as nutrition, training and coaching,” the report says.

The future is sci-fi. There will be spray-on clothing within a couple of decades that repels water. Triathletes could enter a “spray chamber” to change their clothes between events. 3D printing could build gear such as running shoes to suit the weather on the day or compensate for injury before a runner goes out on the track.

Britain has been a world-leader in technological innovation in sport.

“It started in this country as a discipline in its own right 25 years ago,” said Steve Haake, director of the center for sports engineering research at Sheffield Hallam University. “The rest of the world has been playing catch-up ever since.”

Engineers say that the technological arms race in sport can deliver the difference between a gold and a silver medal — but not an unfair advantage.

Emily Ryall, senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Gloucester and vice-chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association, disagrees.

“The Olympics is never going to be a fair competition. So much high-performance sport is driven by technology now, from sports nutrition to psychology to clothing and footwear,” she said.

There is no way that poorer countries can keep up.

“It is not surprising that poorer countries do not compete in sports involving a lot of technology, such as cycling, sailing and rowing. The amount of investment that goes into elite athletes is phenomenal,” she said.

Rules to restrict technological advantage are devised only when there is an outcry, she said.

“Often, decisions on technology come down to popular or public opinion,” she said. “I think if it makes a perceptible difference to what the public sees, there will be a backlash against it, but often these decisions are made not on ethical judgements, but on popular judgements.”

Haake says every bit of innovation Britain can muster is to be applauded as long as it is within the rules. However, some of the rules have been invented in response to technological advances.

Chris Boardman’s Lotus-engineered superbike at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics inspired every world class cyclist. The Union Cycliste Internationale, which made the cycling rules, produced the Lugano Charter, which the report calls “an extraordinary document that aimed to reassert the primacy of tradition over technology,” turning the clock back so that the one-hour cycling record could only be attempted on bikes like that on which Eddy Merckx broke the record in 1972.

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