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

In 2009, the swimming regulatory body, FINA, banned high-tech swimsuits after 94 percent of races at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were won by competitors wearing the LZR racer suit. The suit was said to cut an elite swimmer’s time by about 2 percent and there was talk of “technological doping.”

Haake believes Fina should not have intervened.

“If they had left them alone, performance would have leveled off. The world records will now stay for a number of years,” he said.

How far technology changes sport may depend on what, in the end, sportsmen and women are prepared to do for their medals. Oscar Pistorius went to court in 2008 for the right to run on his prosthetic legs against able-bodied athletes. He had been banned not because he would be at a disadvantage, but because it was thought biotechnology had made him faster. It was claimed that he used 25 percent less energy than other athletes, though that view was later officially rejected.

As human prosthetics advance, it is possible they will not only help the disabled to compete, but the able-bodied to do better. Tiger Woods had eye surgery to improve his (normal) vision.

The report says it is time for engineers to be embedded in the regulatory process — to advise on the potential misuse of the technology they have helped develop.

How technology can boost performance

1. Spray-on clothing

The ultimate in go-faster clothing. Nanotechnology could enable “spray-on” clothing to become a reality within 20 years. This could include liquid-repellent spray instead of heavy and bulky waterproof clothes. Triathletes could even use “spray chambers” to change outfits instantaneously between events.

2. Performance analysis censors

Already built into running shoes to measure speed, distance and energy expended. Scientists envisage censors that could be in position all over the body during a race, feeding back information to the coach who will talk the athlete through strategy using an augmented reality headset.

3. “Phase change” tires

Sports equipment could be transformed using nanotechnology to produce materials that can change shape to suit the conditions. This could include oars that bend as they hit the water, ship hulls that curve into corners and bicycle tires with treads that can vary according to the terrain.

4. Augmented reality headset

Google’s “Project Glass” headset, which could be launched next year, is expected to be adapted rapidly for use in sport. These headsets could give a cyclist analysis on their performance as they ride, track the competitors and offer a rear view mirror.

5. Composite material frame

Carbon fiber is becoming increasingly popular among bicycle engineers, especially for triathlon or time-trials. Two US firms are developing a bicycle rim using a carbon nanotube and graphene engineered composite material that is tough, lightweight and easily molded into aerodynamic shapes.

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