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

Sat, Jul 07, 2012 - Page 9

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.

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.