/ 19 July 2012

How technology can give Olympics a winning edge

The international swimming regulatory body banned hi-tech swimsuits in 2009.
The international swimming regulatory body banned hi-tech swimsuits in 2009.

Ever since the first ancient Greek chipped away at a lump of stone to give it the aerodynamic properties of a discus, sports stars and engineers have been looking at ways to enhance performance.

A new report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in the United Kindgdom suggests that technological innovation is now an integral part of sport at the highest level and Olympic competition is not just about who is fastest, but about whose kit 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 nanocoatings 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 armoury as nutrition, training and coaching,” says the report.

Spray chamber
The future is sci-fi. There will be spray-on clothing within a few decades that repels water. Triathletes could enter a “spray chamber” to change their clothes between events. 3D printing could build kit 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 Professor Steve Haake, director of the centre for sports engineering research at Sheffield Hallam University.

“The rest of the world has been playing catch-up ever since.” Engineers insist that the technological “arms race” in sport can deliver perhaps the difference between a gold and a silver medal – but not an unfair advantage.

Dr 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,” Ryall 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 judgments, but on popular judgments.”

Tradition over technology
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 Institute of Mechanical Engineers 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 hi-tech swimsuits after 94% 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% and there was talk of “technological doping”.

Haake believes Fina should not have intervened. “If they had left them alone, performance would have levelled 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% less energy than other athletes, although that view was later officially rejected.

The report says it is time for ­engineers to be part of the regulatory processes of sport to advise on the potential misuse of the technologies they have helped to develop. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

The shape of things to come
Spray-on clothing
This is the ultimate in go-faster clothing. Nanotechnology could enable “spray-on’’ clothing to become a reality in 20 years, which  could include liquid-repellent spray. Triathletes could even use “spray chambers’’ to change outfits quickly between events.

Performance analysis sensors
They are already built into running shoes to measure speed, distance and energy expended. Scientists envisage sensors all over the body that feed back information to the coach, who will talk the athlete through strategy using an augmented-reality headset.

‘Phase change’ tyres
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 and bicycle tyres with treads that can vary according to the terrain.

Augmented-reality headsets
Google’s “Project Glass’’ headset, which could be launched as early as next year, is expected to be adapted rapidly for use in a variety of sports. These headsets could give cyclists analysis on their performance as they ride, track the competitors and offer a handy rear-view mirror.

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

3D-printed shoes
3D printing will allow engineers to produce almost any piece of equipment, including shoes, shortly before the race to suit the exact weather conditions or even the athlete’s physical condition, compensating for any injuries. The shoes’ spikes, for instance, could be built up layer by layer according to computer instructions. – © Guardian News & Media 2012