Source; The Guardian
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 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 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 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 armoury as nutrition, training and coaching," says the report.
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 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. The amount of investment that goes into elite athletes is phenomenal."
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. "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 judgments."
Haake says every bit of innovation Britain can muster is to be applauded as long as it is within the rules. But 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% 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 around 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, 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.