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.
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.”
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 then that biotechnology had made him faster. — The Guardian, London