Guest Post: Greg Blood on Human Performance, Sport Science and Technology

I am an enormous admirer of the staff in the National Sport Information Centre at the Australian Institute of Sport. I think Gavin Reynolds does a remarkable job in coordinating the Centre. He has taught me a great deal about invisible service and altruism.
I have had links with the Centre for two decades but I was fortunate to have everyday contact with the Centre when I joined the staff of the Australian Institute of Sport in 2002. Each day for five years I received wonderful support from Greg Blood in the Centre.
Greg ‘retired’ from the Centre in 2012. Since that retirement Greg has been a prolific member of a wikipedia project that is recording the history of Australian Paralympians.
I am in awe of Greg’s energy and commitment to sharing openly. I am delighted that an opportunity has arisen for Clyde Street to host a guest post by Greg. The post, London Olympic Games – a battle of human performance versus sport science and technology, is written to Wikimedia standards and exemplifies Greg’s scholarship.
Herewith the article.
London Olympic Games – a battle of human performance versus sport science and technology
Greg Blood
The sport science and technology research secrets of several top Olympic nations have come to light in the last month. A thousandth of a second may decide the winner in several track cycling, swimming and athletics events at the London Olympic Games. At the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, Great Britain won four gold medals by less than half a second. It had invested heavily in sports science in the lead up to the Games. So what are some of the sport science and technology ‘secrets’ of Australia, the United States and Great Britain ?
Australia with a population of just under 22 million performs above its weight in Olympic competition. Since its establishment in 1981, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) has invested heavily in sports science research. In April, Senator Kate Lundy, Minister for Sport announced the investment of A$1 million in performance research, as well as A$$225,000 to establish the Australian Sports Technologies Network. So what can we expect from Australia and in particular the AIS in London ? The AIS and other Australian research organisations have provided a brief insight into research outcomes for swimming and cycling, two sports where Australia has a long history of success and where medals are won by miniscule margins.
The AIS with its research partners, CSIRO and Monash University has conducted detailed aerodynamic efficiency testing of the men’s team pursuit riders, one Australia’s main cycling gold medal prospects. Dr David Martin from the AIS commented that “testing like this can make big inroads to improvements that make a difference. It might only be a half a second, but because the competition’s so tight it’s really important.” Results from the 2012 UCI Track Cycling World Championships indicate less than a second will decide the winner of the men’s team pursuit.
The London Aquatics Centre is where Australia is seeking to repeat its swimming medal hauls from the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Games. The AIS swimming pool’s high tech wet plate technology provides sophisticated data on force, velocity and entry angles related to starts, turns and changeovers. Australian relay swimmers have regularly been visiting the AIS in the lead up the Games to improve their relay performance. In Perth, Western Australia, the University of Western Australia has tested 31 Olympic swimmers using 3D motion analysis system to accurately estimate and track the position and orientation of the body parts of a swimmer during all strokes. Besides specific sports research, AIS scientists have also been largely responsible for establishing state of the art recovery and performance analysis facilities for Australian athletes and coaches in London.
United States has let out a few secrets. Sprint hurdler Lolo Jones is being assisted by a Red Bull project called ‘Project X’. In this project, computer scientists, sports biomechanists and physiologists are using computer-vision technology and 40 high-speed, motion-capture cameras to study in detail Jones hurdling technique. To win gold, Jones will need to defeat Sally Pearson, the favourite for the gold medal in the women’s 100m hurdles. You wonder what technological assistance Pearson is receiving from Australian sport scientists ?
The world record swimming performances at the Beijing Games appear to be largely due to swim suits such as the Speedo_LZR_Racer . This technological intervention resulted in FINA banning the suits shortly after the Games and reverting to a philosophy of human performance rather than technology. However, at the London Games, the United States track and field team will have be wearing Nike uniforms that could shave 0.023 seconds off 100 m sprint times. Jill Geerer, from USA Track & Field said “”For an athlete who puts on the uniform, maybe the knowledge it might make them two-hundredths of a second faster, that information alone might be enough to make them run faster.” The uniform strategically places dimples on the fast-moving arms and legs of track sprinters to improve their aerodynamics. This is based on the science behind dimples on a golf ball.
The Olympic host nation traditionally invests heavily to ensure the success of its athletes. Great Britain has followed this trend and invested heavily in sports science technology with more than 7.5 million pounds over the last four years. Aki Salo, a sports biomechanist from the University of Bath, has been working with the men’s 4 x 100m relay team on baton changes with the hope of challenging Jamaica and the United States for gold. Salo stressed that the relay is not just about speed and said “You can have the fastest runners in the world, but if they drop the baton or make a mistake in the exchange, it’s over. Science is never a real substitute for performance, but we try to minimize any possible errors to maybe leapfrog the faster runners”. We will be now watching intently the British relay baton changes at the Games and whether this efficiency beats the raw speed of Usan Bolt, Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell of Jamaica.
In Beijing, British track cycling took all before it winning 7 gold medals in 10 events. Australia looks like a major contender again after a poor Beijing performance. The British have upped the ante in cycling research since Beijing. Britsh cyclists, including Sir Chris Hoy, have been using the University’ of Southampton’s wind tunnel to determine their optimal body position. It looks like track cycling may come down to a battle of Great Britain versus Australia in wind tunnel testing.
The British team has used the expertise of high-tech companies such as BAE Systems, Europe’s largest weapons maker, and the McLaren Group, a leading formula 1 team in researching sensor technology and nano-coated materials that may have an impact in running and water sports.
Whilst sports science and technology can play a part in the final outcome, Scott Drawer from UK Sport said “Technology is only effective in sports when it builds on athletes’ natural talent and a good training setup’’ In close finishes at the London Games, the public may be left wondering what part sport science and technology played in the gold medal.
Photo Credits
Sally Pearson
Chris Hoy
Jennifer Foreshew. “Tracking swim limbs for a winning edge in Olympic team” — The Australian, July 3, 2012
Gil Imber. “2012 Summer Olympics: Lolo Jones & US Athletes Seek Science to Gain an Edge” — Bleacher report, June 26, 2012
Paul Mulvey. “Australia get’s high tech booast” — Sydney Morning Herald, June 21, 2012
Maria Cheng. “Scientist analyzes sprint relays to boost UK speed” — NRtoday, June 20, 2012
Associated Press. “U.S. unveils Olympic track uniforms” — ESPN, June 14, 2012
Kari Lundgren. “BAE, McLaren aid UK Olympians with wind tunnel sensors” — Bloomberg News, June 1, 2012
Support for high performance sport research” — Australian Institute of Sport News, April 1, 2012
High-tech boost for Australian relay swimmers” — Australian Institute of Sport News, June 28, 2011
Ideas4Innovation” — UK Sport, 2011



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