If sports engineers have their way, future Olympic athletes will use “spray chambers” to don sports gear that comes out of an aerosol can and 3D-printers to create personalised running shoes just moments before they compete.
As a new wave of a sports engineering comes out of the lab and into elite competitive games, experts say every sport – from swimming to skiing to the shot put – will benefit from scientific advances in materials, coaching techniques and tools that will continue to shave milliseconds off record times.
In a report on the future of sports engineering, scientists said they are keen to avoid accusations of “technology doping”.
They urged sports regulators and governing bodies to engage with scientists earlier to ensure technological advances push the boundaries as far as they can while staying within the rules.
What is possible
“In sports engineering, the place we start is with the rules. And the rules of what is allowed are often quite strict, but the rules of what is possible are defined by Newton et al – they are the laws of physics,” said Steve Haake of Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University, who is regarded as one of the world’s leading sports engineers.
“We do a lot of horizon gazing. We will look for anything that might allow us to get some kind of advantage. We look at all the things that can be done, and then we see what would fit within the rules.”
The report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, entitled “Sports Engineering: A unfair Advantage?”, said future advances could include prosthetic limbs controlled by the nervous system and spray-on clothing which would mean triathletes could use “spay chambers” to change almost instantaneously between swimming, cycling and running events.
It also said performance analysis sensors of the type already embedded in some high-tech running shoes could soon be routinely embedded inside the body, giving continuous data on physiological changes during an athlete’s training session.
“Sports engineers are undoubtedly pro-technology in sport, but they are also passionate about sport – they do not want a technology intervention that undermines the value system of a sport or diminishes the sporting challenge,” the report said.
It said the way to avoid this was for sports regulators, athletes and scientists to work together.
Lessons from the swimsuit
The report cited a row that engulfed elite swimming after a 2008 decision by the sport’s international governing body FINA to approve a Speedo’s LZR Racer swimsuit for the Beijing Olympic Games.
After 94 percent of medals were won by swimmers wearing the suit, and 15 course records were broken, FINA was forced to reverse the decision amid accusations of “technology doping”.
Speaking at a briefing in London, which will host the 2012 Olympics in less than a month’s time, the IME report’s main author Philippa Oldham said sports engineers needed to be part of the regulatory process to help predict the consequences of the introduction of technologies in sport.
“They need to be able to defend the use of new technologies…argue their case based on robust evidence, and horizon scan for emerging technologies that may benefit performance without harming the spirit of sport,” she said.