Leaps and bounds: the science of sport

The influence of science has grown from diet and training and is now extending into every aspect of modern-day sport, with teams of technologists working on optimised equipment and psychologists developing mental exercises for success. Michael Stoneman explores the growth of these practices

On the face of it, little has changed between the 100m final of the London 2012 Olympics and the same race at the very first modern Games in 1896: two groups of athletes take their places on the start line and run down a track as fast as they can to determine who is quickest. 

But the influence of science and technology on modern sports means that everything about the athletes of today – from the track under their feet and the shoes they wear, right up to the thoughts in their mind – would be almost unrecognisable to their sporting predecessors.  

While even the ancient Greeks recognised the benefits of diet and training, recent developments in the field of sports science mean that every aspect of modern sport is analysed to maximise performance. Strictly controlled diet and training regimes crafted by highly qualified sports scientists are the new norm, while sportsmen and women now also have their mental focus finely tuned by psychologists, and their outfits, equipment and competition surfaces constantly optimised by technologists and engineers. 

'I always thought it was stupid to practise the whole weekend then destroy your game because you don’t eat well, or don’t sleep well, or you don’t prepare well'

Arsène Wenger, Arsenal football club manager

No wonder former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson called sport science “the biggest and most important change in my lifetime”. It was, however, Ferguson’s great rival, Arsène Wenger, who introduced more scientific methods to English football when he took over as Arsenal manager in 1996. Nicknamed ‘The Professor’ for his studious approach to the game, Wenger famously introduced a dietary revolution at the club, removing alcohol and high-fat foods from the menu and replacing them with carefully balanced meals such as boiled vegetables, fish and rice. “I always thought it was stupid to practise the whole weekend then destroy your game because you don’t eat well, or don’t sleep well, or you don’t prepare well,” says Wenger.

 

While science and technology may not be the only factors in modern sporting success, their role is critical, according to Dr Dominic Southgate of Imperial College London. “The margins between podium places are getting narrower in elite sport,” he says. “Coaches are looking at all the options to find improvements.” 

With a recent report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers claiming that “technology is as much a part of an athlete’s armoury as nutrition, training and coaching”, it is clear sport is becoming ever more adept at using technologies to create faster, lighter and more efficient equipment.

Indeed, Janice Forsyth, Director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, believes “it is hard to imagine any sport that hasn’t been touched dramatically by technology”.

Some, however, have been affected more than others. Golf has seen huge advances from the days of hickory-shafted clubs and hand-sown feather balls through to the hi-tech equipment of today, which makes it easier for players to hit the ball further and straighter. The development of lightweight graphite shafts, titanium clubheads and golf balls featuring solid rubber cores and durable resin covers saw the average driving distance on the PGA Tour increase by 27 yards from 1993 to 2003, compared with an increase of just three yards between 1980 and 1993.

Other equipment-based sports have also seen big changes. In the build-up to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the Dow Chemical Company worked closely with the USA luge team to develop a new, faster sled for American athletes.

Focusing on material selection and extensive trials in laboratories and on the track with athletes, Dow developed a faster, replicable, more reliable sled for USA Luge, delivering innovations that help maximise performance.

The solutions tailored for USA Luge quickly led to improvements over the days of steel and wood, with Erin Hamlin claiming bronze in Sochi to become the first American, male or female, to take home an Olympic medal in the individual luge.