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About this video
The rules of physics verses the rules of sport.
Data collected over the last 100 years can demonstrate how technology and other factors have affected the performance of our top athletes.
For example, the two world wars and the introduction of automated timing systems in the 1970s saw times for the 100 metres increase. In contrast, the Olympic four-year cycle, new technologies and unique athletes like Usain Bolt are pushing the limits of human performance.
In the final Engineering Sport film, Professor Steve Haake looks at how technology has affected athletic performance over time and asks whether the science and engineering of today hold the key to the future of sport.
Are we now seeing athletic performances plateau? How can new technology be used to gain advantage without compromising a level playing field and the essence of sporting competition? If the introduction of technology leads to new rules and new games what will the 300th Olympiad look like in 1000 years time?
- Sheffield Hallam University
- Professor Steve Haake
- Sheffield, UK
- Collections with this video:
- Engineering Sport
With sports engineering, we can model a whole sport. And we can use it to push the physical boundaries of the discipline. And if we introduce technology into sport, is it cheating?
Let's start with the 100-meter sprint. We've collected data on the average performances of the top 25 athletes in the 100-meter sprint every year since the 1890s. You can immediately see some pretty major spikes and steps, most obviously from the First and Second World Wars, which worsen performance dramatically. The first post-war Olympics were in 1948, so we usually use that year as the baseline for any comparisons that we do.
In the 1970s, there's a dramatic increase in times, which was due to the introduction of fully automated timing. Removing the reaction time of the judges setting their stop watches going increased the time recorded for all runners. There's another smaller step change in 2008 when Usain Bolt came on the scene with his dramatic win at the Beijing Olympics. What's interesting is that, if we remove Bolt from our top 25 and just analyse the other 24, the step change is still there. At these elite levels, it looks like a standout athlete makes everyone else perform better too.
The men's 100-meter sprint has improved by around 5% since 1948. Over the same period, the men's javelin has gone some 70 meters to 85 meters, an increase of 21%. Are we really saying that the performance improvements of these two sports is that different?
Well, one issue we have is that, with sprinting, our measurement is time, while, for javelin, it's distance. What we need is a common metric. That shared measure is an energy calculation. And as an example of how we can visualise that, we can look at the women's 100-meters freestyle swimming event.
Now this circle represents a baseline performance in 1948. And by 2010, performance had improved by 52% to here. Now what are the things that contributed to that performance improvement?
Well here, we have the globalisation effects. And by that, I mean population increase, nutrition, coaching, professionalisation. But there are other effects that have improved performance in swimming as well. Here, we have the Olympic games oscillation. And that occurs every four years, so that, in an Olympic year, you see a small but measurable performance improvement.
What about technologies that we've allowed? Well, in swimming, we think about the swimsuit. And in 2000, they went from the traditional female style and the Speedos to the longer, full-body suits. More impressively, though, goggles, hats, and shaving down had quite a large effect prior to those swim suits. An effect of goggles was to allow the swimmer to train for longer in chlorinated pools. thereby, improving performance.
Of course, there are technologies that have not been allowed. There were the full-body swimsuits in 2008 that had polyurethane panels down the sides. And by 2009, the whole body was covered in polyurethane.
And what that did was that reduced the skin friction across the body. It pulled the body in and reduced the cross sectional area of the body presented to the water. And that reduced hydrodynamic drag. The other thing we've noticed in swimming is the transition between hand timing and fully automated timing, something we've seen in other sports.
So with these statistics and with this methodology, we can look at the effect of different factors on sport. And one thing we've noticed is how globalisation has started to reach its limits. The Industrial Revolution has had its impact. Most of the improvements we're seeing in sport today are smaller in nature and due to technology.
We started our journey with the birth of modern sport and its development, hand-in-hand, with technology. But performances are starting to plateau. And even with the occasional Usain Bolt mixing things up, world records are going to become rare in some of our sports. Now athletes don't like that, audiences don't like that, and the ruling bodies don't like that.
Sports engineering will hold the balance between the world of the possible, that's Newton's laws, and the world of the allowed, that's the rules of sport. Now the rules of sport are completely arbitrary. They're steeped in tradition, but they do change.
There were 300 ancient Olympic games lasting over 1,200 years. And in that time, we went from the sprint to chariot racing. So the science and engineering we're learning with today's sports will be used to develop those sports that we'll see in the 300th modern Olympic games 1,000 years from now.
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Exploring the technology and innovation behind sporting success.