Sports Engineering

By Arvin Charles

Usain Bolt at the starting blocks – SPORTTOPESTKA.PL

You are competing in the Olympics, 2700 years ago in Ancient Greece. The event is a 1-stade (192m) race and your city-state is counting on you to bring glory home. The crowd of spectators from all around the world witness as you prepare yourself for the race of your lifetime, battling the tremendous nervousness that gradually eclipses your confidence. The crowd falls silent as the starter prepares to give the command. Adrenaline fills every cell in your body as you hear the words being uttered by the starter, “On your marks, get set….” Your legs automatically rush towards the finish line you have been focusing on, but before you know it, the world spins upside-down and you find yourself lying face flat on the sandy ground. The loud jeering of spectators fills the air and just as regret clouds your mind, you hear the sudden crack of a whip and the immense feeling of pain slowly creeping down your back… That was exactly how the Greeks prevented false starts thousands of years ago during the early Olympics. Using a device called the hysplex starting gate (a catapult like gate which has two ropes strung along the start line, attached to two poles on each end which slams to the ground as the race begins), the Greeks were able to effectively avoid false starts by observing if a runner steps or trips over the starting gate before it falls to the ground. The false starters were then penalized by the judge (often with a painful flogging) and were then disqualified. Today in our sprinting events, we use state-of-the-art starting blocks equipped with pressure sensors that will notify the judge if a runner makes an early start.

Hysplex starting gate – ENGINEERINGSPORT.CO.UK

This proves how technology has always been an integral part of sports and new advancements are being made everyday, be it the design of new measuring devices and methods, or sporting equipment which push mankind beyond existing physiological boundaries. This discipline is known as sports engineering.

The implications of sports engineering

            One of the predominant arguments supporting sports engineering is that new technology in sports eludes stagnation and encourages evolution. A sport becomes more interesting to spectators if development is made and if more records are broken. Conversely, if a sport abides to the same regulations for a long period of time, the sport would run the risk of being boring or even irrelevant, especially when the occurrence of records become a scarcity. Hence, many believe that certain regulations should be loosened in parallel with new technological feats to keep a sport alive instead of sticking to the traditional view of playing a sport by strictly following its initial regulations. Take for instance the sport of pole vaulting. When the sport began in the 19th century, the material used for the poles were restricted to heavy hardwood (either ash or hickory). These poles were very inefficient as they produced large amounts of energy loss especially during the plant before the jump. Nevertheless, with the introduction of fiberglass and carbon fibre poles in the 1960s, the poles increased the transmission of the pole vaulter’s energy considerably, making them achieve greater heights thus smashing more records. Apart from improving performance, innovations in technology also evolves a sport, creating new variations like the evolution of snowboarding from skiing. Therefore, sports engineering plays a key role in spinning the wheels of change in the world of sports.

Progression of winning Olympic heights over the years – NEOVAULT

Another undeniable importance of sports engineering would be in the improvement of taking measurements and recording sports performances. Take the sport of badminton for example. There may be situations where the shuttle would drop exactly on the outer line and umpires would have to make the tough decision on whether a point is awarded or not. However, these decisions are aided today with the help of hi-tech line technology that pin points the exact position of the shuttle head on the line, indicating whether it is an in or an out. This goes to show how powerful a tool technology can be in eradicating controversial goals in sports. Nevertheless, there is an ongoing debate on the reliability and accuracy of such gadgets and also the fact that it undermines the concept that “the referee’s decision is final”.

Alternative views on sports engineering

            A contrasting view of sports engineering falls on the premise that it violates the spirit of sport. All around the world, an achievement in a sport is viewed as the result of a sportsman’s diligence and natural talent. The interference of technology in boosting the performance of athletes (usually biologically) is said to devalue this achievement as it requires less effort. The spirit of sport is the crux of all anti-doping campaigns and also the third criterion in the World Anti-Doping Code. Hence, new technologies in the sports industry are tested against this code before being implemented in competitions. However, this spirit of sport is very difficult to define as each sport has its own culture and standards. Hence, many would argue that it is a very poor basis to draw the line between what technology is ethically permissible and the contrary.

            Aside from that, an obvious argument against sports engineering would be the unfair advantage acquired by athletes who possess new technology in sporting equipment. A good example would be the LZR Racer swimsuit controversy that sparked in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. According to statistics, 90% of all medals won in swimming were obtained by swimmers wearing the new LZR swimsuit, breaking a staggering total of 23 world records. The swimsuits were believed to have provided extra buoyancy to the contestants wearing them by compressing their bodies into streamlined tubes, significantly aiding their performance. Although the suits obey the rules and regulations established by FINA, many believed that that the usage of the suit was morally inacceptable. This led to the school of thought that money buys gold in the end and that rich countries that pump monetary investments into research and development in sports engineering would be the ones to take home the glory.

Figure LZR Racer Suit – WIRED.COM

            To conclude, the field of sports engineering has its controversies but nevertheless it is also a good medium that displays the sheer progress and advancements mankind has made in science and technology. These amazing feats in sports engineering not only benefits athletes and pushes them beyond their limits but also spectators who crave to view every minute detail of the sport. Hence, be sure you appreciate the innovations of sports engineering the next time you watch Zlatan Ibrahimovic score a goal for Manchester United!

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