Credit: johnthescone

Earlier this week I attended a Parliamentary Links Day on the subject of Science and Sport.  As an armchair athlete and a bit of an equipment geek I was looking forward to fuelling my conviction that but for the will and resources I would currently be entering my pre-Olympic training taper.

Sadly, it turned out not to be.  The first panel session made it abundantly clear that the athletes we’ll see in action in a few weeks’ time are physiological outliers from the outset.  Lines on the wall and floor marked the mens’ high jump and long jump world records (2.45m and 8.95m respectively) – clearly (and literally) beyond the reach of the masses. Much of the standard scientific literature does not apply to these people, competing seemingly beyond the limits of ordinary human endeavor.

This makes the job of the team of medics, engineers, physiologists and psychologists, seeking to find that extra 1% in an already elite group, additionally challenging. We heard about advancements in understanding of responses to altitude training, novel warm up protocols, and the role of engineering in developing not only better sports equipment but also instrumentation to provide feedback on performance. The interaction between the teams involved with the athletes suggests that sport science can be an effective model for interdisciplinary working. As winning margins grow ever tighter, a greater onus is also placed on accurate measuring technology. Event timing has now advanced to the extent that for the swimmers this is not limited by the accuracy of the clocks but by the tolerances in the build of the swimming pool itself.

No event on science in sport would be complete without a discussion of anti-doping, and so we heard about the program in place for London 2012.  It is telling that the authorities are aiming not for the cleanest games ever, but the cleanest games possible, this note of realism due to the ever-evolving arms race between would-be doper and tester. In answer, there has been a move towards a more strategic involvement with pharmaceutical companies. A partnership between GlaxoSmithKline and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) aims to provide early detection mechanisms for new drugs with performance-enhancing properties. The fruits of this sort of collaboration have previously been seen in the 2008 Tour de France, when a similar agreement with Roche led to an early detection system for a 3rd generation erythropoietin (EPO – a ‘blood doping’ agent), resulting in positive tests for several riders. Furthermore, testers now freeze samples so that as more sophisticated tests are developed they can be applied up to eight years after the collection of the sample. Perhaps scant consolation to the runner up denied their moment on the podium, but a useful deterrent nonetheless.

Doping itself arguably comes in shades of grey. What makes some forms of enhancement ok, and others not? In deciding what to place on the prohibited list, WADA must consider not only whether a ban would be legitimate, but also whether detection is possible.  The use of exogenous EPO or blood transfusions to boost the body’s oxygen-carrying capacity is banned, but not the use of altitude tents with the same objective in mind. Caffeine used to be on WADA’s prohibited list above a certain threshold, but was removed in 2004. Many are skeptical about the number of professional cyclists that have previously sought therapeutic use exemptions for anti-asthmatic drugs.  We will be touching on some of the questions around the ethics of human enhancement, but as they apply to the future of work, in a forthcoming report of a joint academies’ workshop.

Some of the questions at the event focused on what is delivered from public investment in sport and sport science (the English Institute of Sport, for example, receives funding from the Department for Culture Media and Sport). Investment certainly pays in terms of performance  – following the introduction of national lottery funding in 1997, ‘Team GB’ leaped from 36th in the medal table at the Atlanta Olympics, to 10th in Athens and 4th in Beijing. But does investment in elite sport have a genuine ‘legacy’ value, providing benefits for the wider public beyond the sporting elite? Baroness Campbell spoke passionately about the value of success on the world stage for national pride, and in encouraging young people into sport.  Furthermore, she stressed that sport can even encourage young people to ‘choose science’, if commonalities in the curriculum are found between PE and science, and between sport and health. Science Minister David Willets added that the less-regulated sports environment is often one of the first places in which technological innovation is trialed – for instance, there was a time when half the carbon fibre in production was used for sport.  So sport can drive innovation.

If sport really can drive innovation for technology accessible for all, I look forward to doing the morning commute on my cycle-to-work-scheme-purchased Pinarello Dogma, although I suspect this may not have quite been Willets’ point. Whilst it turns out that the Mark Cavendishes of this world must be both born and made into champions, at least I’ll be sure to beat the Bromptons off the lights.