Helena Pozniak
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Stake your future on a sporting chance

The Telegraph
Your skills could help raise the game of our athletes and players, says Helena Pozniak

Nearly a century ago, before gears were invented, cyclists in the Tour de France had to change their bike wheels before pedalling uphill. Tennis champions won with small wooden racquets strung with catgut and female swimmers in the 1912 Olympic Games wore thigh-length woollen bathing suits, which some countries deemed too racy to allow.

What these athletes would have made of carbon-fibre bike frames, ball-tracking technology or the performance-enhancing swimsuits eventually banned after the 2008 Olympics is anyone’s guess, but technology has transformed sport at elite and amateur levels.

Now, some of the finest brains in science, engineering and technology use their expertise to push advances in sports kit and clothing, or exploit satellite technology to help athletes train more efficiently in the hope of shaving milliseconds off timings or extracting a few percentage points of advantage over competitors.

“Technology has never been so important in sport,” says Pascal Aymar, who runs the specialist MSc in Sports Industry Management at Emlyon Business School. While much noise has been made about improvements for elite athletes, he applauds the progress achieved for consumers of sport, from spectators who can customise how they watch it — “they can even choose camera angles for specific games” — to recreational skiers, skateboarders, surfers and more, who can share their exploits through small, robust video cameras, such as GoPro, or data-capture devices.

During this year’s World Cup, the German football team used software developed by SAP — one of the world’s largest software companies — to analyse how they and their opponents moved, looking at how often players touched the ball or hung on to it, and how far and fast they moved. Technology helped them cut average possession time from 3.4 seconds in 2010 to 1.1 second in 2014. Coaches could customise training and identify the strengths and weaknesses of opponents.

Similar technologies are applied in rugby. Ireland rugby union player Jamie Heaslip trains with a small GPS pack on his back to track how fast he accelerates or turns, and how long he runs for and at what speed. He says the device has transformed training, even encouraging players to alter their body shape, and cut the number of injuries. “Gone are the days of just running a mile or two. Now it’s all game-based fitness, mimicking the high-intensity intervals that occur in a match and tailored towards each individual.”

As well as training aids, advances in equipment can give athletes critical margins of advantage. When, in 2010, skeleton racer Amy Williams became Britain’s first individual gold medallist at a Winter Olympics for 30 years, engineers at BAE Systems allowed themselves a moment of pride. Her sled had been perfected by some of BAE’s defence experts, in collaboration with academics at the universities of Southampton and Sheffield Hallam.

The project was the fruit of a £1.5 million technology partnership with high-performance sports authority UK Sport, whereby BAE staff in the fields of engineering, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, material science and mathematical modelling help around 20 elite sports teams to achieve success.

Many graduate engineers at BAE Systems cut their professional teeth in this area. “It’s a great training ground; timescales in these projects are relatively short and you see results sooner,” says Kelvin Davies, BAE Systems’ project manager for the partnership with UK Sport. During the 2012 Olympics, BAE Systems used predictive modelling software to give UK sailors the edge with detailed weather forecasts in Weymouth Bay, and also installed a sophisticated laser-timing system at Manchester Velodrome to measure cyclists in training. At present, the company is looking at wheelchair racing and BMX bikes.

It was a childhood passion for fast cars that led mechanical engineer David Belo to a job with McLaren Applied Technologies, working with simulation technology used in F1 projects. As a keen cyclist, he was pleased to meet Mark Cavendish and Alberto Contador as part of a project to understand how to make road bikes faster. McLaren collaborates with elite sports companies, including US bike brand Specialized, initially borrowing a data-driven approach used in F1 car design to build a lighter yet stiffer carbon- fibre bike frame.

“We managed to cut the weight by 20 per cent,” says Belo. More advances came from using a simulation tool from the F1 world in redesigning bike parts and helmets, to save seconds during a race. “Simulation software allows us to contextualise results into something meaningful,” says Belo.

The collaboration extended to mountain bikes, which riders subject to frightening extremes — hurtling through hairpin bends or rock-hopping at speed. In the past, manufacturers relied on subjective feedback from riders about the “feel” of a bike. But the team applied F1 technology combined with simulation software.

“Before, you could either make a mountain bike more comfortable or make it handle better — but we’ve achieved both,” says Belo. “We couldn’t have done it without simulation tools that give us objective data to substantiate hard-to-measure but vital claims.”

Some of the most startling advances are in sports clothing. Companies are launching “smart garments” with inbuilt sensors to provide biometric data. Scientists are creating materials that mimic the “sticky” grip of reptilian feet. Skiers, ballet dancers and cyclists are just beginning to benefit from protective clothing that’s light and flexible but hardens on impact. Scientists are also developing digital body scanners that measure hundreds of thousands of points on the body. When combined with new digital manufacturing methods, they could eventually be used to create custom-made clothes on the spot.

While all STEM disciplines have a role in developing future sports advances, information technology in particular will be invaluable. “Almost every new technology in sport contains key software,” says Davies.

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