Off the blocks and into the class

December 12, 1997

Once marginalised, the study of sport has become a glamorous subject. Huw Richards reports

In the past four or five years, sports science has become a glamour subject," says Tom Reilly. Liverpool John Moores University, where Reilly is a professor, handles about 2,000 applications for the 80 places on the sports science degree. But it was very different in the 1960s, when Reilly started his academic career.

A quietly spoken west Irishman, aged 55, he says, "If I had been a couple of years earlier, the opportunities I had would not have existed." He goes through the list -only the second Irish student to take a British postgraduate teaching qualification in physical education, then a student on the first masters course in ergonomics at University College, London and a staff member at the then Liverpool Polytechnic as it set up the first sports science degree.

His career development has paralleled that of sports science, which, as he says, "is a subject now generally accepted by the academic world". It was not always so. Reflecting on the early days, he says: "There was considerable scepticism within Liverpool Polytechnic as well as resistance from outside. "We had to jump through all sorts of hoops to win accreditation (for the new degree) from the Council for National Academic Awards." One consequence of having to deal with a CNAA committee chaired by a sceptical Oxford professor was that the degree had a heavy emphasis on conventional science. "It was strongly geared to the human biology of sports:biochemistry, anatomy and biomechanics." This bias was mildly frustrating as it limited inclusion of then controversial elements based on the study of athletes' behaviour and psychology. But Reilly now admits that knowing the course had been passed by conservative mainstream academics helped to counter the jibes often levelled at new subjects.

While Liverpool Polytechnic was acquiring conventional academic respectability, Loughborough University was developing its physical education provision. Reilly points to Liverpool, Salford and Birmingham as other influential institutions. Although much of the impetus for the subject's development came from academics, there was also a growing demand from practitioners, who recognised the contribution that more knowledge of the factors affecting performance could make at elite level.

Such non-academic interest was widespread. Reilly recalls that Central and Eastern Europeans were enthusiastic consumers of research: "First the East Germans would pick up the work, then the Poles or Russians. They picked up everything in extraordinary detail." Reilly notes wryly that the East Germans in particular "knew rather a lot about the applications of pharmacy to sporting performance". Reilly's doctoral research, An ergonomic evaluation of occupational stress in professional football, was based on work done with Everton Football Club - an appropriate research partner, given that its cultured 1960s teams earned the club the nickname the "School of Science". But the consistent thread in his advisory work has been provided by a working relationship with the British Olympic Association. He chairs the association's Exercise Physiology Steering Group; and he coordinated their acclimatisation strategy for the Atlanta Olympics and is doing the same for Sydney in 2000. "The big issue is getting travel and training schedules right. We have a very strong group working on body clocks and how periods of adjustment can be accelerated." He notes that this is one of the many areas in which sports science abuts on research into other activities, with work on the sleep loss suffered by shift workers contributing important evidence.

Anyway, the creation of a Sports Studies panel for the 1992 Research Assessment Exercise came in distinctly useful for Liverpool John Moores. Its five rating in the 1996 exercise made sports studies one of the two highest-ranked departments in the university.

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