The players behind the games

September 10, 1999

Next year, Sydney plays host to the Olympics. Julia Hinde reports on the 2,000 academics tackling everything from designing the stadium to zapping the site's 31 strains of mosquito

Snuffles and sneezes are the last thing you will want to be bugged by if you are going for gold at next September's Olympic Games. Cough at the wrong moment and you could be waving good-bye to a place on the podium.

But in Sydney - where the games will be held - it will be spring, a time when pollen counts are high and hay fever rife.

With 50 per cent of Australia's Olympic athletes at risk from allergies, how to dampen the allergy threat is a problem testing the ingenuity of some of the country's academics.

With the help of researchers at the Westmead, a Sydney University teaching hospital, Peter Fricker, chair of sports medicine at the University of Canberra and deputy medical director of the Australian Olympic team, is this month screening athletes for allergic reactions. The team is trialling inhaled steroid sprays to gauge the effects on their performances during the pollen-heavy month.

More than 50 per cent of the athletes screened have reacted to pollen. This compares with 40 per cent of Australians who reportedly suffer symptoms. "50 per cent is more than you would expect from the normal population," Fricker says. "Asthma is prevalent among athletes and the figures raise questions about whether athletes, who use their lungs an awful lot and train hard, exposing their airways to pollutants, are paying a price for their fitness."

Fricker's researchers are among 2,000 academics caught up in preparations for what one lecturer calls "the biggest peace-time event to take place in Australia". From designing the Olympic site to keeping it mosquito free, from illuminating the 100,000-capacity stadium to predicting visitor numbers, Australian academics are in the thick of it - advancing research and developing insights. Right, we outline some of the ways in which Australia's academics are going for gold.

The sports historian Richard Cashman is the director of the new Centre for Olympic Studies, established at the University of New South Wales in Sydney to study and record the 2000 Olympics.

Academics at the centre will research and document the event and take part in some of the controversial public-policy debates surrounding it - including whether the games are green and whether enough Aborigines are involved.

The centre offers undergraduate courses in subjects ranging from the history of the modern Olympics to media and technology at the games. It also acts as a recruitment agency, helping to put employers who might need casual staff for the Olympics in touch with students keen to take part.

"It's a great opportunity for students to get work experience," Cashman says.

Sports historian Kristine Toohey has taken three years' leave from the University of Technology, Sydney, to join the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games. She is managing the writing of the official report as well as all official Olympics publications.

"For years I taught a university course called the Olympic Games," she explains. "To be involved in writing the official report, which will certainly be one of the most important sporting documents this country has produced, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a sports historian. When I go back I will no longer always have been on the outside looking in."

The architect Lawrence Nield first got to grips with the layout of the 760-hectare Olympic site while still professor of architecture at Sydney University. In the mornings he taught students, in the afternoons he devoted himself to the Olympics.

"The Olympic work was getting so big that I did not renew my contract at the end of 1996," says Nield, director of the master plan for the Homebush site, where half of the Olympic venues are located.

"It is more normal in the United Kingdom than it is in Australia to be an academic and a working architect," Nield says, explaining the dearth of academics involved in designing buildings for the event.

"Here most senior academics in architecture departments do not have a practice, although they might do some consultation. Universities have a general rule that you cannot work more than about 5 per cent of your time outside the university. Students miss out because senior academics are not practitioners," he adds. "The lowest form of university life - tutors, are usually young practising architects who teach one afternoon a week. They are in many ways the best part of the courses."

As well as directing the team that produced the master plan for the Homebush site, Nield designed several of the buildings, including the tennis centre, the international broadcast centre and the main stadium.

"It is planned for the Olympics but also as a legacy - an ongoing part of Sydney. It will become a residential area, plus sporting venues and a huge urban park.

"All this has been achieved and I think, beyond what most urban planners would think possible, in a short period of time. Normally a Aust$3 billion (Pounds 1.2 billion) development would take a lifetime to master."

Nield says the site is about 80 per cent of what he had hoped. "It is not as inhabited as it might have been," he says of the lack of housing close to the sporting venues.

As for whether he will return to university teaching after the Olympics, Nield says: "I really enjoyed teaching, but universities are in a benighted state. I spent five years reducing the budget and most of the time filling in forms. That was not my idea of what I should do as a professor.

"If you are a practitioner, universities have no way of recognising your creative work properly. I designed a new library at a university and it won an award for the best public building in Australia that year. But someone who wrote a research paper on it got more points in terms of grants than I did."

The medical researcher The clock is ticking for Australian and European scientists battling to produce a reliable test to catch athletes taking illegal drugs in a bid to improve their performance.

Growth Hormone 2000 is a UK-led research project to produce a test for synthetic human growth hormone, taken by some athletes to build muscle and reduce fat.

"It is easy to measure hGH," explains Rob Baxter, director of the Kolling Institute of Medical Research, which is part of Sydney University. "But because it occurs naturally in the body it is difficult to differentiate natural from induced hGH levels."

Synthetic hGH causes up to 20 "tell-tale" substances, including insulin-like growth factors, to alter concentrations of the hormone in the bloodstream. The Sydney team has developed a test for these substances - which is now being used on hundreds of Olympic-standard athletes in Europe to produce a range of norms, against which suspect levels can be measured. Baxter says that the results of the first phase look promising. But the test still needs to be validated under field conditions. "It is a subtle problem," he says. "But I think we will have a test in time for the games."

The entomologist "We have counted 31 different mosquito species in the Olympic site," says Richard Russell, the University of Sydney entomologist with the unenviable task of tracking and managing the long-legged pests.

Building the Homebush Olympic venue on an old industrial site has not only presented Sydney with the chance to transform a run-down area of the city, but also to rehabilitate the saline wetlands surrounding the Olympic buildings.

This might be good news for migratory water birds, Russell says, but it will also benefit mosquitoes. "At the end of the day," he says, "if you have wetlands, you have mosquitoes. But with environmental management you can reduce their numbers."

Russell has been working for the past six years with Olympic site developers to restore the wetlands, but in such a way as to minimise mosquito numbers. The key is in preventing the stagnation of water by encouraging free tidal flushing through the saltmarsh wetlands. At the edge of the marshes where mosquitoes might normally breed, relatively deep, steep-sided ponds are being constructed to encourage waves to wash insects away.

Mosquito numbers and breeding patterns have been studied over the six years the wetlands were developed. "Every week throughout the year we have a mosquito collection," Russell explains. "We have traps to collect them and we learn how different water conditions affect their numbers. We have learned where they breed, which tidal levels they prefer and from this we can model channels to prevent conditions favourable to mosquitoes." Russell adds: "There is unlikely to be a problem at the games because September is not mosquito season."

The engineer Sydney 2000 has been dubbed "the green games", and when it comes to lighting the Olympic Plaza, solar energy is the name of the game.

Nineteen huge lighting towers, 30 metres above the Olympic Boulevard, have been fitted with solar panels. Each day they are expected to produce, on average, 23 kilowatt hours of electricity - the amount of energy they are predicted to use at night to light evening events.

Electrical engineers at the University of New South Wales are responsible for the laser-grooved photovoltaic solar cells used in each of the panels. "We developed the lights technology in the mid-1980s and licensed it," explains Stuart Wenham, professor of electrical engineering at UNSW. "But it has only recently been commercialised."

The solar cells in use at the Olympic site and installed in each of the houses in the Olympic village are made of silicon panels, grooved and wired together to enable the electricity to be collected.

"Since then we have continued to improve the technology and to develop a second generation of solar cells," explains Wenham.

"In the original design," he explains, "the cost of the silicon totally dominates. The silicon has to be extremely pure and 0.5 mm thick. The newer technology -which is unlikely to be in large-scale production for another five to ten years - uses just 1 per cent of the original silicon."

The second-generation technology, which UNSW is developing in conjunction with an Australian electricity company, uses a sheet of glass as a base material and deposits a layer of silicon on that. The glass is put in an airtight chamber with silicon gas. The gas is lit and silicon deposited on the glass. About ten layers of silicon are deposited in this way.

"It will not perform any better than the original cells," Wenham says, "but it costs a lot less."

The physicist "The idea was to get as much light as possible onto the pitch, but without cooking or blinding the spectators," explains Geoff Smith, professor of applied physics at the University of Technology, Sydney, and the optical designer behind the Olympic stadium's vast roofs.

A clear roof over each of the stands would maximise light on the pitch, but would leave people on the stands pretty hot, Smith says. So huge translucent polycarbonate panels were used, which contain special pigments to cut down and scatter the light.

"We needed very careful modelling of the materials to see how light would spread through them," Smith explains. "We chose to vary the amount of pigment in the polycarbonate to change the amount of light coming through. It could have got very hot in the top seats of the stadium and very bright, so we used heavily pigmented panels at the back and much lighter pigmentation near the front to try to give even light throughout the stands.

"We modelled all this on three-dimensional computer models to get an accurate picture of where the light would go at different times of day and under different sky conditions."

The tourism professor "The Olympics is virtually a one-off event," explains Bill Faulkner, director of the centre for tourism and hotel management research at Brisbane's Griffith University.

"Normally when you forecast visitor numbers, you can look at historical time-series data to form a model, or at similar events. But when you study the tourism impacts of previous Olympic games, they show inconsistent and confusing effects."

According to Faulkner, the Los Angeles games coincided with a decrease in overall visitors to the region, while in Seoul, the Olympics helped boost tourism considerably.

Forecasting the likely number of tourists to Australia as part of the games was thus difficult. Faulkner, commissioned by the Tourism Forecast Council, produced a questionnaire, which he gave to travel and tourism experts. They were asked to evaluate a large number of opposing statements and decide which they thought the most likely.

For example, the tourism experts were asked whether Olympic visitors would just come for the games, or whether the high cost of a trip to Australia might lead people to spend longer in the country visiting other tourist sites as well.

After pooling opinions, the Griffith University team was able to draw up a likely picture of how the games would affect visitor arrivals.

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