Is sports engineering worthy of serious research, or is it another way of cheating?

September 22, 2000

Sports engineering is topical during major sporting events. But is it a legitimate area for research?

As a new lecturer in 1994, I was asked which area of research I intended to pursue. My choice of sports engineering was not immediately accepted. Although plenty of distinguished people had researched the science of sport (Isaac Newton, 1671; John Rayleigh, 1877; J. J. Thomson, 1910), nobody had given the physics and engineering of sport an identity. Most people thought that it was just an excuse to go out onto the golf course.

Credibility was required, and one way to achieve it was to bring in research money. Sport is big business, I was told by all in the know. Unfortunately, more is spent in this country on gambling on sport than on sports equipment. The United Kingdom sports sector is worth about Pounds 15.5 billion, of which less than Pounds 1 billion is products. I found that the majority of sports equipment companies in the UK were small and more interested in survival than in research. But, over the past few years the government and the European Union have realised the potential of the sector and have provided Pounds 500,000 in funds to the University of Sheffield so that it can help the sports sector carry out research.

Early in my career, I was faced with the main sports engineering research dilemma: "Isn't it just another way of cheating?" It took me a few years to think of an appropriate response. The first question to ask is whether technology can influence sport and whether there is any evidence to prove it. The pole vault is a good example. In the 1960s, glass-fibre poles were introduced to the sport and technique changed from the head-up-feet-down approach to the complex feet-first, gymnastic approach. This change was a direct result of the new flexible glass-fibre poles. Heights soared from about 4.5m to more than 6m. The liberalism of the rules in pole vaulting has allowed its performance to improve continually.

Other ruling bodies, however, have used technology to control their sports. The position of the centre of mass of the javelin was moved by 4cm to stop it flying so far and endangering athletes and spectators. At Sheffield, we have worked with the International Tennis Federation to introduce a larger tennis ball. This slows the ball to give players more time to react before making returns, giving elite players more time to control 120mph serves and recreational players more time to develop their shots.

The answer to the cheating dilemma? It is the responsibility of the sports' ruling bodies to keep an eye on technological developments and to change the rules accordingly. It is the responsibility of engineers and companies to make sure that the products and technology they develop are within the rules of sport and are not going to change (or ruin) it. Introducing technology to sport is not cheating if the technology is available to all. This allows the sport to develop en masse (or regress in the case of the javelin). After all, the Olympic motto, Citius, altius, fortius (swifter, higher, stronger), shows that we will always expect improvements.

So, six years on, the field of sports engineering boasts an international journal, association and conference circuit (this year's conference was in Sydney), and research income has reached the magical Pounds 1 million mark. I can now afford to laugh at some of the cliches I constantly hear. No, it is not all balls and I have got the evidence to prove it. Time for the golf course, then.

Steve Haake is editor of Sports Engineering and is senior lecturer in the sports engineering research group at the University of Sheffield.

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