The brains behind the brawn

July 19, 1996

Huw Richards talks to the scientists helping the British Olympic team prepare for Atlanta

If this goes on, I'll start to get worried about the English identity - I'm not sure it can stand up to all this success." Mike Marqusee, the London-based American writer whose book Anyone But England explored cricket and national identity, can relax. England's footballers could not match German penalty-takers, Tim Henman did not win the Wimbledon men's singles and the Indian cricketers found a convincing response to the bowling of Mike Atherton's team.

But now a media inclined to divide national representatives into all-conquering heroes and carriers of national shame virus needs a new target. Its search for fresh heroes and villains will focus for the next couple of weeks on the Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic team. Previously obscure archers and small bore shooters will enjoy their 15 minutes of fame and much will be heard of certain national anthems. If God Save the Queen is not among them frequently enough, media cries of "something must be done" will inevitably follow.

If so, it will not be for want of careful preparation. Ron Maughan, professor of human physiology at Aberdeen University, says: "The British team is possibly better prepared than any other for these Olympics." He cites a marathon contestant from another major western country, who contacted him seeking advice on acclimatising to Atlanta's heat and humidity. "He was amazed by how comprehensive the advice issued to British competitors is. His own country issued him with only about a page and a half of guidance."

Much of this preparation has relied on the work of people like Maughan, to be found in the medical, psychology and sports science faculties of British universities. Their work is channelled to the governing bodies and competitors through two major programmes - the Pounds 700,000 a year Sports Science Support Programme, which supports 40 research projects in 30 different sports, and the allied British Olympic Association programme, with a range of projects linked to specific Olympic disciplines.

This reflects the growth of sports science as both academic discipline and back-up to competitors. Tom Reilly, professor of sports science at Liverpool and president of the British Association for Sports Science, recalls launching the first British undergraduate degree as recently as 1975. "Nowadays it is a glamour subject, very popular with students and with a good graduate employment record. It is probably growing more rapidly here than anywhere else in Europe. But we had a real struggle for acceptance as a legitimate academic discipline," he says. Academic acceptance was finally signalled in 1992 when sports-related subjects were admitted as a discrete category in the Research Assessment Exercise.

A parallel battle was fought for the discipline's acceptance by competitors. Lew Hardy, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wales, Bangor and chair of the BOA's psychology committee, recalls the deep scepticism with which psychologists were greeted in the 1970s. "There was a fair degree of hostility and you had to learn to be philosophical about it. It took sports people a long time to be convinced that consulting a psychologist didn't mean that you had something wrong with you, but that the aim was simply to help you to make the most of your own potential."

And that remains the key objective. However much we learn about elite athletes, certain characteristics appear immutable. Gold medal winners at the first modern Olympics, 100 years ago in Athens, probably did not know much - consciously at least - about cardiovascular capacity, correct nutrition, acclimatisation or psychological preparation. But it is a fair bet that they were physically gifted, tough and ferociously competitive. Sports science cannot make an Olympic athlete out of Joe or Jo Average - the raw material of the exceptional performer has to be there already. And the leading practitioners do not make wild claims. Hardy says: "I'd love to be able to prove that a sports psychologist can make the difference between winning and losing, but I can't. It simply isn't quantifiable."

Physical development, and its limits, are easier to quantify. Brian Whipp, professor of physiology at St George's Medical School, has researched oxygen limitations - a key determinant of performance. "One of the important differences between the elite athlete and the average person is ability to get their oxygen consumption up. An elite athlete will reach a high level while exercising two to three times as quickly as the average person," he says.

But lung capacity may be genetically determined, leaving physiological freaks like Spanish cyclist Miguel Indurain, five times Tour de France winner and hot favourite for the Olympic time trial, at a permanent advantage. "Training can improve your muscles and your heart. You grow new capillaries. But your lungs do not grow. This can mean that the delivery systems outgrow your lung capacity," explains Whipp.

There is still controversy over whether exertion before the body matures can have an effect. "Swimmers as a group have unusually large lung capacities. What we don't know is whether that is what makes them top-class swimmers, or if the lung development is a consequence of swimming enormous amounts at an early age."

Similarly mystifying for many laymen is the injury-proneness of highly fit athletes. Reilly explains: "There is a fine line between attaining your full capacity and overstretching it. Injuries are more often a matter of overtraining than of basic fitness."

Much debate centres on the relative contribution of the physical and the psychological. Hardy says: "My view is that at elite level you have to be well-prepared both physically and psychologically. All the pieces have to be in place." Key to psychological well-being, says Hardy, is "controlling the controllable. You can control your own physical preparation, your motivation and your mental focus. You can't control your opponents."

A key physical control is acclimatisation to competitive conditions. Both Reilly and Maughan have advised the British team on this. Maughan says: "If you are not acclimatised, you won't win. It makes that much difference." Heat and humidity, traditional bugbears of British athletes, will be the main problems in Atlanta.

The ideal preparation would be to go to Atlanta some weeks in advance, but family and financial reasons make this impossible for many. British competitors also have the option of preparing in a special camp in Tallahassee, Florida.

But it is possible to prepare at home. "An hour and a half to two hours per day over ten to 14 days at Atlanta heat levels should provide sufficient acclimatisation," he says. Hence pictures of British competitors training in saunas.

Maintaining fluid balance is also important. "Someone training for an hour and a half to two hours in Britain, with the temperature around 15 to 16 degrees, needs five or six litres of fluid a day. At Atlanta temperatures you need around ten litres."

Those most at risk from the heat are competitors in endurance events. "When a marathon is run in 35 degree heat, competitors who would do two hours and nine in ideal conditions really shouldn't be able to go faster than two hours and 40. Instead they turn in times like two hours and 13," says Maughan.

The conundrum in all endurance events is the same. You watch an opponent go off faster than seems sensible. Do you let them go, assuming they cannot last the pace, or pursue them to ensure against being left hopelessly behind? Here, as with battered cyclists climbing back on to their bikes after horrific Tour de France crashes, the competitive instinct battles it out with conventional commonsense. Given that competitive instinct is an essential attribute of any top-class athlete, we should not be too surprised that it sometimes pushes them beyond their physical limits.

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