Science is golden

Get ready for a competition of the greatest science, technology and engineering the world has to offer, where research and innovation win medals.

And they did it with a little help... from science.   U.S. Army IMCOM/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

And they did it with a little help... from science. U.S. Army IMCOM/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)


This is an editorial for Issue 11 by Lateral deputy editor-in-chief Nicola McCaskill, who is a former state champion gymnast and a current world champion Nutella eater.

Come August, the eyes of the world will turn to one of the biggest science, engineering and technology events we’ve ever seen. A record number of countries will send over 10,500 representatives to participate, bringing with them the best of research and innovation to perform and compete. About 7.5 million tickets will be sold for 306 events, and the whole event will be televised – over 4 billion people are expected to tune in from home. 

The Olympic Games are an incredible show of science and technology in action. In Rio, we can expect to see the results of a vast array of experiments that aim to take human performance to its limits, pushing bodies faster, higher, stronger. It’s often said that athletic success comes from sheer hard work – blood, sweat and tears – but the contributions of a wide range of researchers will also play a deciding role in who makes it onto the podium later this year. 

Sport and science have always had a close (and competitive) relationship. Athletes go through finely tuned training programs, carefully developed and closely adhered to, with a basis in our growing understanding of human physiology. Biomechanics – the physics of sport – helps coaches understand the forces at play during training. New ways to study athletes’ movement, such as video analysis, can lead to more efficient training and injury prevention. Understanding the mechanics of throwing a ball or lifting weights, or the fluid dynamics of butterfly stroke, can give teams the competitive edge.  

A more visible reminder of the role of technology at the games is the change in equipment and clothing used by top teams over the years. Each Olympiad gives us four more years of engineering innovation, with many nations pouring money into research to boost their standing. It turns up in the form of individually designed clothing and helmets to optimise aerodynamics, high-tech shoes that run faster, and engineered body suits for swimmers that increase buoyancy and reduce drag. The original Olympians competed in the nude. Today’s athletes, by contrast, are decked out in tech – from top to highly trained toe. 

Science doesn’t just help athletes up their performance; it helps shape the sport itself. Many of the events we’ll tune in to watch in August will be significantly different – some barely recognisable – compared with versions of the sport over the years. Technology shapes sport by improving equipment (so pole vaulters now propel their bodies into the air with fibreglass poles, not bamboo, and competitive bikes look radically different post-Barcelona); by changing the playing surfaces for sports like hockey and gymnastics, improving performance and reducing injuries; or adjusting the equipment to reduce performance – changing the centre of gravity in the javelin, so it wasn’t at risk of skewering a spectator in Seoul. 

The Paralympic Games push our understanding of sport, science and engineering even further, challenging ideas around disability, but introducing questions about prosthetics – whether they are an advantage or disadvantage; whether disabled athletes should be able to outrun a non-disabled athlete. We might be fine with a robot soccer world cup, but it's difficult to negotiate the line between technology helping athletes, and technology as the athlete. Alongside ethical debates around performance enhancing drugs, tech doping has become an increasingly big concern. With the Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit banned after Beijing in 2008 for being too technologically advanced (and leading to 23 new world records at the games), the question of how far is too far is yet to be answered. The World Anti-Doping Agency is concerned about technologies that are “against the spirit of the sport”. The issue of fairness, of a sporting chance, also comes up. Poorer countries simply can’t compete in sports that rely on technology or equipment. There is ongoing tension between the ‘Olympic spirit’ – to build a more peaceful world, foster solidarity between nations, to not aim to win but just take part – and the Olympics we might be more familiar with, where nations spend millions to try and bring home the gold.

Rio de Janeiro, like every other host city before, presents its own unique challenges for science to solve. Where Beijing saw experts turn their attention to the effects of pollution on performance, research is now focused on determining the public health risk of the Zika virus, and finding strategies to manage it among an influx of athletes and spectators visiting the city. Health workers will face a considerable challenge – but the great power (and responsibility) of the Olympic Games has seen the Brazilian government put a further $25m into Zika research this week. 

Science and sport each push each other to go further, to achieve more than they had before. We’re still learning more about sports nutrition, psychology, and training techniques. Major sporting events also bring about new broadcast technology (Rio will see new robotic cameras used to capture the action). Important questions around tech doping, drugs, and what it means to be an athlete, will need to be examined and resolved. The relationship between these two seemingly separate worlds will only become more complicated. It’s impossible – but exciting – to think about what this competitive collaboration will turn up next.  

Ongoing discussions centre on science ‘versus’ sport. When will science be more popular than sport? Why does sport receive so much more funding? It’s a jealous competition that science will never win. A more useful perspective is to see sport for what it is –the basic, physical manifestation of hundreds of years of research, development, creativity and innovation. When billions of people tune in to watch the Olympics this year, they’ll be watching a competition of some of the most advanced technology the world has to offer. Science is a spectator sport; you just need to know where to look. 

For more on sport, don't miss your shot to check out the rest of Issue 11 of Lateral!