April 12, 2024

Technology in Sport - Is it Cheating?

Published June 12, 2023, 3:20 a.m. by Courtney

In the last of his engineering sport films, Professor Steve Haake looks at how technology has affected athletic performance over time and how it may hold the key to the future of sport, leading to new rules and even completely new games.

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With sports engineering, we can model a whole sport.

And we can use it to push the physical boundaries of the


And if we introduce technology into sport, is it cheating?


Let's start with the 100-meter sprint.

We've collected data on the average performances of the

top 25 athletes in the 100-meter sprint every year

since the 1890s.

You can immediately see some pretty major spikes and steps,

most obviously from the First and Second World Wars, which

worsen performance dramatically.

The first post-war Olympics were in 1948, so we usually

use that year as the baseline for any

comparisons that we do.

In the 1970s, there's a dramatic increase in times,

which was due to the introduction of fully

automated timing.

Removing the reaction time of the judges setting their stop

watches going increased the time recorded for all runners.

There's another smaller step change in 2008 when Usain Bolt

came on the scene with his dramatic win

at the Beijing Olympics.

What's interesting is that, if we remove Bolt from our top 25

and just analyse the other 24, the step

change is still there.

At these elite levels, it looks like a standout athlete

makes everyone else perform better too.

The men's 100-meter sprint has improved by

around 5% since 1948.

Over the same period, the men's javelin has gone some 70

meters to 85 meters, an increase of 21%.

Are we really saying that the performance improvements of

these two sports is that different?

Well, one issue we have is that, with sprinting, our

measurement is time, while, for javelin, it's distance.

What we need is a common metric.

That shared measure is an energy calculation.

And as an example of how we can visualise that, we can

look at the women's 100-meters freestyle swimming event.

Now this circle represents a baseline performance in 1948.

And by 2010, performance had improved by 52% to here.

Now what are the things that contributed to that

performance improvement?

Well here, we have the globalisation effects.

And by that, I mean population increase, nutrition, coaching,


But there are other effects that have improved performance

in swimming as well.

Here, we have the Olympic games oscillation.

And that occurs every four years, so that, in an Olympic

year, you see a small but measurable performance


What about technologies that we've allowed?

Well, in swimming, we think about the swimsuit.

And in 2000, they went from the traditional female style

and the Speedos to the longer, full-body suits.

More impressively, though, goggles, hats, and shaving

down had quite a large effect prior to those swim suits.

An effect of goggles was to allow the swimmer to train for

longer in chlorinated pools. thereby, improving


Of course, there are technologies that have not

been allowed.

There were the full-body swimsuits in 2008 that had

polyurethane panels down the sides.

And by 2009, the whole body was covered in polyurethane.

And what that did was that reduced the skin friction

across the body.

It pulled the body in and reduced the cross sectional

area of the body presented to the water.

And that reduced hydrodynamic drag.

The other thing we've noticed in swimming is the transition

between hand timing and fully automated timing, something

we've seen in other sports.

So with these statistics and with this methodology, we can

look at the effect of different factors on sport.

And one thing we've noticed is how globalisation has started

to reach its limits.

The Industrial Revolution has had its impact.

Most of the improvements we're seeing in sport today are

smaller in nature and due to technology.


We started our journey with the birth of modern sport and

its development, hand-in-hand, with technology.

But performances are starting to plateau.

And even with the occasional Usain Bolt mixing things up,

world records are going to become rare

in some of our sports.

Now athletes don't like that, audiences don't like that, and

the ruling bodies don't like that.

Sports engineering will hold the balance between the world

of the possible, that's Newton's laws, and the world

of the allowed, that's the rules of sport.

Now the rules of sport are completely arbitrary.

They're steeped in tradition, but they do change.

There were 300 ancient Olympic games

lasting over 1,200 years.

And in that time, we went from the sprint to chariot racing.

So the science and engineering we're learning with today's

sports will be used to develop those sports that we'll see in

the 300th modern Olympic games 1,000 years from now.



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