Sport must take central role in innovation


As a rule, the sports world generally adopts technology from industry – but could a less conservative stance from certain governing bodies lead to an environment where sport actually provides innovation for other sectors?

This week I’ve been closely following the FINA World Swimming Championships in Shanghai, China. Aside from the fact that I’m a keen semi-competitive swimmer myself, the event has wider significance for another reason. It’s the first major international competition since the banning of the advanced polymer speedsuits back in January 2010, following a fierce battle, during which opponents branded them as ‘technological doping’ that was ruining the sport.

The stats certainly tell a story: so far this week just one world record has fallen compared with 43 from the last world championships in 2009, while the times overall seem rather sluggish.

Personally, I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand it’s good to know that what I’m watching is the culmination of years of gut-wrenching hard training and dedication that this sport is so renowned for, along with the certainty of being able to tell who is truly the best athlete.

Yet I can’t help shaking the feeling that, as a sport, we’ve missed a huge opportunity here. Back in 2009 the suits – which were based on various designs incorporating polyurethane – were creating a buzz around swimming, even among people who would never normally take an interest. It was also arguably injecting more cash into the sport because the amateur (mugs?) like myself were prepared to part with £100s to have the same suits at our Sunday league-level meets.

But perhaps more than anything it was a missed opportunity in terms of knowledge. The suits were affecting buoyancy, drag, air trapping, muscle compression and even neurological feeback loops in a way not even the sports engineers and physiologists could have ever predicted. Different athletes garnered different advantages from the suits according to their body shape and nuances of technique. It was a scary world in many ways, a huge leap into the unknown, and no one understood what was going on at a mechanistic level. But rather than working with sports engineers and trying to better measure and characterise the effects, the governing body FINA simply turned back the clock and insisted on only textile shorts for men and costumes for women.

What if this technology had been allowed to run its course and further evolve. I don’t think it’s inconceivable that we might have learned new insights about how the human body behaves at the very limits of athletic performance. In such a research environment new innovations might have sprung forth that could have had implications and applications outside of the world of swimming – perhaps in the medical and healthcare sector.

Could this be a model for the sporting world in general? Rather than picking and choosing aspects of technology from other industries (often aerospace) it should embrace technology in all its forms, let it evolve and create an incubation-like environment for innovation that transcends sport.

Another conservative and overly bureacratic governing body, FIFA, finally announced this week it would make a decision about goal line technology in March 2012 – provided it meets certain strict criteria, including that referees can be ‘100 per cent sure within a single second whether the ball has crossed the line’. Now all engineers know the impossibility of ‘100 per cent’, but in adopting the technology and then striving for such accuracy it could generate the sort of innovation that may have implications for other commercial industries.

Of course this already happens in Formula 1, but part of its whole raison d’être is to feed technology into the mature automotive sector, where the supply chain is well-established.

There are a few one-off examples of sports engineering research providing an innovation for other industries. Small British company, D3O, has been making ‘intelligent impact protection’ for ski wear, shin guards and horse-riding equipment since 2001, including a contract for the US and Canadian ski teams for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Then in 2009 the company attracted funding from the UK Ministry of Defence, and later US Special Forces, to adapt its sports protection for use as amour for soldiers.

It’s also interesting to note that former Olympic gold medal cyclist Chris Boardman is making good progress with his company Boardman Bikes. They make innovative ‘elite’ models for the world’s top triathletes with technology that feeds down to their ‘performance’ bikes which sell at Halfords (starting at around £600).   

This morning I spoke about the topic with Dr Tom Allen, a sports engineer at Sheffield Hallam University who works closely with industry.

‘Generally the sports industry is not large or rich enough to develop technologies so they are often forced to adopt,’ he said. ’However, the main challenge for the sports industry is often the scale of manufacture. Tennis racket manufacturers for example have to develop production methods capable of producing very high volumes of rackets, in comparison to the aerospace industry for example.’

Nevertheless, if you take away some of the conservative thinking among the top brass of certain sports it might be surprising how far sporting research can reach into other sectors.