Blood, Sweat and Engineers: Technological Innovation and Performance in Sport

By Sam Scott on at

Why are humans all over the world so fascinated by sport? It must have something to do with the desire to win. And yet winning isn't just down to how much you want it. Winning, especially at the highest levels, usually involves getting an edge on your opponent through innovation. Or as the Audi slogan goes: "vorsprung durch technik," or advantage through technology.

Whether it’s the shoes you're wearing, or the vehicle you're driving, faster-fitter-stronger is the name of the game. It's no surprise then that designers and engineers work closely with athletes in enhancing their performance. And while technological leaps can change a game overnight, improvement usually happens through what Director of British Cycling, Dave Brailsford, calls "the aggregation of marginal gains". A two per cent here; a five per cent there, and it all adds up to a transformation in performance.

Giz UK spoke with Alex Newson, curator of the 'Designed To Win' exhibition at the Design Museum, about the minor gains, the giant leaps, and how sophisticated computer modelling is changing design in sport.

"With sports that involve moving through air or water -- take cycling for instance -- trial and error used to be the only way. You'd build something, test it, and it wouldn't work as well as you'd expected. Or it would work brilliantly but then you'd have to figure out why. Wind tunnels were a step forward, but it was still a slow process of refinement".

Like master chefs, sport designers had to make several iterations of what they were working on to find the right balance. Testing prototypes is slow, expensive work and often relies heavily on the athletes themselves.

"Now they can 3D model everything. They can make a thousand virtual models of a bike, and through 'computational fluid dynamics' and 'finite element analysis', find the sweet spot through reason alone, without having to build prototypes. It's revolutionised the whole design process."

Athletes and engineers have a mutual appreciation for the fact that minute adjustments can make big differences. In sport it's often a matter of hard won technique, throwing the javelin at the optimum angle, for instance. While these subtle differences would have been difficult to gauge by eye, or even traditional video recording, digital technology has spawned a burgeoning era of statistical performance analysis. Services such as Prozone are currently changing premiership football, with managers able to make important decisions based on data from sensors that track a player's movements across the pitch.


Man and machine

Matching an athlete with his or her equipment is another challenge, and one that more directly involves designers. Precise motion capture technologies such as Audiomotion have enabled sport designers to perfect the relationship between man and machine. When mechanical analysis proves that your golf swing is inefficient, it's hardly a matter of style anymore; it’s a simple matter of winning or losing.

And yet all the computer-aided tweaking in the world won't prepare you for a major technological game changer. The history of sport shows that when the really big shifts in tech occur, the fallout can make or break an athlete's career.

"New materials can be absolute game changers. Carbon fibre has been the big one. It's still the go-to material for designers. Most elite equipment will have carbon fibre in it these days, and even though it's been around for so many years we're still seeing advances," says Alex.



Innovation or cheating?

There's a fine line between innovation and cheating, and the difference between a technology being accepted or rejected by governing bodies. All tampering with biology aside, other famous technological 'cheats' include: double stringed tennis rackets; metal shafted hockey sticks; weighted boxing gloves; basketball shoes with springs in the sole, and golf clubs that send the ball faster than the speed at which it's struck in the first place, also called the 'trampoline effect'.

In 2009, the governing body of competitive swimming, FINA, banned 'low-drag' swimsuits, such as the Speedo 'shark skin' LZR. These full body suits increased the speeds of those who wore them so dramatically, that 66 Olympic records were broken during the Beijing games in 2008. They were deemed a form of "technological doping", and all suits since have been made from woven natural fibres.

Women's tennis on the other hand, is a classic example of a technological innovation being embraced because it made things 'more interesting'. When plywood rackets were replaced with graphite ones, the ball travelled faster and whole pace of the game picked up, making it more entertaining to watch. The introduction of titanium drivers in golf was a true game changer too. The new metal increased driving distance overnight, and a new winning strategy called 'bomb and gouge' emerged. Players would bomb the ball down the fairway, not fussed if it goes in the rough, because they could just gouge it out and still be ahead of those using steel clubs.

The story of design in sport is largely one of new materials hitting the scene. But once the dust has settled, those athletes who have the assistance of designers and engineers -- people who can exploit the subtle differences and make those minor gains through clever math or just good old fashioned trial and error -- stand a better chance of winning.

Image credit: Winning from Shutterstock