Technology in Sports
by Daniel James
Australians are well known for their sporting performance all around the globe. Despite our relatively small population we perform very well at international competitions like the Olympic as well as in professional sports such as cricket and the various football codes. We can attribute this success in part to our active. Australians love the outdoors and playing sport has always been a big part of that. From a young age we are encouraged to play sport and from this pool of talent we draw our most promising athletes and prepare them for international competition. Our schools and sporting clubs act as a feed and support network to help them develop to their maximum potential. But what makes our athletes stand out from so many others around the globe?
Traditionally athletes are supported primarily by their coach. In the early '70s though Australia set-up the Australian Institute of Sport and many state based institutes were also formed. These Institutions brought together a wide range of expertise to support athletes in a more programmed and scientific way. Today standing behind many athletes are teams of experts from a range of sporting and scientific disciplines. A biomechanist, sport psychologists, careers planner, dietician, strengthening and conditioning coach and sports scientists. More recently technological innovation has assisted these endeavours further.
Each of these roles serves to develop specific aspects of the athlete. Training camps for young, developmental or elite athletes can bring together all of these specialists for intense periods of training and education. Athlete's benefit by having complete assessment combined with expert training and care. All of the information gathered including performance, physiology and improvement can help select athletes with the most potential.
These institutes have been enormously successful for Australia, helping athletes perform among the best nations in the world in Olympic and world championship competition despite our relatively small population. As a result many other nations around the world have begun to copy our models for success and so again Australia must continue to innovate if we are to maintain our leading edge in sport. Technology continues to transform many aspects of our lives. Today with the advent of mobile phones we can communicate with the rest of the world no matter where we are, micro sensors can detect an imminent car crash and deploy airbags in the instant before a collision, and computers that once filled a room can be carried in our pockets and owned by everyone.
Athletic and clinical testing has traditionally been performed in the laboratory where the required instrumentation is available and the environmental conditions can be easily controlled. Treadmills, swimming flumes, cycling and rowing machines replace the usual athletic environment allowing athletes to remain in near stationary condition so that they can be more easily assessed. Ventilators can be used to monitor lung function and consumption of oxygen. High-speed video cameras look at the footfalls and gait characteristics of a running athlete. Periodic sampling can monitor blood chemistry. The need for the assessment to be laboratory based has largely been driven by technological limitations, monitoring equipment in general is big bulky and can't be transported to the race trace and certainly can't follow the athlete around the track.
However by taking advantage of advancements in microelectronics and other micro technologies it is possible to build instrumentation that is small enough to be unobtrusive for a number of sporting and clinical applications. Pedometers, heart rate monitors and trip computers for bicycles today are common place and represent some of the earliest technological innovations popular with elite and recreation athletes alike. Today the humble pedometer is finding a new use for elite athletes, now able to measure one thousandth of force due to gravity in all three dimensions as well as rotational forces these devices can be attached all over an athlete to monitor the movement of individual limbs hundreds of times a second. A runner, swimmer or rower wearing these devices can have examined in detail their performance on the track or even on race day itself.
High precision GPS, or Global positioning systems now have accuracy better than 10cm and can be used to monitor runners, skiers, football players and rowing sculls position and even velocity. Micro needles, a fraction of the size of a human hair in width and penetrating into the layers of the skin offer the potential to monitor fatigue and energy levels by measuring blood glucose and lactate levels through removable patches. As always technological development is often undertaken in specialised areas before being made available to consumers. So too many of the developments undertaken currently for elite athletes in Australia may find their way to a sporting store near you.