It’s 2012 and it’s Olympic year. What do the public think of science and sport?

Well, 2012 is here.  At last.  It’s been a long wait and it seems like we’ve been talking about 2012 forever.  For anyone involved in elite sport it is like a switch has been thrown – I’m only on the periphery and it’s manic so it must be crazy for those at the centre of it all.  As part of the celebrations of the role of science in sport, I’ve been working with the Royal Institution in London on a project funded by Research Councils UK (RCUK) to put on a series of 6 events to showcase the UK science community’s efforts behind the scenes.  Opened by David Willets MP (the UK Minister for Universities and Science), the first event was held on 25th January at the Royal Institution on the topic of wheelchair basketball  (as far as we know the first time wheelchair basketball has featured in the famous Faraday Lecture Theatre).

Not only did the audience learn something new, we found out what the audience thought of science and sport.

Tyler Saunders shoots a perfect basket in the Faraday Lecture Theatre at the Royal Institution.

So what did the lucky 300 strong audience find out?  Well, for a start, that 25 years ago wheelchair basketball was played with National Health Service chairs – heavy mild-steel monsters which were unstable and probably dangerous.  Colin Price and Tyler Saunders demonstrated the modern day chairs which are made from lightweight aluminium with cambered wheels (see image below) to lower the centre of mass, improve maneuverability and give better hand access to the wheel rims.  Mike Caine, from Loughborough University showed some of the advanced designs emanating from his Sports Technology Institute.

An array of wheelchairs, scientists and athletes the RCUK event at the Royal Institution (L to R: David James (tiered seating; Mike Caine; David Willets; Steve Haake; Maria Kavvusanu; Tyler Saunders; Colin Price).

Maria Kavussanu, a sports psychologist from Birmingham University let us know that ‘sledging’ (the concept of using ‘whitty’ insults to put your opponent off) doesn’t really work since the person doing the sledging becomes distracted and declines in performance.

Audience put to the vote!

After a robust discussion on the rights and wrongs of technology, we turned the tables on the audience by using interactive voting pads. First of all, we found out who they were: two thirds male and 60% younger than 35 – perhaps what might be expected in a basketball audience.  But wait, the majority turned out to be science-lovers (85%) rather than basketball-lovers (27%).  It was no surprise, then, to find out that 9 out of 10 thought that science and technology had benefited sport.  When it came to the use of performance enhancement, around 60% thought that caffeine and climate chambers were Ok.  However, the use of blood doping or a relaxation of anti-doping policy was a definite no-no.

So what about equipment and physical technology?  Well, around half thought that it was Ok for a country to develop sports equipment solely for their own athletes and 70% thought that any technology should be allowed in training. Confusingly, however, 60% thought that athletes should be forced to use the same equipment during a competition.

Our final question found that a majority (62%) thought there was a clear difference between the use of technology and doping.

I’m not sure how reflective of society in general these answers were, but it’s only the first of 6 events and it’ll be interesting to see the difference across the country and with different sports.  Who will like technology more, triathletes or divers?  Will those who don’t like science be indifferent to the use of technology?  And where in the country will we see our highest number of sports lovers?

The next event is Cutting Edge 2012: Behind Triathlon in Leeds on the evening of 27th March 2012.  Tickets are free but must be booked in advance. Details of all the events can be found here.

Go ahead and give us your opinion.


About stevehaake

Steve did a first degree in Physics at the University of Leeds before landing two job offers: the first with BT turned out to be in a porta-cabin in the middle of a marsh, while the second was supposed to be image processing but was really smart-bomb design. This left a third option – a PhD in the mechanics of golf ball impacts on golf greens for a person who’d never hit a golf ball. It was a simple choice (the PhD if you didn’t guess) which led 25 years later to being head of a research team of 30-40 looking into similarly unlikely topics. Highlights of the career so far? The early years setting up the ISEA with the likes of Steve Mather, Ron Thompson, Clive Grant and Ron Morgan; the fact that the 1st International Conference on Sports Engineering in Sheffield in 1996 didn’t also turn out to be the last; and getting out the first issue of the first journal on Sports Engineering in 1998. The absolute high point, though, was being in the British Club in Singapore as a guest of the High Commission when the bid for the 2012 Olympics was announced. This has led to the team delivering projects with Olympic athletes that every scientist with a love of sport can only dream of. Steve is now a Senior Media Fellow funded by the EPSRC to encourage the public to engage in science, particularly in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

1 Response

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