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 is Professor of Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University. He has a degree in Physics from the University of Leeds and a PhD from Aston University on the mechanics of golf balls on golf greens. He has over 200 publications, including his first book "Advantage Play: Technologies that changed Sporting History" due out in October 2018.

1 Response

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