It’s nearly upon us. After several years of cost controversies, construction challenges and legacy deliberations, we are now just a matter of weeks away from the start of the eagerly anticipated London 2012 Olympic Games. Whether you like watching sport or not – and personally I can take it or leave it – the games will be the defining event of the summer and are sure to provide many magical moments of athletic prowess.
One particularly compelling feature will be the appearance of Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee, who looks set to become the first Paralympic athlete to compete in an able-bodied event. Pistorius’s inclusion is sure to provoke a firestorm of debate around the ethics of using technology as a performance-enhancing aid in sport. Do prosthetic limbs boost performance? And, if so, should athletes who use them ever be allowed to compete against those who don’t? It’s unchartered territory: never before has a Paralympic track athlete got as close to the times set by able-bodied counterparts as Pistorius can wearing his blades over. There’s a news story where some of these issues are outlined, and I expect readers will have plenty to say on the matter, too.
The debate about technology in sport will manifest itself in other ways at London 2012. Four years ago, at the games in Beijing, Great Britain did better than expected, coming fourth in the medal table. That provoked mutterings of discontent from rival nations, with Australia taking great amusement in what it saw as Britain’s ability to only win gold when sitting down. The inference was that British athletes excelled only at events like yachting that required expensive equipment, rather than, say, running or jumping which are pretty much based purely on natural talent alone. Will that emerge as a discernible trend at London 2012? And, if it does, is it even relevant? Or is it just a case of sour grapes provoked by intensely competitive spirit?
What’s undeniably true is that over the past few years the Great Britain Olympic team has been supported by sports engineering research facilities that are among the best in the world. For instance, scientists and engineers at the Sports Technology Institute at Loughborough University, arguably the largest group of its kind in the world, have been working closely with UK Sport to deliver real advantage to the British Olympic team effort at London 2012. These types of relationships have been focused on a handful of sports where Britain has a real chance of podium success, such as cycling, acting potentially as the tipping point between not winning and winning medals. Such partnerships cost money – so it will be interesting to see what the return on investment is and, ultimately, if there is any form of acknowledgement of the immense amount of engineering effort that has gone on behind the scenes at places like Loughborough and at Sheffield Hallam University for several years now.
So London 2012 will primarily be about sporting excellence – it is, after all, the athletes who have put their bodies through punishing training sessions, day in, day out, whatever the weather, to get to the pinnacle of their chosen discipline. But there will be an intriguing sub-plot about the increasingly complex relationship between athletes and the technology they use. That, hopefully, will provide some additional points of interest for mechanical engineers.