Technology Could Give Athletes An Edge At Olympic Park

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Engineers say technologies like spray-on clothing and 3D-printed shoes could help future Olympians break records. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers' Philippa Oldham discusses how technology impacts sporting performance and why engineers should work closely with regulators.



This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. When the Summer Olympics begin in London next week, much attention will be paid to South African athlete Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius, whose legs were amputated below the knee when he was a baby, is set to make history by running in the Olympics. The double amputee will compete against able-bodied athletes in the 400 meters, and he hopes to outrun the competition on carbon fiber blades attached to his legs.

But Pistorius' journey to Olympic Park has been far from smooth. He had initially been banned from competing because some argued his prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage. That ban was later overturned.

According to a new report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London, this controversy is the first of many that are set to hit the sporting world as human prosthetics become more advanced. Just how much bionics should be allowed in the Olympics or into any competition?

My next guest was lead author of this report, which examined the impact of new technologies on athletic performance. Philippa Oldham is head of manufacturing at the Institute- she is head of manufacturing at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. Philippa Oldham joins us from Gloucester, England. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PHILIPPA OLDHAM: Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Sorry about the name.


FLATOW: Thank you for bearing with me. Tell us: Is there a limit, do you think, to what - to the extent that prosthetics will be allowed in the Olympics?

OLDHAM: I think, you know, one of the key things that we draw on, sort of being engineers, is that engineers can provide solutions to, you know, many difficult problems. And I think what we're calling on is that the regulators work with the engineers so they know how the technology is improving and to know how they deal with it.

I mean, this is a very tricky situation, and it's both an ethical debate and a medical debate. But, you know, there is a technology, and it's great to see that Oscar, you know, is as able, and hopefully we'll see dispersed(ph) new technology into people with other disabilities.

FLATOW: So you're saying that the engineers should become involved earlier in the debate rather than later?

OLDHAM: Yeah, I think that's a key thing. I mean, there are several engineers and regulatory bodies that do involve engineers at an early stage. The International Tennis Federation is one of those. So they are constantly looking at what materials are being developed, what technologies. So they are ready, so when the manufacturer introduces a new product, they're prepared to - and know how it's going to affect the athlete's performance.

FLATOW: Well, let's talk about some of the new technologies that are in development that could give disabled athletes an advantage. What other things are we talking about?

OLDHAM: So there's been a lot of work by U.K. Sport, who have been working with consultancies such as (unintelligible) in the U.K. and also McClaren(ph) you might know from the (unintelligible) world. But they've been working with them in the design of the wheelchairs, so to make the wheelchairs lighter and more aerodynamic.

So this will help the basketball players and then also the track events. But the good thing is obviously with these developments - the wheelchairs (unintelligible) through the people, you know, everyday people that use wheelchairs, and it will mean it's more lightweight for them to lift, say, in and out of vehicles.

FLATOW: And some of this stuff then filters in back to the general public.

OLDHAM: Yeah, I mean, and that's a great thing, you know, the flow sort of from elite to high street, as we refer to it, is great. So you start seeing that, for example, with push bikes. We see a lot of that now available, helmet design from bikes, you say that. Swimwear is another thing that we see a lot of technology flowing into the high street.

FLATOW: Let's talk about swimwear because there was a kind of swimwear that was used and is now banned, and something new is taking its place.

OLDHAM: Yeah, that's right. In the Beijing Olympics, Speedo introduced their Laser full-body racing suit, at which 94 percent of the swimming gold medals won were with athletes and swimmers wearing that suit. FINA, who are the international board for swimming - regulators for swimming, banned that suit, but they remained - the world record stood.

However, what's happened this time round is that they've introduced a swim system, if you like. So that's a swimming costume and goggles and an integrated hat, which they've actually developed taking a 3-D scanned image of the athlete and produced sort of a tailor-made solution.

And because they've been engaged with FINA early on in discussing how that's going to affect their performance, they've been allowed to use these suits within the London 2012 games.

FLATOW: If you allow special swimsuits, and you allow special caps - and I mean this in all seriousness - won't we see some day when you can put swim fins on and use those also as assisted aids?

OLDHAM: I think - I don't know if we'll get to that point. I mean, it's kind of the same sort of comparison as, you know, would you ever put rocket-propelled grenades on shoes to make the sprinters run faster. I don't think we'll get to that point because the main things that engineers are trying to do is make the sport enjoyable and actually ensure that the athlete can meet their full potential.

You know, we're not trying to enhance it or make it unfair. We're just trying to make sure that, you know, we're transferring 100 percent of the energy from the athlete into the sport that they're doing.

FLATOW: There's got to be a point where sooner or later the public is going to say, oh, this is just going too far with some of these technologies.

OLDHAM: Well, again, that's why we call, you know, for the engineers to work with the regulators, to make sure that that doesn't happen. I mean, we all want everybody to enjoy sport, and that's why we have to make sure that they are working with them because - you know, and it keeps them interesting.

I mean, one of the other things is you have to think about how sports develop. You know, we have mountain biking that's emerged from road cycling, snowboarding emerged from skiing. So, you know, it's the creation of new sports that is also encouraged.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some of the other technologies in the London Olympics. Let's take bicycling. What's new there?

OLDHAM: OK, so with bicycling, there's been a lot of work done on the front-end design. So as the cyclist rides, they obviously get the drag from the aerodynamics. So you'll see a lot of the cables from the bikes for the braking have been brought in line with the body work. Some of the cables are inside the frame now. So this will increase the speed of all athletes.

Also you'll see changes in the helmet design to make that more aerodynamic. So that's been done through 3-D modeling and computational fluid dynamics to look at the flow of how the air goes over to ensure that you're getting that full potential from the athletes.

FLATOW: And in reading about the things that are being changed, I was fascinated to learn that you design a swimming pool and to make the water faster. How do you make the water faster?

OLDHAM: (Unintelligible) said that you can make the water faster. There are various things that people can do to, say, change the density of the water so you can reduce the drag on the athlete. But also, you know, you can change (unintelligible) that was one of the issues with the Lazer swimsuit, which was why it was banned, because it was thought that a full-body swimsuit sort of held the swimmer in all the right places to make them more hydrodynamic, which is again why we say the athletes - the engineers have to work with the regulators to make sure that that's not happening.

FLATOW: But the pool itself has a certain design to make the water faster. Does it...

OLDHAM: The pool it does? I'm not sure if I've seen(ph) that anywhere. I mean, I know that they have done things like, for example, there's discussions over the velodrome. And they've reckoned that they're going to have that at a higher temperature. I believe that they are going to have that at 25-degree Celsius temperature rather than 20 degrees because that can increase the speed of the bike.

So they think (unintelligible) an advantage of about 1.4 seconds over four kilometers. So - but I mean the thing about that is it benefits all athletes. If they are doing changes to the swimming pool, it is, again, something that will obviously affect all athletes and won't pick out particular athletes or benefit particular athletes.

FLATOW: And as far 3-D printing, I hear that's made its way into the Olympics?

OLDHAM: Yeah, well, this is - I'm not sure if we'll see any in this Olympics, but there's definitely been a lot of research going on in the U.K. in development of running shoes, for example, running spikes. So you can tailor the way your shoe works and fits and the forces that you're applying through your feet to improve your speed at which you are running.

And it improved, like, the way you grip the floor, if you like. So designed - personally designed shoes. You know, and this could be a thing for the future that we'll see: Everybody would be, you know, printing their own shoes, potentially, before their race, depending on weather conditions, the surface they're running on.

So, I mean, we may all end up - you know, I talk about this flow from elite to high street, we may all end up printing our own trainers.

FLATOW: Well, I can't wait. Thank you very much, Philippa.

OLDHAM: Thank you.

FLATOW: Philippa Oldham is head of manufacturing at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. She was joining us from Gloucester, England.

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