British athletes seeking advantage from cutting-edge technology

 

Lutalo Muhammad is feeling ill.

"It's so life-like, I'm getting motion sickness," the European taekwondo champion and Olympic bronze medallist tells me as he tries to complete a flight-simulator challenge usually reserved for the world's best fighter pilots.

Muhammad has been granted access to a secretive bunker at BAE Systems' high-security factory in Warton, Lancashire. Final assembly of Eurofighter Typhoons takes place here and they are also building a multi-billion pound fleet of aircraft for the Royal Saudi Air Force.

It may all seem a far cry from the Korean martial art in which Muhammad excels but, as part of a newly extended partnership between UK Sport and the military defence giant, Warton's aerospace engineers may just hold the key to improving Britain's taekwondo prospects after the team's disappointing performance at the recent World Championships in Mexico.

Shelly Woods

"Being able to make use of the best in British engineering can help keep British athletes at the forefront of this fiercely competitive environment"

Shelly Woods, Great Britain Paralympic silver medallist

The technology behind the flight simulator is being adapted to build a new generation of devices that could revolutionise taekwondo training, and Muhammad can see the possibilities.

"It's really opened my eyes," he says. "Split-second timing and decisions are what our sport is all about, so if we can use this type of technology I can see amazing gains."

Muhammad, controversially selected ahead of world number one Aaron Cook for London 2012, is keen for any opportunity to gain an advantage in a sport where reflexes hold the key to success.

"We're at a stage now where all world-class athletes train hard, but that can only take you to a certain level, so any supplementary knowledge that gives you the edge could mean the difference at an Olympics or World Championships."

BAE will continue to act as UK Sport's "Official Research and Innovation Partner" throughout the build-up to Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016, albeit committing around half the levels of financing their first, pre-London Games deal involved.

Both summer and winter sports will have access to £800,000 worth of cutting-edge technology, plus they will be able to apply scientific innovation to their training, recovery and injury prevention, as well as their in-competition requirements. That may not seem a lot compared to the £80m that each Typhoon fighter jet costs, but UK Sport says the partnership has already benefited more than 20 different Olympic and Paralympic sports and 140 athletes, ranging from cycling to skeleton.

"The £1.5m partnership ran from 2008 to 2012 and we've had some great successes" says Kelvin Davies of BAE Systems. "You'd be surprised just how many sports have an element of engineering in them. We've got a great expertise in flight simulation and we're now looking for opportunities to apply that to taekwondo.

Advanced wheelchair racing technology

Wheelchairs have been tested in wind tunnels to assess aerodynamic efficiency and manoeuvrability has been measured using tracking technology developed by F1 team McLaren.

"It could be through special goggles or a projection system like we've seen today in the Typhoon simulator. Simulated, virtual versions of their rivals will give the team the chance to practise against the real article and avoid injury."

Nowhere are the possibilities that science and technology provides so obvious as in Paralympic competition. Carbon fibre prostheses can now deliver an elastic energy return that exceeds natural human tendons, while suction valves provide a seamless connection between skin and prosthetic. A new "ghost teaching glove" can even download the movements of various sports stars, teaching wearers how to copy their movements. 

On Thursday a revolutionary new racing wheel, which can improve the acceleration of Great Britain's wheelchair racers by up to 20%, was unveiled. The advanced composite wheel is stronger, faster and lighter but also three times stiffer than previous designs, reducing a force known as "toe-in" - where the wheel bends inwards.

"Being able to make use of the best in British engineering can help keep British athletes at the forefront of this fiercely competitive environment", said Paralympic silver medallist Shelly Woods. "Having access to this kind of expertise gives us a huge boost."

It doesn't stop there. Wheelchairs have been tested in BAE's wind tunnels to assess aerodynamic efficiency, manoeuvrability has been measured using tracking technology developed by F1 team McLaren, and specially moulded seats have been created by BMW.

"In some areas we are world leading and you see that by what our international competitors say about us" says Dr Scott Drawer, UK Sport's head of research and innovation. "We know we need to be a step ahead again leading into Sochi and Rio and these partnerships are just a part of that."

Historic bronze for GB's Muhammad

The use of technology can be controversial of course. British Cycling, a body almost synonymous with the concept of "marginal gains", was accused of using mysterious "magic wheels" during the Olympics by their exasperated French rivals.

Oscar Pistorius had to apologise for criticising the running blades used by T44 200m gold medalist Alan Fonteles Oliveira during the Paralympics, while swimming banned performance-enhancing, non-textile swimsuits. So is there a danger that sporting fate and fortunes become too dependent on the kind of expensive kit that only certain countries have access to? Can it lead to "technological doping"?

"The matter of fairness is one for each international sporting federation," says Nicholl. "We operate within the rules of the sport and we'll look for every advantage so we can win more medals and make the nation proud again. This is about international competition and we're investing a lot of money into that success.

"Research and innovation can move someone placed fourth into third, can turn second places into golds - it is that fractions of a second we're seeking. It's not going to give someone medal potential, it's about refinement to the potential they already have."

One only need think of Christine Ohuruogu's thrilling photo-finish victory over Amantle Montsho in the World Championships 400m final in Moscow earlier this month to appreciate just how minute the margins now are between success and failure in elite sport.

At a time when British sport is in the ascendancy, the importance of cutting-edge engineering, alongside old-fashioned skill and perseverance, should not be underestimated when it comes to maximising performance.