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From pub to podium: inventing your way to Olympic gold

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Ollie Williams | 08:37 UK time, Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Worple Way is an unlikely place to find the British Olympic team's latest recruits: it's a back street in the London suburb of Richmond, boasting no more than a couple of pubs and some nice floral arrangements.

But then, the recruits themselves are pretty unlikely. A toy inventor and a part-time tree surgeon have been given the green light to take some of Britain's Olympic hopefuls to the next level.

Along with two friends, they have won a competition run by funding body UK Sport to find technical innovations that can gain Britons the edge over their rivals at the London Games in 2012. And they won it by sitting in the pub.

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Can four friends invent their way to Olympic gold?

"When you're coming up with ideas, it takes a certain person to not instantly resort to a negative," says Charlie Ashworth, who works in patent law by day and invents toys in her spare time, as we chat in the White Horse.

"But we're a handpicked team of people that we know don't do that. That's why this works, there are no pressures and constraints of being in an office, a boardroom, an artificial situation. We just have a drink and a chat."

Ashworth heads for the pub with sometime tree surgeon Stuart Pallant and their friends Mark Hester and Julian Swan each week. The quartet dub themselves "the Imagination Factory", but the name belies their ability to deliver the goods at a serious level.

All four have experience inventing things: Pallant and Hester design prototypes while Swan is a product design engineer. Normally, their pub sessions boil down to coming up with new ideas for toys - or, more recently, new types of pizza and beer.

However, some months ago they spotted an advertisement for UK Sport's competition, Ideas4Innovation, and got thinking. By the time the Dragons' Den-style interviews for finalists were held in July, our four protagonists had whittled down a list of 40 ideas to just four, two of which had the judges buzzing.

"We had to be quite ruthless," explains Swan. "We said to ourselves, is each idea a quick win? Do we understand the technology enough? Is it novel? And can we implement it?"

Pallant adds: "And so we thought about the 4x100m relay in athletics. The main issues there were shown in the European Championships (where the British men's team got into trouble with the baton). The changeover period is the point which can win or lose a race. How do you make the changeover so smooth that there's no time lost at all?

"We knew you wouldn't be able to use anything during the race itself so it'd have to be in training, a way of enhancing the runner's judgement of incoming speed. They have to know exactly when to take off and at the moment, all they do for that is put bits of tape down on the track."

Richmond's very own A-Team of ideas got to work, and soon rigged up a prototype using a butchered Nintendo Wii controller. Run with the controller's components strapped to your wrist and, at the top and bottom of your stroke, the device sends a bleep to the ear of the next relay runner, to help them judge their team-mate's speed and synchronise with it. Theoretically, the changeover then has much more chance of going to plan.

"At the moment, they film endless changeovers and take it back to the lab," says Ashworth. "What athlete's going to sit there studying his changeover? They've got better things to do. We tried to think about what the athlete needs, not collecting data. It's like Guitar Hero for 100m runners, it's all about getting the right rhythm."

British men's relay team in BarcelonaThe British men's 4x100m relay team faltered at July's Euros. Photo: Getty Images

UK Sport were impressed enough to wave that idea through to the final - but it hit a stumbling block when they questioned if runners would end up depending on it too much, so that they were lost without it during the race itself. "We hadn't thought of that," admits Hester.

But their second idea, involving swimming, was a belter. It was so good, UK Sport have awarded them a four-figure sum to take it forward and get something developed in time to have an impact before London 2012.

So good, in fact, that I can tell you absolutely nothing about it. Like the other two ideas which won this year, it is a secret. And when I press Dr Scott Drawer, UK Sport's head of research and innovation, for a better answer, the man who led the competition's judging panel remains tight-lipped.

"The Imagination Factory's idea covers a wide range of swimming-based sports like triathlon, swimming, Paralympic swimming and modern pentathlon," he tells me.

"One of the other winning ideas is around training and preparation for competition, which works across every sport, we're excited for that. And there's one using novel computational techniques for water-based sports like sailing, rowing and canoeing."

That's all we get to know about the ideas themselves, lest UK Sport give the game away and ruin the advantage they hope to engineer over other nations. This competition is all about helping British athletes win, after all.

But it's about more than that. British sports spend millions of pounds every year on research and development, trying to find that extra hundredth of a second. So why does UK Sport feel the need to go to "a bunch of plebs in the pub" - as Swan modestly put it when I met them - for answers?

"We don't know everything and there are some really creative people out there who have ideas which can help," explains Dr Drawer.

"History is littered with examples where individuals outside sports have seen an opportunity and made a difference by looking at it with a fresh pair of eyes. They have different experiences from different disciplines.

"Granted, we can't go into specifics, but we've got some neat concepts that we think sports will take up and that can definitely impact on London 2012. We're confident in them all and we're confident in the people."

Chris West won the competition in 2008, the first year it was held, and he is rewarding that faith. West, a PhD student at Brunel University in Uxbridge, has designed a training aid to help Paralympic athletes whose spinal injuries have impaired their cardiovascular systems.

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Inside the lab with Chris West and Ross Morrison

Again, that's all we get to know about it. Apparently, if anyone says the two words which define this training aid out loud, it's so obvious that any other country could set to work copying it. The mind boggles.

"Our proof of concept is finished and now we're putting it into practice across a range of Paralympic sports," says West.

"The degree of improvement is very large and the idea could be taken up by other nations quite quickly and easily if they were to find out what it is. So, given the margin of improvement we can get, we're keen to keep it within GB for the time being."

British wheelchair rugby player Ross Morrison has been a regular in West's laboratory for the past few years, helping him fine-tune the training device. Some of the tests Morrison and others have endured as part of it - such as an invasive procedure involving a balloon being sent down the throat into the lungs - sound a little frightening to the layman, but if the outcome is more chance of winning, Morrison is up for it.

"It's an edge. And, at the elite end of sport, there are tiny margins that can be the difference between gold, silver or not medalling at all," he says. "It's a definite edge our competitors don't have and that's a great feeling to take into a competition.

"In all the testing we've done it's improved respiratory and cardiovascular responses, which means you can train and play harder, longer and better. You definitely notice a difference after you've used it.

"It's a big thing to be a part of. I'm proud to be involved in research that has an impact on my sport and others too. It could directly impact on British performance in 2012, which is what we're about. We're about winning gold medals."

Now the same chance has fallen at the feet of our Richmond pub-goers. Their next step is to put down the beers and turn their swimming idea into a reality, knowing their work may help put British swimmers on the podium in 2012.

"It's a bit of a lottery ticket," says Ashworth. "it's quite exciting to think how far we could go with having the right idea at the right time."

Swan interrupts: "I'll be honest, I think we could go far with this. I am sports mad and I would love this to go somewhere, I really would."


  • Comment number 1.

    I've got a great idea for making blogs more interesting, but thats all I can tell you!

  • Comment number 2.

    I found this really interesting - nice blog!

  • Comment number 3.

    I am all for technology allowing training equipment to be technically enhanced to assist in training - but surely all athletes should have the same access to the same equipment, otherwise we are gaining an unfair advantage

    In the last few days, some athletes have made comments about competing against Semenya who was born with her attributes - yet it is ok to have an 'invasive procedure involving a balloon being sent down the throat into the lungs' to assist you in gaining an edge?

  • Comment number 4.

    That's something that was raised while I was researching this. The official answer is that British teams want to do everything possible to give their athletes the best chance of winning, within the rules.

    The point you make is a very reasonable one but if you were to fully pursue that line of thought, where would you end it? Arguably, many athletes born in the Western world have access to better facilities, coaching etc than those born elsewhere. But those born elsewhere may be genetically better suited to their sport (as you could argue Semenya is, although that's obviously murky territory). And isn't that an advantage?

    It could go on and on. But while there is space in the rules for technology and innovation to make a difference to who gets a gold medal, British teams are going to exploit that where they can. Just look at cycling.

  • Comment number 5.

    Thanks for the reply Ollie, and I agree it's something we could debate all day long.

    Maybe I just think everyone should be a Rocky Balboa, rather than an Ivan Drago.

    I've read a few of your blogs, and found them really interesting. As the Olympics approach I am sure your views and knowledge on 'lesser known' sports will be invaluable to the BBC.

  • Comment number 6.

    All good stuff Ollie...but if you google Party for the Podium guys, you will see the funding that leisure venues are generating to support the athletes..which also helps immensely.

  • Comment number 7.

    Ollie, Mancun Ian is right.
    When rich nations use their wealth to develop secret ways to go faster, higher, stronger, then it is the developing nations that suffer.
    If this continues international sport is at risk of becoming dominated only by those willing to put more and more money behind ever more specialist technical developments.
    You say look at cycling, but the UCI has this year put in various rule changes to stop track racing being dominated by a handful of nations at the Olympics, no doubt under pressure from the IOC to let other nations get a look in.
    This includes the banning of 'prototype' equipment, regarded as such if it is not available for sale to everybody.
    The problem is when only a handful of nations can afford to compete at a sport it is at risk of stagnating as it no longer has a world wide appeal.
    I am sure the IOC does not want Olympic sports to be open only to the wealthy as it reduces the appeal of the Olympics to developing nations.Therefore I can't see them stand idly by and watch richer nations gain an advantage over financially disadvantaged nations by the use of their wealth to develop secretive inovations.
    The beauty of football is that it is a simple game played anywhere by anybody with the most minimum of equipment. A kid in the backstreets of Accra has some chance at least of playing at the highest levels in football just like a kid in Urmston. However they have no chance when it comes to sports which need an ever growing level of sophistication. Football therefore dominates world sport and will continue to do so for a long time to come for those reasons of simplicity over the need for ever greater technical complication.
    Track and field sports also have a rich diversity of competing nations like football, as again the cost of entry to competitors is low. If you change this approach you risk blocking competition particulary from the African nations.
    When we look back in time at the great Olympians, we remember well and honour the ones who overcome the greatest hardships and deprivations to win at the highest level. I don't think we will look so kindly on participants who won with the help of a 'secret weapon', no matter how talented they were.
    Innovate for sure, but make sure the innovations are available for all.

  • Comment number 8.

    I am a PE teacher and always find your blogs interesting and relevant to many of my lessons and prove excellent discussion points for class. Keep them coming!

  • Comment number 9.

    squat_slice - I'm playing devil's advocate to an extent because it's hard to argue against the theory that all athletes should start from a level playing field at the Olympics.

    But I also think it's very hard to blame individual athletes and governing bodies for doing whatever they can - legally - to make sure they win. When you look at the prestige on the one hand, and the funding on the other, that is earned by winning a medal at an Olympic Games, the pressure to deliver is immense (all the more so when the Games are on home soil).

    So if you have the resources and brain power to come up with technological innovations that will legally give your athletes an edge in competition, and choose not to use them, you're either adhering rigidly to your ethics in a way few if any other countries would in your stead, or you're a fool. Because if you fail to employ those resources and consequently fail to win medals, you lose your funding (I'm vastly simplifying but it's broadly the case) and might lose your career.

    You could write a book, never mind a blog, on whether that is the right approach and whether the Games is inherently devalued by the near-ubiquitous presence of technology. Ultimately, I'm of the mind that if you want an entirely fair and balanced Olympic Games, you'd have to do away with 85% of the sports involved first. I think that ideal is one we'll never quite reach. But that doesn't make it wrong to wish that were the case.

    Mancun Ian and phillycb - thanks for the kind words. I'd always welcome suggestions for topics to cover in future, if you have them. Drop me a note on Twitter any time.

  • Comment number 10.

    Personally, I tend to take a slight dislike to sports in which the skill/ability of the athlete is not the defining criterion in the outcome (f1 as an example) - but with R&D in sports like swimming/athletics/cycling etc... while it does make a difference, in my opinion, if the athlete doesn't have the level of ability of the top level athletes then they aren't going to beat them with or without the extra tech.

    In some of the sports mentioned, such as cycling, I believe that the level of competition induced within the country that has the largest effect. If you're on the fringes of international competition but your country produces the best athletes around - does that not push you harder to get a spot on the team? Whereas if you have no competition you do not progress as quickly.

    Perhaps as a medium there should be limits on R&D spending that all competing countries can match? But even with that there are natural 'advantages' which cannot be overcome by such restrictions - which leads me to believe that cuts in R&D could lead to some countries becoming more dominant than before?!

  • Comment number 11.

    Fair comment Ollie.
    Absolutely right, you could write books and books on this!
    You are also correct in that the political and commercial pressures to succeed in Olympic sports are greater than ever, forcing sports to eke out every advantage they can get.
    I still prefer the best man to win though, not the best machine.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi Ollie. I'm a Brit living in Singapore where the first youth olmpic games are currently being hosted. I've been very surprised by the extremely low number of competitors entered by Britain into these games, you would never believe that we are hosting the next olympics. I believe we have 39 competitors in total, and we certainly appear to be very unrepresented compared to most other countries, many of which you wouldn't consider to be sporting nations, but are obviously doing more to encourage their youths. I think some of your investigative journalism may throw up a really interesting story, which you WILL be able to share all the detail on.

  • Comment number 13.

    Well I hope these ideas get treated with professional respect, particularly if athletes make a lot of money courtesy of a gold medal in 2012............any requests for innovations which are then treated as freebies should lead to lifelong bans for athletes and the British Olympic organisations.

    I'm not joking..............

  • Comment number 14.

    rjaggar - The four who won with their swimming invention may be amateurs in the elite sport field but they're no strangers to this kind of thing. They have jobs in industries which harness new ideas all the time, and know their way around things like non-disclosure agreements etc.

    I would expect UK Sport to look after them but even if their rights weren't being overly well protected, I suspect they'd very quickly notice and do something about it.


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