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"The role of technology in

sporting performance"

Prof Claire Davis,
School of Metallurgy and Materials

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The role of technology in
sporting performance

How much effect does engineering technology
have on sport?

Is technology only used to increase
performance?

What are the ‘new technologies’ being
introduced?

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Pole Vaulting

http://www.flickr.com/photos/thatpicturetakr/ / CC BY-ND 2.0

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Pole Vaulting - history
19th  & 20th     Ash or hickory poles, hands moved up 
century    pole during vault
1889    USA banned hand movement
1900 - 1942    Introduction of bamboo poles
Early 1900’s    Box introduced to receive pole on ‘plant’

http://www.flickr.com/photos/32912172@N00/ / CC BY 2.0
This work and its content is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence to Claire Davis (Except where stated otherwise).
Pole Vaulting - history
1957      Bob Gutowski (USA), aluminium pole first
     used, world record (WR) 4.78m
1957       Don Bragg (USA), steel pole WR 4.80m
≈1956      Introduction of flexible composite (fibre-glass) 
poles
1961      WR first broke with composite (fibre-glass) pole

http://www.flickr.com/photos/driever/ / CC BY-NC 2.0 http://www.flickr.com/photos/deadyankee/ / 
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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Effect of technology on
performance

Current world record:
Men: 6.14m (Sergei Bubka 1994)        Women: 5.06m (Yelena Isinbayeva 2009)
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Modern poles

Unidirectional carbon Woven carbon Filament wound 
fibre / epoxy resin fibre / epoxy resin glass fibre core

Uniaxial composites (fibre volume fraction of 66%):
GFRP modulus ≈ 35 GPa
CFRP modulus ≈ 140 GPa

Failure strains:
 Glass fibres   ≈ 2.6 %
 Carbon fibres ≈ 0.6 - 1.1 %
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Modern poles - microstructure
Resin

Inner 
ply

Fibre 
bundle

Angled 
plies

Cross section through a vaulting pole showing bundles of glass fibres in 
resin matrix.
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What the
athletes say
‘I usually take around 10 poles to 
each competition, each of them 
different.  The poles are all of a 
different length and therefore 
stiffness.  Which one I use depends 
on how much speed I am generating 
on the runway.  I start out with softer, 
longer poles until I’m fully warmed up 
and then I’ll keep switching as my 
speed and confidence increases.  The 
wind conditions will also dictate which 
pole I use.’

Uploaded by Silvjose
Stacy Dragila
This image is licensed under the 
Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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Modern poles

As you push the technology to the limit then 
failures can occur resulting in potential 
safety implications - poles occasionally 
break during a jump in an unpredictable 
manner .

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Athletics - running

http://www.flickr.com/photos/pulfi/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Sprinting

http://www.flickr.com/photos/philmcelhinney/ / 
CC BY-SA 2.0

Decrease in winning times for 100m was 15 ms yr-1  in 1900,  now 6 ms yr-1 
i.e. hence pace of improvement has slowed

Performance improvements come from:
Better prepared athletes - improved training, nutrition etc.
Limited engineering technology - shoes, clothing and track surfaces
Chemical technology ?
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How much effect does
engineering technology have
on sport?

Are all sports equally affected by the introduction
of engineering technology?

No - depends on the nature of the sport

This work and its content is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence to Claire Davis (Except where stated otherwise).
Is technology only used to
increase performance?

Technology and research is usually used to
improve performance, is this the only use?

This work and its content is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence to Claire Davis (Except where stated otherwise).
Javelin

By the mid-1980s some athletes could 
throw javelins further than 100 m.  This 
forced the IAAF to change the rules as the 
javelins were in danger of being thrown ‘out 
Matti Järvinen throwing the javelin at the 1932  of the stadium’.  
Summer Olympics.

The new rules stipulated that the centre of mass should be moved forward 
by 4 cm. This helps to keep the nose down, reducing the lift on the javelin 
and cutting the distance it can travel.
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Cycling

In 1972, Eddy Merckx set the 1 
hour distance record, in 
Mexico City on a traditional 
steel framed bicycle, of 30.716 
miles

http://www.flickr.com/photos/7448869@N03/ / 
CC BY-NC 2.0

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Cycling
Subsequently aerodynamic, streamlined Kevlar and carbon fibre 
composite bicycles increased 
the record to 35.031 miles, set by Chris Boardman in 1996.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyberdees/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In 2000 Chris Boardman returned to a traditional bicycle to break Eddy 
Merckx’s record (30.716 miles) at 30.722 miles.
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Tennis
The change in racket frames from wood 
to aluminium then to fibre reinforced 
composites has resulted in larger racket 
heads.  An increase in the sweet-spot 
area on the racket face means the 
‘power’ of the racket has increased, 
which has increased the speed of the 
game.  

Deformation of the racket
http://www.flickr.com/photos/mischiru/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Synthetic strings
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Tennis

The serve speed has increased to 
the current record of 155 mph. 
Spectators have complained about 
the lack of rallies and excitement in 
the game.  
To slow the game down on fast 
surfaces new balls are being 
introduced. One new ball type is 6% 
larger giving a 12% increase in drag 
and hence 10% increase in 
response time for the receiver.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/la_bretagne_a_paris/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

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Golf
During impact the golf ball compresses by up to 10%.

Different construction and materials (e.g. polybutadiene, 
polyurethane, ionomer) are used to create balls with 
different properties (more spin or more distance).

Hence can optimise performance by selection of equipment 
to suit individual players (professional or amateur).

This work and its content is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence to Claire Davis (Except where stated otherwise).
Is technology only used to
increase performance?

Technology and research is usually used to
improve performance, is this the only use?

No - can be used to improve safety, limit
advances or improve player and spectator
enjoyment

This work and its content is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence to Claire Davis (Except where stated otherwise).
What are the ‘new
technologies’ being
introduced?

Where is research and technology impacting on
sport now?

This work and its content is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence to Claire Davis (Except where stated otherwise).
Swimming
Design of new swimming 
suits - Jason Lezak’s suit

http://www.flickr.com/photos/adamdawson/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Track cycling

• Riding on a 47º inclined track.

• Two main disciplines
(i) short ‘sprint’ distances (1 km)
(ii) longer ‘pursuit’ distances (4 km).

• Lightweight carbon fibre composite
bicycles with only one gear and 
no brakes.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/martinpalmer/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Track cycling
505 g 980 g
• Weight ∝ 1/acceleration

But cannot reduce weight at the 
expense of stiffness.  

http://www.flickr.com/photos/baumcycles/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/kgsbikes/ / 
 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This work and its content is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence to Claire Davis (Except where stated otherwise).
Track cycling
505 g 980 g
• Weight ∝ 1/acceleration

But cannot reduce weight at the 
expense of stiffness. High 
stiffness  and good aerodynamics 
for foam filled solid wheels. http://www.flickr.com/photos/baumcycles/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/kgsbikes/ / 
 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This work and its content is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence to Claire Davis (Except where stated otherwise).
Track cycling
505 g 980 g
• Weight ∝ 1/acceleration

But cannot reduce weight at the 
expense of stiffness. High 
stiffness  and good aerodynamics 
for foam filled solid wheels.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/baumcycles/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/kgsbikes/ / 
Resin required to lock   / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
skin to core and for 
aerodynamics.  

Excess resin results in 
excess weight.  
Research has been 
carried out to reduce 
resin ingress into foam 
and has led to weight 
saving of 46g whilst 
maintaining stiffness.
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Smart materials
Piezo-electric ceramics: 
application of a current / 
voltage results in mechanical 
deflection … or vice versa

Use of piezo-electric ceramics 
in active damping mechanisms 
to reduce vibrations

http://www.flickr.com/photos/phrequency/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

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Smart materials
Shape memory alloys and thermocolour change

‘Smart’ clothing for heat release / retention
Nano-tex materials using nano-materials for stain / spill repelling, cooling

Thermochromic dyes 
for monitoring body temperature
http://www.flickr.com/photos/nnova/  / CC BY-2.0

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Does technology affect
country performance?

How does,

and how will,

Great Britain perform at the Olympics?

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International technology gap
2008 Olympic Medal table:

Rank Country Gold Silver Bronze Total GDP rank

1 United States 36 38 36 110 1
2 China 51 21 28 100 4
3 Russia 23 21 28 72 11
4 Great Britain 19 13 15 47 5
5 Australia 14 15 17 46 15
6 Germany 16 10 15 41 3
7 France 7 16 17 40 6
8 Korea 13 10 8 31 14
9 Italy 8 10 10 28 7
10 Japan 9 6 10 25 2

‘Missing’ top GDP countries?  
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International technology gap
2008 Olympic Medal table:

Rank Country Gold Silver Bronze Total GDP rank

1 United States 36 38 36 110 1
2 China 51 21 28 100 4
3 Russia 23 21 28 72 11
4 Great Britain 19 13 15 47 5
5 Australia 14 15 17 46 15
6 Germany 16 10 15 41 3
7 France 7 16 17 40 6
8 Korea 13 10 8 31 14
9 Italy 8 10 10 28 7
10 Japan 9 6 10 25 2

‘Missing’ top GDP countries?  Spain (8), Canada (9), Brazil (10), India (12)
(IMF data 2007)
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International technology gap

‘Technology driven’ sports Non-technology sport
Track cycling + rowing + sailing Athletics

Total medals Total medals
Great Britain 24   USA 23
Australia 7  Russia 18
New Zealand  6  Kenya 14
Netherlands 5   Jamaica11
France 5   Ethiopia 7
Spain 5   Belarus 7
Germany 5   Jamaica5
USA 5  Cuba 5
China  5  Ukraine 5
Canada 4  Australia  4
Italy 2  Great Britain  4

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UK sports technology spend
UK Sport funding (‘01 to ‘05) and (‘09 to ’13):
(World class performance programme supporting athletes + research spend)

Rank   Sport                    Spend            No         Olympic  Olympic
                   (000’s)    athletes      medals’04 medals’08
1 Athletics 11 400   25 110      64 4       4
2 Rowing 10 606   27 470      57 4       6
3 Cycling  8 613   26 922      30 4       12
4 Sailing  7 597   23 389      40 5       6
5 Swimming  6 417   25 606      48 2       6
6 Canoeing  4 659   16 289      18 3       3
7 Equestrian  4 413   13 651      24 3       2
8 Judo  4 107    7 636       24 0       0
9 Gymnastics  3 646   10 332      36 0       1
10 Triathlon  2 600    5 392       16 0       0

Data taken from http://www.uksport.gov.uk/
from

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What are the ‘new
technologies’ being
introduced?

Where is research and technology impacting on
sport now?

Introduction of new materials and designs.
Focus on specific sports in UK

This work and its content is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence to Claire Davis (Except where stated otherwise).
THANK YOU

Acknowledgements:
Dr Martin Strangwood
Dr Stephen Kukureka
Stuart Monk
Catherine Caton
Liz Wilcock
Blake Raynor
Amy Cleeton

This work and its content is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence to Claire Davis (Except where stated otherwise).