5 Ways Engineering Is Ruining Sports: Olympic Games Edition
Ian Wright posted on August 05, 2016 |
Bicycle doping, the frankenbroom, polyurethane swimsuits, carbon fiber prosthetics and neuropriming.
The 2016 Summer Olympics are finally here!

But before you settle in for two and a half weeks of track and field, soccer and swimming in water so polluted that three teaspoons are enough to guarantee contracting a virus, let’s take a look at engineering’s impact on the world of sport.

1. Bicycle Doping

If you haven’t read our in-depth article on mechanical doping in cycling, you definitely should.

A Vivax electric motor. (Image courtesy of Vivax.)
A Vivax electric motor. (Image courtesy of Vivax.)
Here’s the gist: some professional cyclists have been accused of using electric motors concealed inside their bicycles. Speculations have been swirling for years, but evidence was lacking until this past January. Officials from the world championship of cyclo-cross discovered a motor hidden inside the bike frame of cyclist Femke Van den Driessche.
Thermal imaging at bike race in March revealed heat in the exact area where a hidden motor would be. Neither the bike, rider or team were identified. (Photo: road.cc.)
Thermal imaging at bike race in March revealed heat in the exact area where a hidden motor would be. Neither the bike, rider or team were identified. (Image courtesy of road.cc.)
There are several approaches to covertly “doping” a bicycle, including tucking it into the frame or using a combination of magnets in the wheel rim and inductive coils in the frame. Thus far, there has been no evidence of mechanical doping at larger events, such as the Tour de France, but keep a close watch on the cyclists in Rio, especially if you happen to have an infrared camera.


2. The Frankenbroom

Champion curlers test frankenbrooms at the World Sweep Summit.
Champion curlers test frankenbrooms at the World Sweeping Summit. (Image courtesy of WCF.)
I know, I know: curling isn’t a Summer Olympic sport. Still, the controversy surrounding the so-called Frankenbrooms is too good to pass up. The issue arose when curling broom manufacturers began employing new materials in the brush heads.

A combination of directional fabrics—which are smooth in one direction and coarse in the other—and hard inserts that enable sweepers to apply more pressure to the ice has thrown the seemingly sedated world of curling into turmoil. These technologies had such an apparent impact on the sport that the World Curling Federation (WCF) temporarily banned their use.

The was serious enough for the WCF to convene a World Sweeping Summit to put the Frankenbroom technology to the test. This involved using a robot to propel the rocks and a laser scanner to monitor the surface of the ice. Expect to hear more about Frankenbrooms in Pyeongchang come 2018.


3. Polyurethane Swimsuits

Brazilian swimmer César Cielo wearing the Arena X-Glide swimsuit. (Image courtesy of myuzeme.)
Brazilian swimmer César Cielo wearing the Arena X-Glide swimsuit. (Image courtesy of Nicole Elocin.)
This is an older controversy, but it was big news back in 2009 when German swimmer Paul Bidermann broke two world records at the World Championships while wearing the Arena Water Instinct’s X-Glide swimsuit. These suits cover the swimmer’s legs and torso with impermeable polyurethane, which significantly improves buoyancy and reduces drag.

The suits were the product of intensive research and development, with engineers using water tunnels and computational fluid dynamics to model potential drag effects. In the Beijing Olympics, swimmers who wore the polyurethane Speedo LZR Racer broke a total of 23 world records, compared to just two broken by those not wearing polyurethane.

Polyurethane swimsuits were banned at 2012 Olympics in London and that ban will be upheld in Rio, but that hasn’t stopped Speedo, Arena Water Instinct, and Michael Phelps’ own brand MP from pushing the limits of swimsuit technology. If scores of swimming records end up being broken this year, you can bet these companies have made another major breakthrough.


4. Carbon Fiber Prosthetics

Pistorius sporting the Flex foot cheetah. (Image courtesy of Ossur.)
Pistorius sporting the Flex-Foot Cheetah. (Image courtesy of Ossur.)
Oscar Pistorius became a focal point in the 2012 London Olympics because of his prosthetic legs, which led some to question whether he should be disqualified from competing. Pistorius used J-shaped carbon-fiber prosthetics called the Flex-Foot Cheetah, developed by biomedical engineer Van Philips. Philips was motivated to invent the prosthetic after losing a leg below the knee.

The Flex-Foot Cheetah is designed to store kinetic energy like a spring. Early tests of Pistorius’ running ability suggested that his limbs used 25 percent less energy and 30 percent less mechanical work for lifting his body compared to runners with natural legs. Although this led to an initial ban from competing at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the decision was reversed when it was determined that the tests only measured Pistorius running at full speed in a straight line.

Blade runner on the track. (Image courtesy of Ossur.)
Blade runner on the track. (Image courtesy of Ossur.)
Prosthetics are a common sight at the Paralympic games, with one cyclist evening running an Indiegogo campaign to fund his prosthetic leg. With a few more years of research and development, they could become just as common at the able-bodied Olympics.


5. Neuropriming Headsets

A weightlifter wear the Halo Sport. (Image courtesy of Halo Neuro.)
Weightlifter wearing the Halo Sport. (Image courtesy of Halo Neuro.)
It sounds like science fiction—or maybe snake oil—but the concept of neuropriming has shown sufficient promise to be utilized by Olympians, professional athletes and even the U.S. Armed Forces.

The basic idea is that signals sent from the brain to the muscles are transmitted with submaximal organization and strength. To remedy this problem, a wearable device augments these signals to make them stronger and more synchronous.

According to Halo Neuroscience, which manufacturers the Halo Sport, the result is, “More robust signalling [which] increases motor unit recruitment, so more muscle fibers are activated during training. With this increase, gains in strength are seen more rapidly.”

The Halo Sport system consists of an app, the Halo Sport—which resembles a set of headphones—and Primers, which snap into the Halo Sport for neuropriming sessions. The company claims that Olympic ski jumpers who used Halo Sport in conjunction with their training saw a 13-percent increase in propulsive force and an 11-percent increase in jump smoothness compared to a control group.

The Halo Sport. (Image courtesy of Halo Neuro.)
The Halo Sport. (Image courtesy of Halo Neuro.)
Whether or not any of the Rio Olympians will be able to credit their gold medals to neuropriming remains to be seen, but you can bet that neuroscience and counter-part medical engineering will play an increasingly prominent role in the future of athletics.

For more sports-related content, find out whether engineering can prevent concussions in the Super Bowl.

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