Reportage

Born to win, with a little help

IN THE TODDLER pool, babies are gurgling and blinking determinedly in the arms of young male swimming instructors. In the heated indoor pool, older women taking a water aerobics class splash and stretch to the strains of It's Raining Men. Outside, in the 50-metre pool, a few primary school children are doing time trials for their coming school carnival. Some swim purposefully, but others, whose tummies and thighs wobble as they walk, underscore the growing disquiet about rising obesity levels. About 20 seagulls in a line are dipping and drinking from the pool's edge. On this clear sunny morning at the Monash Aquatic Centre in Melbourne's south-east, none of these people has taken much notice of the national swimming squad members who alternately glide or churn up and down the outdoor pool.

Why not? Maybe because in the water everyone looks pretty much the same, but what about the array of equipment set up by sports scientist Megan Jones so she can measure the swimmers' height, weight, skin folds (how lean they are) and lactate levels? (Lactic acid builds up in the blood when the body is working hard at speed.) What about when, after every set of several hundred metres, the swimmers draw themselves out of the pool in one flowing movement so Jones can take a pinprick of blood for the lactate measurement? It should be hard to miss the superb physiques of the elite athletes, muscles sculpted by hundreds of hours training, but barely a head turns. Social commentator Craig McGregor once wrote that one of the great things about Australia was its egalitarian beach culture, where judges and plumbers could sit side by side, wearing only their Speedos, without a flicker of self-consciousness.

Perhaps that is what's happening on this late summer morning leading up to the national swimming trials for the Athens Olympics; more likely it is something else, a new wrinkle in the ever-developing Australian story. Australians are famously passionate about sport, but largely incurious about the importance of sports science in the extraordinary level of sporting success.

Brooke Hanson, one of the national squad members training at Monash, is passionate about sport and its science. After each skin-fold measurement, Hansen records the result on a waterproof board resting on the pool deck. She and Jones have been monitoring her skin-fold levels since 2000, searching for her optimum combination of muscle, bone density and fat. The less fat the better, you might think, and to the observer Hanson appears to be carrying not a gram of fat, but if her fat level drops too far she becomes prone to illness or injury. As she turns to start a new lap, her coach, Mark Thompson, mutters to Jones, "Can you shoot those seagulls?" Jones turns to me: "Thommo's worried about the amount of illness among his swimmers and he's wondering whether the seagulls might be causing it. He's calling it 'bird flu'," she says, as Thompson shoos away the offending birds.

Hanson is unequivocal about the importance of sports science to her career. "I've gone from ranking 20th in the world in my event to sixth." The 26-year-old Hanson first represented Australia at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada. She did not represent the country at either the 1996 Atlanta Olympics or the 2000 Games in Sydney, but she won a silver medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, in the 100 metres breaststroke, and another silver at the 2003 world championships, in the 50 metres breaststroke.

Lauryn Ogilvie is similarly enthusiastic about the benefits of applying scientific methods to her sport – shooting. Already chosen as one of Australia's skeet shooters for the Athens Olympics, Ogilvie has been using the heart rate-monitoring technology pioneered by her partner, shooter Russell Mark, leading up to the Atlanta Olympics (where he won gold). Ogilvie, a world-class shooter in practice, faltered in the cauldron of competition. "The competition controlled me rather than the other way round," she says.

By monitoring her heart rate closely, Ogilvie found that the crucial indicator of her success was not her heart rate when shooting, but whether it was rising or falling. If it was rising she shot poorly; if it was falling she shot well. "It has been a huge advantage for me. Knowing that I can perform as well in competition as in practice means I can take my shooting to the next step." From being ranked 16th in the world in 2002, Ogilvie was ranked fifth a year later. She won a silver medal at the world cup final in 2003 and is a strong medal contender for Athens.

 

APPLYING SCIENCE TO sport does not guarantee success. There is no substitute for high levels of natural ability, technique, training and tenacity. As Russell Mark says: "If you haven't got the fundamentals, it doesn't matter how much sports science you've got. But for me sports science was the last 10 per cent that got me over the line. (He missed a second Olympic gold, in Sydney, by the narrowest of margins.) Lots of people competing at the Olympics are 90 per cent excellent. To win a medal you need to be 98 per cent excellent, or more. Sports science gives you hints on how to fool your brain. It helps you think you are in a practice round at the Werribee Clay Target Club instead of competing for a gold medal."

Science is becoming increasingly important in the progress of sporting performance worldwide, the last variable that can be finessed. People's natural ability to perform the purest athletic events of running, jumping and throwing has not altered much over several decades. In 1936 Jesse Owens set a world record over 100 metres that stood for more than 20 years and even today his time would probably gain him a spot in the Olympic final.

On the eve of the Athens Olympics the defining feature of sports science is just how finely calibrated it is. The most precise attention is paid to the seemingly smallest details. Technology is being used to measure and improve every possible aspect of sporting performance, from technique to training, equipment and psychology. The enormous energy that has been devoted to developing drugs that illegally improve athletes' performance is, if you like, the dark side of sports science. That is another story, albeit an important one because the sheer sophistication of sports science reveals a blurring of the line between legal and illegal boosting of performance.

There are many talented and creative sports scientists working around Australia, in universities, at the Australian Institute of Sport and at the various state institutes of sport. The Victorian Institute of Sport, headed by Dr Frank Pyke, is perhaps the most successful of the state bodies; at the last two Olympics Victorians won 46 of the 99 medals, including 11 of the 25 gold.

The head of the institute's sports science unit is Troy Flanagan, an affable former swimmer who joined the VIS in 1992, two years after it opened. His background is in physiology, but he chose to do a PhD in aerospace engineering.

"I'm not building rockets, but I have been looking at the aerospace engineers' technology and seeing how to apply it to sport," Flanagan says. "You could say I've been raised by wolves. My approach has not been to go to academia and ask them to create something for sport, but to work with coaches and see what they need. Lots of our ideas have come from us standing on the side of the track with the coach. They say, 'If only we could do this,' and I go off and try to come up with something that does that."

Flanagan and his team of eight scientists have come up with some remarkable things. The heart-rate monitor used by Lauryn Ogilvie came from Flanagan; he did not invent it, but he was the first to apply it to shooting. He had learnt that it was critical for shooters to have a falling heart rate as they shot and that even though shooting is not an aerobic sport a shooter's heart rate jumps from an average resting rate of 70 beats a minute to 160 or 170 under competition pressure. (He also found that the heart rate of cricket umpires exceeds 150 beats a minute when there is an lbw appeal. "The fright reflex brings a surge of adrenalin," Flanagan says). Russell Mark worked on developing such control over his heart rate that it would beat at 130 even during an Olympic final.

 

HISTORICALLY, ONE OF the great disadvantages for Australian sportspeople is that most world championships are held in the Northern Hemisphere. Athletes have had to travel long distances, often cut off from their support staff and families.

At his VIS office in inner-city Melbourne, Flanagan shows underwater footage of Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Michael Klim. Coaches have been using videos for 20 years, but Flanagan has exploited digital technology to give coaches and athletes almost instant analysis. Now, when Klim competes overseas, film of him can be fed into a laptop computer, transmitted via the internet and downloaded and analysed in Australia by his physiotherapist (looking at his range of movement), his biomechanic (for technique), his physiologist (to enhance training methods) and his strength and conditioning coach. Flanagan says: "Michael can pull into an internet café in Germany and look at this stuff. All it needs is Windows Media Player 9, which is pretty standard technology." That means Klim can get feedback on his heat swim in the morning in time for his final in the evening.

Klim can also be guided to watch, say, his hand or his kick as the video plays. "Sometimes when you show athletes or teams like the Hockeyroos a video it can be hard to get them to focus on what you want them to focus on," Flanagan says. "They're saying, you know, 'Does my bum look big in this?' " The use of a white circle on the screen draws their eye so that they concentrate on a particular movement or play.

The next step is to use computers to analyse team sports, which Flanagan can do through a system he calls "Pattern Plotter". He demonstrated it for me recently at Victoria's State Hockey Centre where a state team that included some national women's squad members played a practice match against a team of state league women and men. Flanagan sat in the stands at the end of the field with an assistant, a sports science student, who videoed the game.

Flanagan sat with his laptop perched on a seat. On a computer graphic of the pitch, he used the touch mouse pad to trace every movement of the ball. "It's taken a bit of practice, but I'm pretty precise now. Today I'm only tracking one team, but I can do both teams if need be, though it gets a bit hectic."

The computer can analyse the data instantly, bringing up screens showing a team's paths to attack, which attacking moves had been successful and which hadn't, where the ball was being turned over, how effectively the ball was being brought out of defence and, of course, the same analysis of the opposition. Video footage of particular plays can be isolated and replayed straight away, to complement the graphics on the screen.

At half-time Flanagan took the laptop into the dressing rooms at the request of state and VIS coach Toni Cumpston, where he held it up for players to look at, though they probably did not absorb all it had to offer as they were melting from a traditional low-tech "bake" from the coach. "I don't know why some of you bothered to turn up today. You're not leading, you're not running ..."

Watching footballers run led to another of Flanagan's innovations, which he has developed with colleagues David Castles, Kendal Hook and Jeremy Oliver. As a consultant to Essendon Football Club in 1998, Flanagan recalls, he stood at the side of the oval thinking, "How can we see how much work these guys are doing?"

Television sports commentary teams monitor the distance players run during a game, but it is not done with precision, Flanagan says, nor can they track anything other than distanced travelled. There are three ways to analyse meaningfully a player's performance, he says, drawing an analogy with a car: how fast the car can go, how much petrol it consumes and how much wear and tear it suffers.

Flanagan and his team have developed a remarkable gizmo he calls the vector elite tracking system. "The US defence people have been working on a similar system for soldiers, and we got there ahead of them," he says.

Smaller than a matchbox and weighing 19 grams, the prototype of the tracking system is attached to an athlete's shoe with gaffer tape (in the future it will be built into the sole of the shoe). The tracking system takes up to 200 samples per second. When the athlete stops, a USB cable can be run from the shoe to a laptop and the data analysed immediately. "It will show us acceleration and deceleration. We will be able to tell (400-metre hurdler) Jana Pittman at exactly what point in a race she starts to decelerate, or when her running gait begins to lose form."

The limitations of video analysis prompted a colleague of Flanagan, Stuart Morris, to develop a three-dimensional game simulator. Working with academics at Swinburne University of Technology's departments of astrophysics and super-computing, Morris has adapted virtual-reality technology for sport. He allowed me to try one variation where, after putting on a pair of 3-D glasses, you watch a Brett Lee-like cricketer thunder in and bowl at you. Just before the ball takes off-stump, or the fleshy part of your thigh, the film freezes and you are given the chance to say how you would play the shot. Morris has similar simulations for hockey.

The 3-D simulator helps players develop their ability to pick up and quickly analyse the hundreds of cues provided by, in cricket, the position of the bowler's arm, the angle of the delivery etc, and, in hockey, what the players around you look like they are about to do. The difference between you and me and a Hockeyroo is their ability to "read" the cues as they fly all around. Flanagan recalls watching an elite hockey match with Jim Irvine who had represented Australia many times and was now coaching. "At one point Irvine leant over the stand and called down to a player, 'Hey, just move to your left two metres'. The ball was on the other side of the pitch going into attack, but a couple of seconds later the defence got it and hit it out the other side – to exactly where this guy was standing."

 

FOR THE SPORTS-MAD Aussie, is this scientific approach "way too much information", as Uma Thurman famously remarked in Pulp Fiction? Don't we love our sports heroes sun-drenched and laconic, like "Snowy" Baker who, in the early years of the 20th century, played 26 sports and represented the nation in seven: boxing; rugby union; fencing; diving; swimming; water polo and polo. Sport is something you enjoy and what separates you from Olympians is natural ability and buckets of elbow grease. Not any more, as the work of Flanagan and many others amply illustrates. What is most curious is that it was a mortal blow to our sporting pride that spurred this shift.

Sport developed quickly in colonial Australia, according to longtime sports scientist and administrator John Bloomfield in his book Australia's Sporting Success: The Inside Story (UNSW Press, 2003). In the 1830s there were excited reports in the press of "currency lads", the sons of the convicts, winning cricket matches against British regiments stationed in the colonies. Historian Helen Irving has said that cricket matches against England united the colonies well before Federation in 1901.

The organisation of sport occurred early. Australian Rules football set up leagues in Victoria and South Australia 11 years before British soccer associations were established in 1888. For many years Australians' huge passion for sport enabled them to be competitive internationally, but in the second half of the 20th century many other nations began pouring millions of dollars into developing sport, whether through the college system in the United States or through centrally commanded agencies in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

After the success of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Australia's record at the games gradually declined, but few noticed until the 1976 Montreal Olympics when no Australian won a gold medal and only five medals were won in total. It was the country's worst performance since the 1936 Berlin games and it provoked a national outcry, with headlines such as "Australia's golden days have gone" (The West Australian, July 23, 1976).

A study quoted by Bloomfield showed that Malcolm Fraser's coalition federal government spent $1.86 per head on the arts compared with nine cents a head on sport. From this almost negligible base of about $1.5 million, the government began putting in more money and set up the Australian Institute of Sport in 1981. It was the Labor government of sports-loving prime minister Bob Hawke, however, that really drove sport's development with a massive increase in funding. John Howard's Government continued the funding increase in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics; in 2003 it spent nearly $150 million on sport. Since the Montreal debacle, writes Bloomfield, Australian sport has been transformed from a loosely structured amateur system into a highly organised but cost-efficient system that "is the envy of many nations around the world".

Envy spurs imitation and poaching. After the success of the Sydney Olympics about 30 leading sports coaches and scientists were lured to Britain. Bloomfield warns that the perhaps inevitable letdown after the euphoria of Sydney spread to funding levels as well. "Australia's closest sporting competitors in Europe are already allocating at least five per cent of their sports budget to research and development (in sports science), which is two to three times more than Australia currently spends."

Whether rival nations are about to leapfrog Australia in the quest for sporting gold or whether the current system is structurally sound and will continue improving is difficult to predict. Historically, the host nation does not do particularly well at the next Olympics, but Troy Flanagan is quietly bullish. "Yes, we have lost some pretty good people overseas, but we've kept good ones, too." He says there are new projects in development that should be of use before Athens, though when it comes to details he "can't say too much".

It is a fine irony: sporting rivals may regularly visit Australia to plunder the fruits of our sports scientists, but Australian sports fans, who should applaud their work, remain blissfully unaware of it.

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