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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 May, 2004, 01:47 GMT 02:47 UK
Can athletes go faster, higher, stronger?
By Mark Kinver
BBC News Online

Sir Roger Bannister crosses the line, BBC
Sir Roger Bannister's 3'59.4" mile captured the world's imagination
Since the formation of the modern Games in 1894, the Olympic motto of "faster, higher, stronger" has been an aspiration of many athletes.

Generations of spectators have been captivated by their sporting heroes pushing the boundaries with seemingly superhuman displays.

But, as Olympians gather in Athens, can we expect more records to be broken, or have we reached the limit of physical performance?

Looking at the existing world records for the 24 track and field events, the signs are not promising. Only six new records have been set since the arrival of the new millennium.

Dr Greg Whyte, the English Institute of Sport's director of science and research, is unconcerned.

He told BBC News Online that the advances in sports science and medicine make the Olympic motto as relevant today as it was 110 years ago.

Training programme

"What we are seeing is a slowing in performance improvements, but I do not think that we have reached a zenith," he said.

"Performance is underpinned by a whole host of different factors - physiological, biomechanical, technological and psychological," he added.

Sir Roger's training log marks his historic run

"To say that we have reached the zenith would suggest that we have reached the optimum in all of those areas which clearly cannot be the case."

Since the Sydney Games in 2000, there has been a focus within the UK on developing the sports science and medicine infrastructure to improve the support available to elite athletes.

The English Institute of Sport (EIS), a network of experts within the field, teamed up in 2003 with the British Olympic Association's Medical Centre to form the Olympic Medical Institute (OMI).

The result? An integration of performance and rehabilitation programmes for the UK's leading sports stars. This development has delivered a number of advantages, according to the OMI's general manager, Nick Fellows.

When the rewards are very high, there will always be those individuals who are prepared to cheat
Dr Greg Whyte, English Institute of Sport
"We have a multi-disciplinary team on site. We can accelerate (an athlete's) recovery by having everybody around them.

"If an athlete has an upper body injury, there is no reason why they cannot do a fair amount of training," Mr Fellows told BBC News Online.

"We assess their fitness as to what they can or cannot do, then put them through appropriate training alongside their rehabilitation and injury management programme."

Air advantage

A recent resident who benefited from the OMI's integrated approach is Olympic rowing gold medallist James Cracknell, who underwent a rehabilitation programme to speed his recovery from a rib stress fracture.

The OMI is also involved in a number of research projects. One is looking at the use of a hypoxic chamber as a training tool for athletes.

Olympic rowing gold medallist James Cracknell, BBC
Science aided Olympic rower James Cracknell's rehabilitation
The chamber recreates the conditions found at high altitude, where the air is thinner and oxygen is in shorter supply.

Mr Fellows says the OMI is looking to see if the chamber can deliver the same benefits linked to altitude training, favoured by endurance athletes, but cut out the time lost acclimatising.

"It takes [athletes] about four to six days to adjust to the new altitude before they can get back to a higher workload.

"In that time they are detraining, they are getting less fit. It is a big issue for them."

Arguably, the most famous sporting barrier to be broken was the four minute mile. This year marked 50 years since Sir Roger Bannister recorded a time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.

Sir Roger, who broke the record while studying medicine at Oxford University, is cautious about the role of science when it comes to pushing sporting boundaries.

The Speedo Fastskin swimming suit, PA
The "Fastskin": New technologies can aid performance...
He told us: "The body is far ahead of the scientists in terms of integration of heart and lungs. I think scientists have a part in certain specific aspects of training for athletic events.

"For example, marathon runners running on hot days lose a lot of sweat, and they also destroy intramuscular glycogen supplies. So the scientist can say something about how [the runners] should manage their nutrition."

Sir Roger questions some of the intensive training regimes favoured by a number of today's coaches.

"All I can say is that very few of us in the 50s were ever injured. We ran, we raced but we did not suffer injuries. I think that we did not train as hard."

Another member of athletics' world record alumni, triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, supports the role of science in sport.

"Every country is looking at sports science. UK Athletics has an extensive sports science budget. Each event group is linked with a particular study centre, and they are doing analysis with athletes," the Olympic gold medallist told BBC News Online.

GM athletes

But does he think it can help people go faster, higher, stronger?

"It is a very difficult question to answer. There is a scientific side to it, and there is also a big ethical debate. There is a moral and ethical stance on what athletes can and cannot take," the Olympic gold medallist told BBC News Online.

"As soon as genetic engineering goes on then that will also become part of it."

It appears the need for the ethical debate on the impact of genetic engineering in sport has already arrived.

Syringe, Eyewire
...but no one wants to see "synthetic competition"
A US scientist who has been developing gene technology that boosts muscles to treat wasting diseases says he has already been approached by individuals with a view to using the enhancement in the sporting arena.

Sporting bodies are seized by the matter of doping, but as the EIS's Dr Whyte explains, they are also realistic.

"To assume that there will be a time when drugs will not be present in sport is naive.

"When the rewards are very high, there will always be those individuals who are prepared to cheat."

While the advances in detection are accelerating, Dr Whyte says a more holistic approach is required. "What we need to be doing is educating athletes, coaches, performance directors and the like, to the issue of drugs."

He also says the media is not blameless. "A positive drug test is news; a negative drug test is not news.

"You can get a distorted view of the prevalence of drug taking in sport which errs on the side of a high level of drug taking, when in fact it is a very low percentage."

But with the arrival of gene technology, the question remains: how far are athletes, and society, willing to go in the pursuit of the sporting summit?

Sir Roger Bannister
"The secret was to do the three-quarter mile in three minutes"

Bannister's magical moment
06 May 04  |  Athletics
Bannister relives mile
06 May 04  |  Athletics
Athlete cheats seek genetic boost
16 Feb 04  |  Science/Nature
Putting sport into science
25 Feb 04  |  Education
The science of sport
23 Sep 02  |  dot life


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