Materials developments and engineering technology have long been known to have a major impact on sporting performance. In pole vaulting, the International Association of Athletics Federation‘s (IAAF) rules state that, “the pole may be of any material or combination of materials and of any length or diameter, but the basic surface must be smooth”. The sport has seen a huge change in the materials used for the pole, and in the world records achieved. When pole vaulting first started, rigid solid wood poles were used. Then in the early 1900s, lightweight bamboo poles were introduced along with a ‘box’ to receive the pole. In 1957, an Al pole was used by Bob Gutowski to set the world record height of 4.78 m; later that year, Don Bragg used a steel pole to increase the record to 4.80 m. Glass-fiber-reinforced polymer composite (GFRP) poles were then introduced, leading to a step change in performance. GFRP poles are flexible, allowing a different athletic style (feet first, vertically upside down approach) and a more energy-efficient vault. Sergei Bubka set the current men's world record of 6.14 m using a GFRP pole. An issue associated with this performance enhancement is safety, as athletes are ‘falling’ from greater heights and the GFRP poles can occasionally break during a vault.

Other sports have also seen major changes in the materials used in equipment, and in subsequent performance. Tennis rackets have moved from wood and wood laminate frames to Al, and now fiberglass and/or carbon-fiber reinforced polymer composites. These can also contain Kevlar fibers, BN ceramic fibers, or more recently, Ti fibers. The ‘power’ of the racquet has increased, which results in the serve speeds being greater. The serve speed on fast courts, such as the grass courts of Wimbledon, was getting so high (the current record of 153 mph is held by Andy Roddick) that the response time of the receiving player was approaching an athletes’ reaction time and the game was becoming serve dominated. Spectators complained that tennis was changing and was not so interesting to watch. The governing body (the International Tennis Federation) introduced new ball types (‘fast’, ‘medium’, and ‘slow’) for use on the different court types (e.g. clay, hard, or grass). The ‘slow’ ball is 6% larger, giving a 12% increase in drag and hence a 10% increase in response time for the receiver. The nature of the game has therefore changed again, partly in response to spectator wishes, and more rallies are being seen during tournaments on fast surfaces.

In almost every sport, changes in the equipment have resulted in changes in performance. However, some sports are less sensitive to these changes. Track athletics saw moderate improvements in performance with the introduction of aerodynamic Lycra® clothing or specialist running surfaces for fast times. But the influence of training, improvements in nutrition, physiology, and, unfortunately, chemical stimulants have had more significant effects. Other sports are heavily equipment-dominated, perhaps none more so than Formula 1 racing where the engineering technology can outweigh individual driver performance (e.g. the influence of tire performance in many races during the 2006 season).

So is the influence of materials and engineering technology fair? The regulatory bodies for each sport generally limit equipment development to minimize differences between top athletes. A sport like Formula 1 racing is designed to showcase the teams’ different technological developments, although the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) has introduced rules to limit differences, for example engine capacity limits or a single tire manufacturer for the 2007 season. However, the ability to invest in sporting equipment development, as well as in the infrastructure to support training and athlete development, inevitably leads to sporting success. It is interesting to compare performance in sports that are ‘equipment and technology reliant’ with ‘athlete reliant’ events. In considering the countries that gained medals in track cycling and rowing at the 2004 summer Olympic Games, (top eight countries in order: Australia, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Russia, and Italy) and those that gained medals in track athletics (top eight countries in order: USA, Russia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Greece, Cuba, Jamaica, Great Britain), we can see that the ‘developed’ world dominates the former list, while quite a few ‘developing’ nations are included in the latter list. There are physiological and cultural influences on this data (success breeds success, etc.), however, the ability to invest in infrastructure and equipment clearly brings results.

What are the implications for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and then the London 2012 Olympics? China has invested heavily, not only in the infrastructure for the Games, but also in the training and development of athletes. This investment includes ensuring that they have the latest and best equipment to maximize the likelihood of achieving success. I think that we can expect to see Chinese athletes take many of the honors in Beijing. In the UK, there has been a correlation between the money invested by UK Sport in particular sports and achievement. Cycling and rowing have seen some of the greatest investment in recent years to support the athletes and develop a competitive edge in the equipment, and that has borne its reward in performance. Hence investment to support athletes, improve training methods and facilities, develop and support new talent, and conduct equipment R&D are all required to provide that competitive edge.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(06)71802-8