A cut above in world of sport

Sheffield pioneered cricket and football. Now, as a forerunner to the Olympics, an exhibition reveals how its sports scientists head the field. John Woodcock reports.

If it's stamped Made in Sheffield most people think steel, tools and the contents of a cutlery drawer. Few realise that the city has also been at the cutting edge of sport for more than four centuries – and that today its contribution is among the sharpest in the world.

As an example: the science that explains how the reverse swing of a cricket ball helped England retain the Ashes in Australia is familiar territory in a laboratory not far from where the game in Yorkshire took root in the early 1800s.

A few decades later there were those in the city whose ideas and sense of fair play eventually led to a global phenomenon in a different field.

By putting a crossbar between goalposts and writing a fairly simple set of rules, they helped to formalise anarchic contests between rival mobs kicking a pig's bladder. It became something called Association Football.

Sheffield FC is recognised by the game's governing body, FIFA, as the world's oldest club, and the Youdan Cup, for which 12 local teams competed in 1867, its first official competition.

Organising football, and establishing cricket beyond the Home Counties, weren't the city's only contribution to sport for the masses. In the 19th century Sheffield was a pioneer of pedestrianism, which was anything but the promotion of the dull and uninspiring. It involved events that attracted betting and thousands of competitors striving to be the first to get from A to B without running. Nowadays it's better known as race-walking.

Sport and Sheffield have come a long way since. In addition to football's Owls and Blades, rugby league and ice hockey have brought the Eagles and the Steelers.

There's also another serious team in town - the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University – which reflects the complexity of 21st century competition and the increasing role technology plays in winning.

With clients that include Adidas, Puma and UK Sport, its scientists tackle such challenges as tennis racket dynamics, the biomechanics of a golf swing, the traction of football boots, the aerodynamics of bobsleighs and helmets, and the application of "smart sensors" in diving. They are helping to develop carbon fibre time trial bikes, golf clubs and hang glider components. A colleague with experience in the oil and aerospace industries is conducting research into cricket bats, another the interactions between sports shoes and playing surfaces.

They raise philosophical questions too. Dr David James, a senior lecturer in sports engineering, is studying the physics behind the bounce of a cricket ball, but is also looking at the ethical impact of technical innovation.

He asks "what's fair game?" in the pursuit of sporting excellence and world records, an issue almost certain to be raised next year when London hosts the Olympic Games. As a curtain-raiser, Sheffield is already ahead of the field with an interactive exhibition about sports science and winning medals opens today at the city's Weston Park Museum.

It showcases some of the pioneering work being done by the sports scientists, set against Sheffield's formidable sporting history.

A toolmaker, John Wilson, was an early star performer. In 1696 he was asked to make a pair of ice skate blades for Charles II, and a similar order came from Queen Victoria on behalf of Prince Albert. The Wilson company is still producing them, except now it uses laser technology for what it describes as "unmatched precision on the ice".

In a different arena, the Sheffield athlete Jessica Ennis is a world heptathlon and pentathlon champion, and the exhibition just had to include a portrait of Sebastian Coe – now Lord Coe and chairman of the London Organising Committee for the 2012 Olympics – whose brilliant career as middle-distance runner began in the city where he grew up.

There's also a tribute to the World Student Games held in Sheffield in 1991. They were controversial at the time because the council paid for them without government support and much of the financial burden fell on the city's ratepayers. Not only that. "My grandmother saw her house knocked down to make way for a swimming pool at Hillsborough," recalled Alistair McLean of Museums Sheffield who has co-curated the exhibition.

Two decades on there is a different perspective on those games and their legacy. They left Sheffield with impressive facilities, among them the Don Valley international athletics stadium, Sheffield Arena, and the Ponds Forge diving and swimming complex. They in turn have encouraged the highest percentage rate of public participation in sport of any city in the country, and helped to boost South Yorkshire's economy.

Such broad spin-offs more than justify the cost of staging of events like the Olympics, argues Professor Steve Haake, a physicist who is director of the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam.

Of more concern to him and his team is where technical advances and commercialisation are leading out on the pitch, the court, the track and in the pool.

Adidas, for example, has fitted an electronic chip into an "intelligent trainer", footware which adapts it to different track surfaces. It's another world from the days of the laced-up leather football and when health and sport were invariably miles apart.

For evidence of that look no further than the exhibition where they have a sculptor's statuette of Edward VIII holding a tennis racket in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Professor Haake believes modern sport should be a balance between tradition and technology, human endeavour supported by acceptable science. "Is this record worthier than that one because of the way it was achieved? It's a major debate," he says.

"Since the Greeks and the Romans, competitors have used whatever they can to give themselves an edge. New technology is empowering people to be fitter, stronger and faster. Drugs are outlawed in sport but there are ethical issues about the extent technology and advanced materials should play in personal performance.

"What's legitimate and what's questionable if it devalues sport? It can be a fine line because we like to see records broken and few sports have reached the limits of human physiology."

Swimming faced the dilemma of seeing records tumble to such an extent that its world governing body has banned full-length polyurethane and neoprene swimming suits to help preserve the sport's integrity.

Another example of sporting controversy has been loaned to the exhibition by Howard Webb from Rotherham. It's one of the Jabulani footballs used in the World Cup Final he refereed last summer.

Some players and coaches complained that the ball's trajectory through the air was unpredictable. Whatever the perceptions and reality, its design and physical properties are matters for scientists to ponder, along with the influence of genetics on sport, the effects of fast or slow "twitch" muscles, and the computational fluid dynamics analysis of a triathlete.

Or, especially now, the physics behind the reverse swing of Yorkshire's Ashes hero bowler Tim Bresnan.

Sports Lab: The Science Behind the Medals at Weston Park Museum, Western Bank, Sheffield, until November 20. Monday-Friday, 10am-4pm, Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 11am-5pm www.museums-sheffield.org.uk, 0114 278 2600.

Put yourself to test of sporting stamina

As well as tracing Sheffield's role in establishing organised cricket and football, and the human biology behind sporting success, the exhibition provides state-of-the-art technology for visitors to test themselves against elite sportsmen and women.

Sit on a bike for a simulated time trial to challenge Olympic champion Chris Hoy.

Test the speed of your reactions. Can you respond as quickly as a goalkeeper facing a penalty or a tennis player returning serve?

How strong are your nerves? Experience something of the adrenaline rush of a skeleton bob rider hurtling down an icy track at up to 90kmh.

How would you perform on Strictly Come Dancing? Step onto a unique dance floor and follow the on-screen instructions. The technology measures how well your legs, feet and energy respond to the music.

YP MAG 29/1/11