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When Sports Become Science

France hosted the fifth Rugby World Cup this autumn, an event that coudn't go unnoticed even if you were not a rugby fan. Now more than ever, sport is an inherent part of our societies, and scientists–always at the forefront of social evolution–are involved at different levels where science and sport meet. This holds true for CNRS researchers, who try to explore the sociological significance of sports, and work at improving both equipment and human performance.

Sport and Innovation
From the Labs to the Tracks

In June 2007, the Fourth Congress of the French Network for Sports Engineering (RFIS)1 was held in Marseille. The network's main objective is to enhance research, development, and innovation in the promising field of sports engineering. Set up in 2003 at the initiative of both universities2 and industry,3 the RFIS focuses in particular on providing support for the European Innosport program (2006-2008) aimed at creating an innovation-friendly environment for the sport industry throughout the EU, and to encourage technological innovation based on intelligent and functional sports products. The network is also at the origin of the Rhône-Alpes Sportaltec, the competitiveness cluster for sports and leisure industries. Researchers and companies all benefit from this organization, which helps structure research efforts, minimize costs, and find the appropriate funding and fields of research that will generate jobs. This is a rapidly developing sector that should employ some two million people in Europe by 2010, compared to 800,000 in 1999.
“Research and development in the sports and leisure industry are extremely multidisciplinary, and it is essential to encourage the grouping of skills so that these efforts can give results,” explains Eric Berton, a researcher at the Laboratory for Movement and Perception,4 and organizer of the fourth RFIS Congress.
Many sports are affected by technological innovations. We may first think of the high-tech equipment used in sailing, motor sports, or cycling. But in fact, all sports call upon innovation. For instance, there is a constant need to improve the ropes and harnesses used by rock climbers, to avoid injuries. Footwear, the leading market sector for sports equipment, is constantly evolving to improve shock absorption and foot impact on the ground.
In addition to sports accessories, athletes themselves could benefit from several innovations. Indeed, the deeply intertwined relationship between the athlete and his equipment must be studied as far upstream as possible. “This is the main objective of research in movement biomechanics being carried out by our laboratory,” explains Berton. “For example, the design of a new bicycle for time trials is always complemented by work with the rider in a wind tunnel, so as to simultaneously improve his coefficient of air penetration and fittings on the bicycle. In order to evaluate a runner's efficiency, scientists will make him run on a sensor-equipped platform to monitor the manner in which his shoes hit the ground. This will reflect the different strains undergone by the joints: foot, ankle, knee, or hip, so as to determine the most efficient and least traumatic movement of the body. In order to study how a goalkeeper–faced with a free kick–will try and predict curved trajectories, we have called on players from the major European teams–Milan AC, Marseille, Real Madrid, and several others,” explains Berton. “It has been shown that a professional goalkeeper is no better equipped than a novice to anticipate the final destination of the ball.”

The results of this research go beyond the field of sport. In geriatric medicine, it is now established that physical activity helps people live longer, and above all, better. In addition to ensuring freedom of movement and the preservation of independence, sports also improve social life. But we still need to know which sporting activities can be recommended to those over the age of 80... Furthermore, analyzing repeated sports movements, like the ones used in tennis, can be wholly transposed to ergonomics, and especially to traumatic diseases or muscle and skeletal disorders experienced, for example, by a check-out clerk who executes highly repetitive tasks.

Emmanuel Thévenon

Notes :

1. Réseau français d'ingénierie du sport. (
2. Universities of Valenciennes, Marseille, St. Etienne, Chambéry, Montpellier.
3. Groupe Promiles (Décathlon, Quechua, Tribord), Adidas, Thuasne, etc.
4. CNRS / Université de la Méditerranée.

Contacts :

Eric Berton,
Laboratoire Mouvement et perception, Marseille.


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