Science in the Olympics

While we watch in awe what the human spirit and mechanics can achieve, we often forget the science, or rather, the debate on science in the Olympics.

According to Nature News, anti-doping science is notoriously — some say unnecessarily — secretive. The drug-detection techniques and the “most sophisticated equipment” that was rolled out at the London games was not revealed till the beginning of the Games. (See link here.)

On the other hand, there are labs that develop drugs that are tweaked chemically to evade testing. Then, the anti-doping agencies set out to design tests to detect any form of drugs or proteins in that family, only for another to emerge. Nobody really knows what advantages different combinations of steroids, nutritional supplements and specialized diets can produce. Is it ethical to subject healthy people to the dosages and concoctions that athletes are likely to take? It does sound like a wild goose chase among scientists, often in the name of scientific development.

As such, there have been suggestions that medically supervised doping may be likely to be a better route. (See link here.)

What about surgical enhancement? Quoting a bioethicist at the University of the West of Scotland in Ayr: “Consider using skin grafts to increase webbing between fingers and toes to improve swimming capacity..” “These kinds of tweaks to our biology are likely ways that people would try to gain an edge over others.” I thought I see that only in the Harry Potter series?! So, as Gard says in his blog: “Enjoy it (sport) as it lasts.” (See link here.)


Nature Versus Nurture: Excellence in sports

Watching my younger daughter, M, train in gymnastics makes me think really hard about the important role of science in deciding the right sport for children. Children naturally love all kinds of sports that allow them to use up the excess energy in them. Besides, they get to meet and train/play with their teammates. I see the joy in these young girls when they train, despite the pain they get when they stretch their already “stretched” muscles and strengthen their little “six packs’. However, the built of their body plays a part in their pursuit of excellence in certain sports.

M is tall for her age and I notice she needs to put in more effort than her peers in maintaining her balance. Her center of gravity (Source: Britannica Online) is higher than her peers and she has to maintain a good balance to prevent herself from toppling over whenever she straddles, flips or does her handstand. The center of gravity is a point where the total weight of the body is thought to be concentrated. Take a look at the following image. It is clear that adults have higher centers of gravity than children because they are taller. That explains why children are more stable than adults and are able to tumble and flip easily while maintaining their balance, as compared to us.
Let me try to illustrate this point with the following diagram.
The stability of the same rectangle is dependent on how it is placed on a slope. When the center of gravity is higher, the rectangle topples down the slope more easily.
M straddling across the beam. She needs a lot of practice in order not to topple over.

M doing a handstand on a beam. Her higher center of gravity causes her to overturn frequently.

Nastia Liukin, won a Gold medal in the individual all-around in the summer Olympics in Beijing. She was the tallest among the top six AA female qualifiers. This achievement could not have been possible without much hardwork, resilience and self-belief, perhaps needed more than the other gymnasts?

The group of top six AA female qualifiers face the judges before the competition.

 M may not have continued with gymnastics now. We are, however, grateful that M’s journey in learning gymnastics has taught her self-discipline and resilience – values that will serve her well in the future.
On this note, I wish Lim Heem Wei, also affectionately known as Wei Wei Jie Jie to M and her friends, all the best in the coming Summer Olympics in London!
(Source: The Straits Times, 18/4/2012)

Lim Heem Wei training hard on the beam