17 Jul Sport Science: the thing that killed sport

Article by James Fairbourn

Do you remember a time when a run was just a run? Do you remember a time when an athlete just raced and we didn’t have to hear all about how their switch to a gluten-free diet had changed everything? Do you remember a time when, rather than taking to social media to publish pictures of the trip to the doctors to ‘deal with the bad performances’, athletes just quietly took a few days off? Do you remember a time when it wasn’t necessary to weigh your food? Do you remember a time when Red Bull was a soft drink that your mum wouldn’t let you drink too much of? Do you remember a time when you would have laughed in the face of a guy who said that a bracelet priced at £35 would make you less tired and ‘more balanced’? Do you remember a time when your heart rate being slightly elevated in the morning did not necessitate three days off? Do you remember a time when long socks were just a thing that your grandmother wore? Do you remember a time when setting an alarm clock didn’t ‘disrupt your natural rhythms’? Do you remember a time when top athletes didn’t sleep in tents on their own beds? Do you remember a time when an ice-bath was something for storing drink in? Do you remember a time when sport didn’t really matter?

You see, I don’t. I am 27 years old and am a party to this nonsense that we all call Sport Science – I’m afraid to say that I studied it (admittedly a little incredulously and alongside English, but study it I did). And it is my point that it is Sport Science that is slowly but surely strangling sport (specifically athletics) and leaving it in a nasty little heap at the back of an altitude simulated, climate controlled, lactate testing facility (no, I don’t either).

Sport Science is BIG business – and not just with the top guns. When you start out as a runner looking to be the best, you will (or your parents will) pay big money to make sure you get the best possible chance. Perhaps people don’t think about how stupid it looks to be prancing around in compression socks before failing to break 34 minutes for 10k. Or how that pre-bed time sports nutrition drink that makes you gag blocks the sink (heaven only knows what it does to your body). For the plucky amateurs out there, it is so easy to be distracted by the next big thing you can have that’ll change everything. This fallacy distracts from the reality – running well involves doing a lot of running in the first place.

Let’s move on a little now. The athlete has worn his/her compression socks. They have eaten their egg white omelets with a side of cumin seeds, done their breathing exercises and kept a log of their resting and maximal heart rates for the past 3 years. This individual is running half-decently and now the pressure is on – people are starting to expect. Now come the excuses. Now come the trips to see the over-worked and bemused NHS GP to demand a blood test as they are ‘just not feeling right’ in training and racing. Sport Science is the reason you didn’t race last week because you ‘felt a cold coming’. Sport Science is the reason you wasted three hours doing ‘flexibility work’ this evening instead of doing a run. Sport Science is the reason that you put those bits of plastic in your shoes before you head out the door. Sport Science will tailor its excuse to your needs and the best bit is that no one will argue with you. Sport Science is the reason that you can’t be too careful.

The real evils of Sport Science can be seen at the elite level of athletics. There have been many an article written about how drug cheats should be thrown in prison and then sent to a remote island somewhere to rot (maybe…Jamaica??). And, if you have read anything I have written before, you will know that I don’t believe that that will ever come close to cleaning up the sport. Sport Science is largely responsible for what we have become. It has greyed the line between what is legal and what is not – and just about every half-decent athlete you have ever heard of exists in that grey area.

Let’s take the much-maligned Mr Powell and Ms Simpson. Both convicted ‘villains’ treated leniently by the World Anti-Doping Industry (for campaigning against drugs in sport is an industry). Why so? Because it is difficult to understand precisely what separates them from their peers. Naturally, they both failed tests, but what they are guilty of is taking a drug that is the ‘illegal version’ of the perfectly legal drug they meant to take. Their defense is an acceptance of guilt, but guilt of negligence rather than of attempting to cheat – basically ‘everyone is doing this, we just took the wrong thing and it will be really embarrassing if this gets out so please just limit our bans’ (maybe paraphrasing a little).

Only this week has another ‘cheat’ been ‘busted’ – and this time he’s British (Welsh, anyway). But I would bet my mortgage that the heinous crime that Gareth Warburton ends up getting found guilty of is not having a supplement checked thoroughly. It can be difficult to keep up with the intricacies of supplementation when you have been dropped from funding and so do not have someone to do it for you. That isn’t an excuse – but it does present some context of the real true villain of the piece.

I have written before about the wonders of the ‘Therapeutic Use Exemption’ – get a medical doctor to say that you need something and then you can have it. Governing Bodies have been quietly falling over themselves in a bid to try and get athletes to take up this perfectly legal form of cheating. What is to blame for all this? Is it the ‘win at all costs’ mentality that is both praised and criticised in equal measure? No, it is Sport Scientists who have found a way to sort a deficiency in the athlete that they are ‘creating’. I don’t doubt that there are genuine asthma sufferers on the professional circuit, but you’d be really surprised at how many only discovered this debilitating and potentially fatal condition well into their (already successful) athletics careers. Many others have very recently realised that their thyroid isn’t working properly. One has to ask themselves: what exactly is clean athletics?

If you work in the corporate world like me, then you will well know that even away from sport, you are not immune from this Sport Science bandwagon. How many of you have had to sit through lectures from a ‘Sports Psychologist’ who has ‘turned his passion to getting the most out of YOU’? How many pointless email round-robins can one actually think up detailing that ‘planning and preparation hold the keys to your fortune’? (I should do this for a living; I know all the phrases). Sport Science is responsible for the widespread proliferation of this stuff – just as it is ultimately responsible for the vast majority of the fallen heroes cast out after adverse urine samples. It makes everything matter. And nothing is trivial. Even trivial things are ‘an important part of the success pathway’ (seriously, I am available – book me up!)

Many anti-doping campaigners wail that real sport should be a battle of bodies, of hearts and minds, rather than a battle of laboratories. That is to forget that the legal sport they so admire has already become just that – you win and lose back in the climate chamber with de-oxygenation capability and well before you get to the track.

But then they’ll post a picture of a big mountain and say that ‘no mountain is too high with the right preparation’ so I guess that makes it OK.

  • John Bicourt

    “Sports science”, sounds important and vital for all athletic success but most of it is entirely pointless or of no real value. It’s what UKA like to flog to the government funders as a necessity to beat the rest of the world and win medals (remember that one?) …..but 90% including sports psychology is a waste of time and money.

    Sure, muscle pulls and strains, low blood count and low blood sugars, iron deficiency, etc., etc., might need some medical attention and good professional advice. But the fashion for all the testing and esoteric add-on stuff is just a joke. What idiot sports science doctor thought it was a good idea to wear an ice jacket before running 26 miles? That didn’t work did it! (how can its supposed effect last more than 1/2 a kilometer?)

    How many runners, (sorry,I mean joggers), do you see out clutching their specially designed ergonomic water bottles as they jog or for some just plod or waddle the 20-30 mins they might manage when it’s not even above 10 degrees, together with the obligatory heart and pace monitor and their Iphone head set?

    Sports “scientists” design some pretty daft shoes promising all kinds of improvement when for years basic shoes are still seen as the best by the best.

    What tends to blow most sports science practices credibility is the simple fact that we seem to have done far better in the past without it…common sense, a good physio for real injuries not for a bit of muscle relaxation while listening to Cold Play or whoever on your IPhone, Listening to or reading the advice of others in your event who have achieved has far better effects.

    A lot of sports “science” products has become a very profitable industry on the gullible. I don’t deny that the study of improvement in sport isn’t valuable but 99% of drinks and snacks are nothing more than fancy packaging, marketing of every day natural products which can be bought far cheaper. You don’t need £100+ shoes to go running. You don’t need treadmills (although one woman who won the World Marathon cup used one for almost all her running, for (obvious reasons) because she lived in the Nevada desert!….and I guess the same might be said for someone living in Siberia!)

    In the 70’s and eighties when I ran seriously, beer was the common “juice” and junk food wasn’t far off either. Our great distance runners of the day and even in the decades before never even heard of “sport science” (other than the illegal stuff!)

    Molly-coddling athletes with sports “science” quackery hasn’t improved them (other than the aforementioned “supplements” and prescribed drugs in James article.) The best way to improve (legally) is through age tested and proved empiricism, your own and others.

    Like most of my contemporaries I had to work full time throughout my international career and it has taken 23 years for somebody to finally just clip my best steeplechase time. And the same and even longer for many others to be bettered (or still not bettered, male and female ) from the same era.

    It’s fashionable now to take a degree in Sports Science (the application of which is called “cutting edge” by UK Sport) but unless something radically different in training (athletics) and in diet is discovered it’s all mainly a waste of time and money….but looks great on ‘yer CV.!

    • MudSweatandBeers

      Although I agree and disagree with some of view some are slightly miscontrued and have picked out many small niche areas within it. The points you make about sport scientists ‘designing’ shoes isn’t entirely true, if you read any research into certain shoes or ‘ergonomic water bottles’ you would most likely see some sort of company funded bias to sell the product. This is not sports science and I would not condone it at all.

      From my view sports science or more specifically exercise physiology has provided deep understanding into what is happening to the athletes body in certain situations and why, and has aided progression breaking world records and pushing physical limits. What I will agree on is that it has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Sport scientists or research fellow very rarely coach athletes and fail to understand the individual needs to training however they do provide a service in which a coach may benefit within understanding training zones and how the body is adapting to the training.