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Science Explores the Research Behind the Push for Olympic Gold
With the summer Olympics underway in Greece, a special news section in the journal Science delves into the research helping to define world-class athletics. [Subscribers can read the stories here.
In their quest for Olympic medals this summer, the world's premier athletes have been pushing their bodies to perform at ever-higher levels of excellence. A special section in the 30 July issue of Science describes how researchers have jumped into the effort as well.
It's all about using science and engineering in the interest of competitive advantage. Some sports researchers studied the physiology of African runners to find clues to their speed and endurance. Others have worked to design a swimsuit that mimics the skin of a shark. Others have looked for ways to make the body stronger, sometimes employing illicit means.
Though spectacular to watch, not all sporting achievements are equally glorious. Athletes are finding new ways to boost their performance through doping with steroids and other substancesand new ways to cover their tracks. Scientists are scrambling to catch up, Gretchen Vogel reports in one story.
Doping has been around since at least the late 1800s, when runners and long-distance bicyclists used nitroglycerin and even cocaine to boost stamina and block pain. Officials began testing for banned substances in the 1970s, but these tests weren't enforced strictly until the 1990s.
In response to new forms of doping that have emerged in recent years, researchers have been devising tests to identify subtle chemical signatures of designer steroids and the hormone erythropoietin, which stimulates the production of red blood cells. New tests may also allow officials to detect the use of manufactured human growth hormone, which some athletes believe will help them build muscle and shed fat.
Genetics is the newest frontier for doping, according to Vogel. Antidoping officials fear that athletes may use gene therapy techniques to insert muscle-building genes into their own cells, a procedure that would be very difficult to detect.
Effectiveness is the focus a debate about a different form of technology purported to give swimmers a boost: the sharkskin swimsuit. Built with tiny ridges modeled on sharkskin, these suits are supposed to reduce drag, the friction that slows a body moving through water. Experts are divided, however, on whether the suits actually work, as Kim Krieger explains.
Athletes also owe much of their success to natural assets, the subject of two stories by Constance Holden.
In one piece, she describes what scientists have learned about the physiology of the East African runners, who dominate the long-distance running scene, and West African runners, who have emerged as the world's fastest sprinters. Differences in physical build, blood chemistry and muscle fibers (which contract at different speeds) seem to provide at least a partial explanation.
Holden also looks at the relatively static performance gap between male and female runners. Although female runners were gaining on their male counterparts several years ago, their times have since hit a plateau, Holden reports. The male advantage primarily comes from testosterone, which boosts muscle power and oxygen capacity.
Science can also benefit athletes by suggesting ways to improve their performance or avoid injury. Erik Stokstad describes how researchers have sought to make gymnastics training safer for the body, for example, by focusing more on strength training and less on repeating flips and other skills.
Finally, Adrian Cho profiles Mont Hubbard, a mechanical engineer who has spent his career optimizing motion in sports.
Articles in the Signal Transduction Knowledge Environment review the signaling properties underlying the activity of designer steroids and the biochemical regulators of muscle mass. The Science of Aging Knowledge Environment looks the hype and potential therapeutic benefits of growth hormone. And Science's Next Wave offers a month-long series on career opportunities in sports science.
18 August 2004