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Where sport (and life) is going

As the world moves on, so does the appliance of scientific advance – and not least to sport.

I’ve touched upon this subject previously in the context of the ways throughout history in which sports stars have sought to gain a competitive advantage because, of course, ever since human beings first invented and took part in war – never mind sporting contests – there have been innumerable examples of competitors seeking to ‘get one over’ their opponents – and indeed cheat if necessary – to gain a valuable prize, whether that be measured in terms of power, esteem/fame amongst others, or indeed in sheer monetary value.

I’m not criticising the use of ingenuity to gain victory per se, you understand.

In war, for example, it’s always been a case of ‘the end justifies the means’ – especially if you’re talking about perhaps minimising civilian casualties or shortening the duration of a conflict – never mind winning it, which one might argue is the ultimate, if not sole, purpose of ever going to war in the first place.

(Cue here a reference to the ancient Greeks’ wooden horse employed at the siege of Troy).

After all, to the victor goes the spoils, the upper hand in any subsequent negotiation of peace terms and indeed the right to pen the official tale of what happened, when and how.

That said, wherever there are standards imposed that are designed to establish fairness or level playing fields as between participants – whether it be in war, sport or even divorce proceedings – then there are those who (whether outside or within the letter of those rules) will try to ‘bend’ them and/or find cute loopholes and/or otherwise circumvent their intent.

In sports – e.g. when it comes to drugs-testing – contriving to mask their taking of illicit substances; or evading being tested; and/or having some form of supposedly ‘innocent’ explanation at the ready as to why any offending drugs might have been found in their system.

In track and field, of course, we know or have heard rumours of commonly-used methods of gaining an advantage. At the mundane level, take warm weather and/or high altitude training. Clearly training in balmy, blue sky conditions is preferable (if you have the option) to pounding the streets in incessant Manchester rain during the winter months.

Once science had proved that high altitude training improved performance, anyone who had the means could fly to Ethiopia or similar to get both warm weather and high altitude training.

Even though this slightly unpicked the notion of everyone starting on ‘a level playing field’ when countries from smaller, impoverished countries couldn’t necessarily afford to fly off to such exotic place to secure these ‘marginal gain’ advantages for themselves.

We also remember the discredited practice of ‘blood doping’ – step forward the great Finn runner Lassé Viren, who won four golds at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, who was widely rumoured to have had his own ‘high altitude blood’ stored and injected into him just before the Games.

And then we come to the sciences of nutrition, diet, physiology, recovery periods in training et al. – advances come in the theories of all of these in every sports season.

The average club 1,500 club runner today is a metaphorical space capsule commander in terms of training and preparation compared to the likes of Zatopek, Bannister, or Paavo Nurmi, who in their day tended to train in the style of the fictional character Al (“fish & chips”) Tupper – The Tough Of The Track – who graced the pages successively of D.C. Thomson & Co’s comics The Rover and The Victor from 1949 to 1992.

And now to my subject of the day.

In modern global sports – where television schedules determine so much – factors such as the weather and playing surfaces can affect the entertainment value of the commodity.

(Here I’d cite Formula One as an exception that proves the rule because firstly (so far) it’s been  impossible to control the weather and secondly the prospect of a shower or monsoon adds a degree of welcome uncertainty to an otherwise rather monotonous sport and in fact is almost a feature when one occurs).

However, in terms of sports stadia, much has been done to ensure that ‘the game goes on’ as a spectacle. I recall when it was first built that the Houston Astrodome was proudly proclaimed to have its own ‘micro-climate’ within its dome-topped design.

One only has to review footage of memorable FA Cup matches of the past to appreciate the ‘perfect’ pitches of today’s football compared to the bog-like WW1 conditions of many grounds in 1960s and 1970s.

In rugby, however, the standard of pitch preparation – and indeed now the advent of artificial pitches – has improved the playing surface immeasurably.

At Cardiff’s Principality Stadium one of the key pre-match issues (let’s forget the winning of the toss) is the decision as to whether the roof will be left open or closed.

For anyone who played rugby in their youth, including me, one of the joys of the game was the weather and the state of the pitch. If the weather conditions were bitingly cold, or wet, or the pitch was a quagmire, it was all part of the game.

Frankly, for a player, the prospect of any of those presented no more than an occupational hazard that affected how the game would go. The prospect of getting ground into the once green sward, with its smell and squidgy constituency, and emerging therefrom caked in mud from head to toe was all part of the experience that made rugby the joy to play that it was.

These days, increasingly, modern technology is bringing artificial surfaces to the sport. It won’t be long before – my bet would be – the majority of elite matches will be played upon them. However, no matter how good the technology, no artificial pitch will ever compare with grass. That’s my view anyway.

And there are other issues to consider too. Some players liken playing on artificial surfaces as akin to playing upon an indoor domestic carpet. You know what happens with those don’t you – yes, carpet burns. And not just those …

See here for a piece by Paul Rees upon the aftermath of a recent match between the Scarlets and Glasgow Warriors that appears today upon the website of – THE GUARDIAN


About Tom Hollingworth

Tom Hollingsworth is a former deputy sports editor of the Daily Express. For many years he worked in a sports agency, representing mainly football players and motor racing drivers. Tom holds a private pilot’s licence and flying is his principal recreation. More Posts