President’s Blog – March 2014

Posted on March 28, 2014
John Challis

As biomechanists we are active with some aspect of biomechanics most days, even if it is thinking about the experiment we would be conducting if the day was not too busy to find time to get into the lab. A very popular soap opera is the Australian series "Neighbours". In the area of fetal memory it has served as interesting test bed, as there is evidence that newborn infants whose mothers watched the show reacted to the theme tune, children of mothers who did not watch the show have no such reaction. For me this show is significant as it offered a glimpse of a potential higher profile for biomechanics; my students were excited to tell me that in one episode they had mentioned biomechanics as one of the characters ran across a force plate. This was in the 1990’s and I hoped that biomechanics was finally on the map of scientific disciplines in the forefront of public awareness. This did not lead to the world wide recognition I had hoped but the recent Sochi Winter Olympics reminded me that biomechanics has made, and will to continue to make, significant contributions to society even if sometimes that contribution is unheralded.

skaterThe role of biomechanics at the Winter Olympics comes in many forms, but what struck me watching some of the Games is that many of our members have made significant contributions to our understanding of the Winter Olympic sports. For example, our second President Dick Nelson did significant work on the biomechanics of cross-country skiing. Our third President, Paavo Komi, amongst other areas has performed important research on ski jumping. The fourth President, Benno Nigg, has performed extensive studies of alpine skiing. If we jump to the 19th President, Ton van den Bogert has examined speed skating, once again amongst other activities. One of the larger impacts on Winter Olympic sports was the work from the Faculty of Human Movement Sciences of the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. This group led by the late Gerrit Jan van Ingen Schenau developed a new design of skate, the clap skate or slapskate, which because of a hinge towards the toe end of the skate permits skaters to exploit a powerful ankle extension not possible in traditional skates. The introduction of these new skates, now used by all long course skaters, resulted in a significant reduction in world record speed skating times. This (incomplete) preceding list shows how biomechanics has contributed to our understanding and the practice of the Winter Olympic sports.

oscarAs the Winter Olympics ended the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games started. The ability of these athletes is remarkable, yet again considerable biomechanical research has been conducted on the disabled. Sixth ISB President, John Paul, did early fundamental work into prosthetics. Eighth President Aurelio Cappozzo has also performed research in this area, as has 14th President Sandra Olney. The current highest profile paralympian is the South African runner Oscar Pistorius. When he petitioned to compete in the 2012 Olympics and run alongside able-bodied athletes a number of biomechanists became engaged in trying to establish whether the prosthetic blades he wears confer an unfair advantage (see for example, Brüggemann et al., Sports Technology 1: 220–227, 2008. and Grabowski et al., Biology Letters 6: 201-204, 2010). Sadly Pistorius has been recently embroiled in other problems where the expertise of a biomechanist with forensic skills might be beneficial.

There is a US situation comedy, The Big Bang Theory, where some of the humor in every episode arises from aspects of physics. Biomechanics has not achieved that high level of recognition but evidence suggests that biomechanics is making contributions in many ways without perhaps the public awareness. When you get the chance publicize the importance and contributions of biomechanics. Let us all work to raise our profile.



John Challis
Penn State University

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