Article - Issue 53, December 2012

Engineering’s Olympic legacy

Professor Steve Haake

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Professor Steve Haake

Professor Steve Haake

An important London Olympic 2012 target was that the Games should deliver a lasting legacy. This was achieved with the renovation of a swath of East London, but did engineering and engineers benefit from the feelgood factor too? Professor Steve Haake, Director of the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University, who has been engaging the public with Olympic-related projects during the year, relays his experience and opinions.

As a spectacle, the London 2012 Games was a wonderful venue and occasion for elite sporting achievements. So how did the public engage with engineering and the Olympics? Were they really interested in the engineering or just the athletes? Has the Olympics really changed the public’s view of engineering? I will use my experience as a practitioner in sports engineering throughout the summer of 2012 and let you decide.

What the public think

In 2011, Sheffield’s Centre for Sports Engineering Research worked with Museums Sheffield to create a new interactive science exhibition on Engineering and Sport. Part-funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, it focused on the history of technology and the Olympics, attracting 140,000 visitors over seven months. The exhibition moved to the V&A Museum of Childhood to coincide with the London Olympics as Beautiful Games and attracted another 250,000 visitors. Our evaluation kiosk had 80-90% of visitors consistently rating it as good or excellent. This even included the interpretation panels – the factual elements that explained the science and engineering.

We went one step further and, with the Royal Institution and Research Councils UK, delivered a series of six events called Cutting Edge 2012 on the research and engineering behind Olympic sport. The events were set up as debates between the general public and a panel of academics, coaches and athletes, being held, wherever possible, within a sports setting. With live demonstrations from Tom Daley and his coach Andy Banks, the diving event in Plymouth Life Centre was one of the highlights.

Of course, we need to ask ourselves what we mean by ‘the public’ – who are they exactly? Our census data for these events showed that our public was almost evenly split between men and women (not bad for engineering/sporting events). A quarter were interested in the science, while the rest were interested in the sport. Using an interactive question-and-answer system we found that 98% of our public thought that sports science and engineering were beneficial to sport. Around two thirds also agreed that as well as a test of ‘natural talent’, sport should be ‘a test of how an athlete can exploit technology’. When asked whether they thought the use of technology in sport was technical ‘doping’, 88% disagreed.

We also set up a blog with help from the Royal Academy of Engineering at www.engineeringsport.co.uk

This is a fairly passive approach to garnering opinion, relying as it does on the reader to search for it. Since September 2009, the blog has received around 180,000 views, settling at around 350 per day. For the 17 days of the Olympics, however, this quadrupled to 1,400 per day. For me, this indicated the heightened desire of the public to engage with the engineering behind the Olympics.

View from the sofa

When it comes to engineering and the Olympics, many people will think of the wonderful stadiums and venues used to house the sport. And I suspect that the fact that the buildings were finished on time is a source of pride for most, which must augur well for engineers everywhere.

Surprisingly, I was told more than once by those involved at a high level in broadcast media that sport and engineering don’t mix. Apparently sport is okay, and engineering is okay, just not together. Perhaps this is why there were no scientists or engineers on any Olympic television presenter couch that I saw.

The first comments I heard were actually about the opening ceremony: the fantastic large-scale pixellated lighting show and the amazing transformation of a rural landscape to an awe-inspiring industrial revolution. How did they lift those chimneys out of the ground and what did Brunel build?

But what of the sporting spectacle itself? The engineering was probably most evident in the ‘sitting-down-sports’ that we in the UK appear to be so good at: cycling, sailing, canoeing and rowing. Most questions that our department get are about the bikes, suits and aerodynamic helmets.

The largest change in opinion I perceived was actually during the second Games of London 2012 – the Paralympics. Between the beginning and end of the Paralympic Games, I felt that there was a change in perception on what it is to be human. I saw Oscar Pistorius run 400 m in under 47seconds on two carbon fibre blades. I can’t do that and I have two whole legs, so who is the disabled one? Are these athletes disabled, abled or enhanced?

This is where I think there might have been a subtle shift in the public’s thinking about engineering. I bet that if you ask someone in the street which aspect of engineering they remember from London 2012, many will think of David Weir (wheelchair); Jonnie Peacock (single leg prosthetic) and Oscar Pistorius (double leg prosthetic).

Of course it would be difficult to really quantify how the public’s perception of engineers has changed without a large, funded longitudinal study. But I think the above examples paint a positive picture of what I’ve seen in this Olympic year – that of a public representing men and women, young and old, really engaged in the sport and the engineering.

A friend of mine said she saw her young nephew playing on the floor with his superhero action toys. And what were his fantastically engineered superheroes playing? The Paralympics.

Now how’s that for legacy?

Further reference: www.theiet.org/policy/media/olympics/webcast/oda.cfm

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