When the physicist Steve Haake began his career as a “sports engineer” in the early 1990s, he was greeted by “an embarrassed silence”. His PhD on the impact of golf balls on golf greens was sneered upon by his academic colleagues, for whom the physics and technology of sport was deemed a trivial and niche activity. But as Haake admits in Advantage Play: Technologies that Changed Sporting History, the “real world” was delighted, and he began giving popular lectures to schools and professional societies.
Now based at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, where he has built up what he claims is the world’s biggest academic sports-engineering research group, Haake’s work has stretched far beyond golf, to include the mechanics of footballs, the aerodynamics of sledges, the traction of sports boots and more besides. A regular in the media, he once even made a series of videos with Physics World on the physics of running, swimming and cycling. But as Haake emphasizes, people have been using technology to boost sporting performance for centuries; it’s only in recent years that sports engineering as a field of research has emerged. In Advantage Play, Haake seeks to take a chronological approach to describing technological changes to sport. He starts with ancient Greek athletes, who used “halteres” – special hand-held weights – to jump further, before exploring everything from bike designs and swimsuits to prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs. Haake’s intention is to introduce new sports as they were created over time, but that narrative ploy gets rather lost – the book often switches gear unexpectedly between history, sports trivia and the author’s own work. It’s almost as if Haake has too much to say; stories start promisingly before being abruptly abandoned for other lines of thought. Haake’s message is that although people are often ambivalent about new technology – sometimes dismissing it as “cheating” – it drives sporting progress. Starting blocks for sprinters, for example, which were introduced in the 1930s, are today an essential part of athletics and no-one would dream of banning them. Indeed, the blocks now include mechanical strain gauges to check no-one’s started running too early. So despite being light on basic scientific principles, I hasten to add that Advantage Play will appeal to sports-mad physicists, who relish seeing how physics underpins much of sport. 2018 Arena Sport £16.99hb 281pp