Curated by Museums Sheffield in partnership with Sheffield Hallam University, Sports Lab: The Science Behind the Medals explores the science behind Britain’s sporting champions and assesses how much success is due to natural talent, genetic advantages or technological innovation.
Alongside examples of scientific innovation and displays of objects tracing the development of sport through the ages, Sports Lab includes interactive features designed to test visitors’ physical abilities. They can measure their own movements on the interactive dance floor or the Beat the Clock reaction test, go on a virtual bike race around Weston Park and see the effects of friction and traction as they experience an athlete’s view of skeleton bobsleigh.
The exhibition draws on the expertise of Sheffield Hallam’s internationally renowned Centre for Sports Engineering Research.
“There are two world centres in sport technology – Loughborough and Sheffield,” said senior lecturer Dr David James. “Big businesses come to the UK to do their research and at Hallam we have the biggest teaching unit for sport in Europe.”
Sports Lab demonstrates how science and technology have played a huge role in shaping our sporting world, he said, from aerodynamic bicycles to drag reducing swimsuits, oversize tennis rackets to prosthetic limbs.
“Engineers continuously strive to enhance human athletic performance, but at what cost? This exhibition will showcase the wide range of scientific innovation used in sport today and consider if these technological advancements really are ‘fair game’,” he said.
In swimming and in cycling, technological developments in equipment have been banned by the sports authorities. “We try to find ways of giving sportsmen an advantage and the regulators step in and say you cannot do that,” he said.
This issue is explored in the Nature versus Nurture section of the exhibition. “What we want to do is get people thinking about the implications of technology in sport on people’s lives,” he added.
From Penny Farthings to the latest racing bikes, the exhibition charts the development of the equipment used in today’s sporting competitions, including advanced enabling technologies such as racing wheelchairs and running blades.
While the university promotes the high-tech world of now, Museums Sheffield has an invaluable collection to explore the history and narrative of sport.
Not just from the point of view of history but natural history as well, the specialism of curator Alistair McLean. “The entire foundation of sport is in zoology and biomimetics,” he said, referring to how movement mimics nature. “Flight is the most obvious example.”
Another on show in the exhibition is the Speedo sharkskin swimsuit which recreates the texture of a sharkskin in order to reduce drag.
“All beings are competitive,” he continued, “and the origins of sport go back to rutting deer which was an early manifestation of competition between males.
“Humans followed and so wrestling is probably the oldest sport. As time went on people realised it was fun to watch and that’s when it turned into a sport.”
Displays acknowledge the original Olympics in Ancient Greece through to the first modern Games in 1896 – but Sheffield’s own sporting history deserves a prominent place, said fellow curator Teresa Whitaker, pointing to a case celebrating the world’s oldest football club, Sheffield FC, including their original rulebook for the game dating from 1857.
Football, cricket, velodrome cycling, boxing and others started on patches of grass which over the years developed into sports grounds such as Darnall cricket ground and Bramall Lane.
As she moved on to talk about the eccentric Eadweard Muybridge, the first photographer to capture motion with his study of galloping horses, which are shown including a zoetrope, Alistair McLean apologised for having to take his leave.
“I’ve got to go and supervise the arrival of The Wrestlers,” he explained. The sculpture, the museum’s own sporting icons and firm visitor favourites, is back on display for the first time in more than seven years.
lSports Lab: The Science Behind the Medals opens on Saturday and continues until November 20 at Weston Park. The exhibition will transfer to the V&A Museum of Childhood in London in 2012 to mark Olympic year.