The science of performance

Reuters writer reviews the research amid London Olympics

Does sex diminish athletic vigor? Does athletic tape enhance it? These are just a few of the questions that one Reuters correspondent has sought to answer amidst the toil, tears, and sweat at the Summer Olympics in London.

Kate Kelland, who covers health and science in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for the wire service, has been on the performance beat since the opening ceremony, digging into the latest research on what might pump up or deflate an athlete’s game. Doping is the first thing that comes to mind, of course, and Kelland has had a number of posts on the matter.

In the last week, she has filed a useful factsheet on the “substances and methods used in doping,” and a helpful explainer on why “dope cheats face testing times at London 2012.” There was also a forward-looking piece about how the Games’ anti-doping laboratory will be developed into a world-class drug research center after the athletes have gone home, and an amusing retrospective about how “ancient dopers got their kicks from raw testicles.”

Kelland’s coverage of performance has gone well beyond the realm of pharmaceuticals, however. Most recently, she examined a report published last month by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers entitled, “Sports Engineering: A unfair Advantage?” Following up on “a row that engulfed elite swimming after a 2008 decision by the sport’s international governing body FINA to approve Speedo’s LZR Racer swimsuit for the Beijing Olympic Games,” her post focused on spray-on clothing, one of the potential advances highlighted in the report.

Before that, Kelland tackled music’s effect on performance. The piece is based on an interview with only one scientist, Costas Karageorghis, whom she encountered during the Games, and cites only his research specifically. There’s some indication that “a large body of scientific evidence points to the effects of music on ease of movement, perception of exertion and even on oxygen efficiency during sport,” as Kelland reported, but one review of the research (.doc file) said studies have shown “mixed results.” Instead of getting into that, the piece ended with some anecdotal evidence based on a few Olympians’ listening preferences.

Kelland’s biggest and best splash came from a good report debunking the latest Olympic fad. According to her post:

Athletic tape made in every colour under the sun seems to be the latest must-have sports injury treatment at London 2012, where athletes may have been influenced by other big name tape fans such as Serena Williams and David Beckham.

Called Kinesio tape and developed by a Japanese doctor more than 30 years ago, the adhesive strapping is designed to provide muscle and joint support without restricting movement…

In a review of all the scientific research so far, published in the Sports Medicine journal in February, researchers found “little quality evidence to support the use of Kinesio tape over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries.”

Following Kelland’s post, a variety of other outlets, from NPR to the UK’s Daily Mail, produced follow-up stories on the skepticism surrounding Kinesio tape’s performance-enhancing qualities.

There’s more. Kelland’s other work has included stories with headlines like:

  • •  “No evidence that sex spoils sport’
  • •  “Then men’s 100 meters: How fast could they go?”
  • •  “Does nature or nurture make a top sprinter?”
  • •  “Training the brain for a mind-blowing 100 final”
  • •  “The roar of the crowd: A home advantage for team GB?”

Given the speed and volume at which Kelland is producing these posts, it’s no surprise they’re all fairly short and don’t go into great depth on the science. Still, they highlight the latest research and are informative and interesting. No other news outlets seem to have devoted as much effort to studying athletic performance at the Olympics, let alone to have sent a science writer to the Games. In this category, Reuters takes the gold.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,