Sports matter

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Karl Palmås
Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg


Franz Konstantin Fuss, Alexandar Subic, Martin Strangwood & Rabindra Mehta (red) Routledge Handbook of Sports Technology and Engineering 499 sidor, inb., ill. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2014 (Routledge International Handbooks) ISBN 978-0-415-58045-8

Franz Konstantin Fuss, Alexandar Subic, Martin Strangwood & Rabindra Mehta (red)
Routledge Handbook of Sports Technology and Engineering
499 sidor, inb., ill.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2014 (Routledge International Handbooks)
ISBN 978-0-415-58045-8

The sports and leisure industry has become a major economic force, growing at a significant rate, already generating the same turnover as the aerospace industry. This development is in part fuelled by a deep engagement with research and innovation. As the editors of the Routledge Handbook of Sports Technology and Engineering point out in the preface for the volume, the industry has been quick to pick up key technologies from the aerospace, defense and biomedical sectors.

In fact, the R&D activities of the sports industry has recently created a stir within the field of innovation management. First, the sports industry is not only quick to adopt technological solutions from high-tech industries like aerospace – it is also exceptionally good at reducing R&D lead times. In other words, whereas it may take decades to develop a new model of aircraft, the sports industry moves from concept to product in a matter of months. Second, the sports industry is also cited as a forerunner when it comes to translate the creativity of users and consumers into new products. Thus, the sports industry has participated in what is sometimes called the “re-invention of invention” (Thrift, 2006; Palmås, 2014).

These issues aside, the Routledge Handbook of Sports Technology and Engineering is not a book for innovation management scholars. As readers of the preface will find, the argument quickly moves from matters industrial to matter, period. In other words, this volume is about the fundamental properties of the material world – energy conversion and conservation, drag and friction, aero- and hydrodynamic lift – as actualized in sports equipment. As such, there are chiefly three types of readers that might find it useful as a reference text.

First, the Routledge handbook is useful for professional engineers or engineering students who want a catalogue of technologies used in a wide-ish variety of sports. The engineer-reader can thus dip into any given chapter and get a quick sense of the material issues at stake. S/he might also get tips for what instrumentation devices to use when measuring sports activities. Note, for instance, the accelerometers and gyros discussed in chapter four. This usage of the book is facilitated by the fact that the texts do not presume any prior knowledge about the different sports – indeed, sports buffs might find the dryly written introductions to each sport somewhat amusing.

A second type of reader might be the tinkering sports enthusiast; a person who conducts a sport but also possesses the interest, skill and time to modify or self-build the equipment used. For instance, the tinkering sports enthusiast may find ample information about the actual materials used when producing their particular piece of equipment. This is information that is all too often obfuscated by the large manufacturers. There are, however, limits to these uses of the text. While divulging the “secrets” of the materials used, the handbook cannot do away with the fact that actual production of sports equipment tends to require bespoke production facilities or specialized laboratories.

For instance, chapter 31 stays completely clear of the hotly debated and highly politicized issues of whether expensive new sports facilities actually contribute to urban development.

Thirdly, the average sports practitioner might also find interesting nuggets of information in the text. For instance, a cross-country skier or tennis player may improve by getting some idea about the physics involved in their sport. The cross-country skier may read chapter eleven, and learn why the wide-spread practice of “saturating” ski bases with glide-wax is bogus (178). Similarly, the tennis player may learn the physics that explain why it feels good to hit serves from the “dead spot” of the racquet, and other shots from the “center of percussion” (chapter 19). Both of these sports practitioners may also find curious facts about their respective sport: Did you know that the 1972 cross-country skiing World Championship in Falun marks the end of the wooden ski era, and the beginning of the plastic ski era (172)? Did you know that the fuzz makes all the difference when slicing your serve (chapter 27)?

More significantly, the Routledge handbook may help the skier and tennis player to become more discerning consumers. Sports activities are often associated with healthiness and naturalness, but this image tends to elide the fact that the production of sports equipment comes at an environmental price. Chapter one provides a much needed account of the environmental aspects of tennis racquet and ski pole production. The editors should be commended for raising this issue: Having read the chapter, I tried to find information on the environmental load generated by the production of my personal tennis racquet. The results of my research? Suffice to say that manufacturers can be much more transparent on this account. Luckily, as also described in chapter one, sports garment manufacturers have come much farther in labelling and certifying their products, using standards like Oekotex and Bluesign.

What about academic sports scholars – is the handbook for them? Well, academics on the natural scientific end of the scale would certainly find the book useful. However, scholars closer to the social scientific tradition will probably find it a frustrating read. For instance, chapter 31 stays completely clear of the hotly debated and highly politicized issues of whether expensive new sports facilities actually contribute to urban development. (Politicians always to say that they do.) Chapter six is an even more exemplary on this account: When touching upon an issue related to human subjectivity – say, how the technologies used by the quantified self movement change “the nature of the experience” of jogging – the argument simply stops. Just as if it had hit the dead spot of an anthropologist’s tennis racquet.

Copyright © Karl Palmås 2014

References

  • Palmås, K. (2014) “From criminality to creativity: how studies of surfer subcultures reinvented invention”, Sport in Society, Vol. 17, No. 9.
  • Thrift, N. (2006) “Re-inventing invention: New tendencies in capitalist commodification”, Economy and Society, Vol. 35, No. 2.
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