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A sporting chance for science

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Looking for something to keep you fit? Michael Kenward surfs for sport science

Those of us puzzled by the outbreak of sports fever, from those football games to the Olympics, might easily overlook the increasingly scientific nature of these pursuits. We might as well begin with the seamy side of the subject: drugs and how to test for them.

The use of drugs to enhance performance clearly depends on detailed scientific knowledge - and a willingness to ignore the fact that something that makes people run faster can also damage their health. So science fights back with improved testing procedures. The Indiana Prevention Resource Center, with its home at Indiana University, has a fine set of links to information for various audiences. http://www.iprc.indiana.edu/druginfo/drugtest.html

One link even takes you to a site which tells you how to extract the urine from people. http://www.health.org/workplace/urinebook.aspx

Australia, host for the previous Olympics, is so proud of its contribution to sport science, including drugs testing, that it even has a fact sheet on the official web site of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. http://www.dfat.gov.au/facts/innovative/fs07.html

For a more positive take on the subject, and details of something you can do to work up a sweat of your own, visit the web site of the Science Museum and read the details of its current exhibition on sport science. Don't expect anything too deep, but it could be something to do with the kids. http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/exhibitions/sport/site/index.asp

As ever, when it comes to museums and science centres, the San Francisco Exploratorium is a model of how to do it. Like the Science Museum, the Exploratorium had an exhibition that encouraged user participation. That is over, but you can still see what was there, along with a separate section on the science of baseball, skateboarding, surfing, hockey, and bicycling. The last of these is a great example of how to teach young people science though something that they enjoy doing. http://www.exploratorium.edu/sports/

Any European looking for sites that deal with the science of specific sports may be disappointed by a visit to 'Football Physics', a site in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nebraska. Their idea of football is not, of course, the same as the rest of the world, but once again this Quicktime-heavy site has good educational material. http://physics.unl.edu/outreach/football.html

Skiing enthusiasts looking for quick answers to some of those questions that rush through their minds as they slither down the slopes might like to visit 'physics of skiing'. This even has equations to answer the question 'Do big people go faster?' http://www.math.utah.edu/~eyre/rsbfaq/physics.html

For a more European view of sport science, it makes sense to start with The European Network of Sport Science, Education and Employment (ENSSEE). This is, though, purely for the serious academic, leading is at does to some of the 220 or some members of the network. http://www.ensshe.lu

One lead from this goes to one of the many web sites of the European Union - this supports ENSSEE - where I discover that 2004 is 'European Year of Education through Sport'. http://europa.eu.int/comm/sport/index_en.html

A web site with more research content is the home of sportsci.org. This seems to have run out of steam, with few recent updates. Maybe they have all been in training for this year's Olympics. http://www.sportsci.org

Talking of the Olympics, most English readers probably had modest expectations of their country's athletes. This is not because the national effort ignored sport science. The subject features prominently at the English Institute of Sport, which is the only site I found with anything that explained just what constitutes the subject. The site tells us: 'The traditional three areas in sport science are physiology, psychology and biomechanics. These would usually form the bedrock of any sports science degree.' The site then goes on to explain what these are and how they fit into the broader subject. http://www.eis2win.co.uk

The spread of sport science comes home to you when you see that there is a detailed section on the subject at the web site 'Coaches' Information Service', which provides 'sports science information for coaches'. The organisation has associations with The University of Edinburgh and The International Society of Biomechanics in Sports. http://www.coachesinfo.com

The UK always likes to boast about how it manages to 'punch above its weight' in scientific terms, delivering more papers per dollar spent than most other nations. The same is not usually said of the country's sporting endeavours. Perhaps the growing interest in sport science will change all that.