Think athletic support, and…well, actually best not too. But, there are some amazing developments taking place at the interface between technology and sports personalities that are likely to make waves in the swimming pool, kick sand in an opponent's face at the triple jump and perhaps even get those heels off the blocks that all-important hundredth of a second faster than the rest of the pack.

A few unscrupulous athletes turn to anabolic steroids and their derivatives to boost their performance while others are hedging their bets on genetic engineering for that muscle boost. But, the vast majority of sports people are training harder than ever with fitness and nutrition regimes dictated by the latest sports science theories. They are also keeping an eye on legitimate new technology that will be hitting the track or pool soon.

Technological enhancement, whether physical or chemical, would have been unheard of at the original Olympic Games. Modern athletes though are looking to materials scientists, polymer engineers, and researchers to develop slicker alternatives to naked skin to make them more streamlined, as well as new ways to protect them from falls and even to help them keep cool in sweltering stadia.

In at the Deep End

When swimmers are almost equally matched in the pool (shoe size aside, Ian Thorpe!) the difference between making a splash and climbing out like a drowned rat at the end of the race might come down to one's swimsuit. Many top athletes still swear by the kind of skimpy Speedos most of us eschew on the beach, but there are others who will use the latest materials to make them more fishlike in the lanes.

Trials of suits incorporating a structural element known as a "turbulator" have been underway for several months in the USA. The turbulators are narrow bands of silicone incorporated into the suit's design at strategic points to change the hydrodynamics of the water around a moving swimmer. They prevent the water flow from separating from the body at areas such as the shoulder where turbulence otherwise causes drag, slowing the swimmer.

The researchers behind the turbulators at the University of Buffalo, New York, ( claim their swimsuit implants alter the way water flows over a swimmer emphasising the power and reducing drag. Less drag, means less energy wasted, means a faster finish.

The research team has shaved 3% off their swimmers' trial times, beating the likes of the Speedo FastSkin full-body suits turbulators, and they will be marketing swimming kit under the AquaShift brand through sportswear specialists TYR.

Step up to the Mark

British Olympic Athlete Colin Jackson used running shoes that were biomechanically modelled to fit his feet exactly, but even such tailor-made approaches don't protect against the kinds of impact injuries that can lay an athlete low and ruin their training schedule. A new material that could revolutionise protection for a sporting body could offer jumpers, runners, and waterskiers, and others, a serious advantage, preventing debilitating injuries and allowing them to carry on training or competing without pain.

Design company d3o Lab's ( ) and materials scientist Phil Green working out of the University of Hertfordshire have developed a new protective composite material. Unlike conventional padding which is not only restrictive and uncomfortable but doesn't really protect you, the d3o materials are smart.

The smart material is made up of a matrix of polymers with tiny pockets filled with a fluid. In normal wear, the material moves freely with your body movements but if you take a dive, the intelligent molecules in the fluid stiffen in less than a thousandth of a second, which makes them absorb the energy of the impact just like a judo break-fall. The material then returns to its smooth moving state. The intelligent materials can be incorporated into sportswear at the elbows, knees, shoulders, hips and other vulnerable areas.

Cool it!

Protection and streamlining will give many athletes the edge. For example, the Chinese team at the 2004 Olympics were the coolest group during training. With temperatures reaching at least 40 Celsius in Athens, the Chinese athletes donned refrigerating jackets that were lined with a polymer gel that stays at whatever temperature it starts out at for several hours at a time. The jackets were chilled before use and so stayed cool for hours while the athletes train. Even if there is cold snap, a quick blast in a microwave oven will warm the jackets to keep the chills at bay.

Watch but don’t Play

But, what about those of us who get a proportion of our sport-fix from watching rather than participating? Technology is also changing the way we spectate. Digital television channels already provide multiple vantage points for tennis, golf and other sports fans who can watch different games being played in the same tournament or get a different camera angle at the click of the "red button" on their remote control. The latest large-screen TVs meanwhile coupled with a decent surround-sound system can make it feel like you are almost at the event. It will only be a matter of time before computer-controlled hydraulics systems are being fitted to armchairs to allow viewers to be jostled in their seat and have blasts of air or even water shot at them to emulate the motion felt by a cyclist or waterskier.

Trackside PDAs

With the development of microscale wireless sensors it will soon be possible for coaches to monitor the heart rate, blood pressure, running speed, skin temperature, even blood sugar levels of the athletes. And, if they can get such information piped to their trackside PDA, then the same data could be sent to the television broadcast suite and onward to your TV. A flick of the remote could then bring up a chart showing how all the runners are bearing up just ahead of the starting gun. But, why stop there? With such technology becoming available, the judges could make even more accurate checks than ever before on the athletes avoiding false starts and even spotting unusual breathing patterns, that might hint at illicit drug use or other problems.

Meanwhile, back on the sofa, digital TV technology could provide sports events with armchair judging. Referee's decision not good enough? Then, vote now to change the judgement call on that last penalty! With a globalised "Big Brother" style voting system sporting events could become more democratic as virtual spectators get a chance to check the photo finish or vote against a dodgy decision.

With such technology perhaps just around the corner, it will become even more important for the athletes to make the most of their body parts - natural or prosthetic. Many of us already have artificial body parts, such as pacemakers, replacement hips and knees, shoulder implants, embedded lenses. A few people (admittedly in the research arena) have implanted silicon chips under their skin that control the lighting and other devices, and if Microsoft has its way we will all soon be wearing body power devices.

It won't be too much of a leap of the imagine to imagine those turbulators being surgically implanted under a dedicated swimmer's skin or runners wearing thermostatically controlled body suits that respond to blood pressure and skin temperature.

If it means a Gold, then why not?