The boffins behind Team GB's London 2012 Olympic assault

From oxygen tents to new boxing glove bindings to sushi diets, brains of Britain are giving the athletes every chance

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The Independent Online

There is a mantra religiously preached by those behind Britain's Olympians, now in the final throes of preparation for London 2012. This, it goes, is the biggest and best prepared team ever to represent this country. The endgame comes down to the 542 men and women but they will arrive on track, pitch, pool and court in little more than a couple of weeks backed by a level of support that matches the mantra. Words have come from deeds.

The margins at the elite level of sport are minute, points of seconds, and sports science is playing a potentially key role in minding the marginal gaps. Britain has become a world leader. "We have made huge improvements over the last 10 years," said Nigel Walker, the former Olympic hurdler now director of the English Institute of Sport, yesterday. "I wouldn't claim we are the best in the world but we have had visits from China, Japan, France and South Africa to see what we do. The Australians told us they envied what we are doing. The Americans said they wished they had our system."

The EIS was founded in 2001, in the wake of this country's gradual reinvention of itself as an Olympic power following the disaster that was the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Funded with £10m of public money and £6m from the sports themselves – they buy specific services of physiotherapists, nutritionists and sports scientists – the EIS, so those behind it assert, has become a cornerstone in Britain's forensic level of preparation.

There have been collaborations with companies such as McLaren, for technological innovation, and universities, as well as with UK Sport's research programme. UK Sport and Southampton University combined to adapt a tow rig usually used on ships to provide data on how swimmers can reduce drag.

Other projects have seen research into athlete warm-ups leading to more intense programmes exercised just 20 minutes before a race. Trials claim this can lead to a 1 per cent improvement – in real terms the distance between Kelly Holmes finishing sixth rather than first in the 2004 Athens 1500m. Britain's middle-distance runners are now known for their finishing power, a consequence of the reworked warm-up.

"Small marginal gains are critical," said Ken van Someren, director of sport science at the EIS. Every Briton who won gold in Beijing benefited from some form of input from the EIS. For London the aim is to have chiselled out a few more precious fractions towards more gold medals, whether that comes via combat athletes training in special goggles to focus their vision, or binding boxers' hands differently to reduce knuckle injuries...

Higher: How altitude makes a difference...

Yesterday Mo Farah came back down to earth, returning to Britain for the London Grand Prix that starts tomorrow after a camp at altitude in the Pyrenees. Since the 1968 Games in Mexico, the affect of altitude on performance has become an obsession of sports scientists. Like Farah, most of Britain's endurance athletes spend a significant time at altitude – the rowers are currently in Austria, while triathlon, swimming and cycling also train at height – but with each Olympic cycle the execution of the training is fine-tuned. In the early season an athlete like Farah will typically train at heights of up to 2,500m, in Kenya or Colorado, before dropping a 1,000ft or so nearer to competition time – which is why Farah has been in the Pyrenees.

On his return to lower levels, Farah sleeps in an oxygen tent to maintain the benefits as long as possible – training at altitude increases the mass of red blood cells in the body, which helps increase the delivery of oxygen to the muscles. It does not work for all athletes and the EIS has developed a test to help establish which athletes benefit most. A breath test uses small amounts of carbon monoxide to measure the level of red blood cells and so determine the effectiveness of training at height for each athlete Programmes are tailored accordingly.

When an athlete comes down from altitude there will be a drop-off in performance around 10 days later, with a high in red blood cell production about four weeks on. That is why Farah will use a tent up to the Games, so he runs before the lull begins.

Stronger: Feeding success...

Days before Beijing, Frankie Gavin, lightweight world champion, was pulled out of the British team after it was decided he was not going to meet the weight requirements. It led to a spate of criticism for the team management. How could they let a potential gold medal slip away so incompetently?

A complete rethink resulted. The fighters are now accommodated together – the governing body bought a house near the training centre in Sheffield – where their radically restructured diet is overseen. Each morning the boxers climb on to the scales and must be within 3 to 5 per cent of fighting weight. Failure to hit those targets leads to a warning, then disciplinary action, with expulsion from the squad the last resort.

Twice a week each boxer receives a delivery of prepared meals – they could receive ingredients but "they're not really into cooking". A typical daily menu for Anthony Joshua, the super heavyweight, is pancakes with berries and hazelnuts and a yoghurt, cereal and fruit mix for breakfast, a lunch of oriental pork stir-fry and for dinner chicken fajitas with charred corn. In between meals they are provided with snacks – nuts, fruit or sushi with accompanying smoothies. No British fighter has failed to make a weight since the programme, the brainchild of nutrionist Mark Ellison, was introduced.

Andrew Selby, European flyweight champion – having had to drop from bantamweight – summed it up by explaining that if the fighters are confident in what they are eating and in making the weight it clears the mind to focus on the ring. "My performances have gone from strength to strength," he said. "Food is not the enemy any more." Britain's medal chances in the men's and women's events in London are good.

 

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Faster: The speedy road to recovery...

As a taekwondo world champion, Sarah Stevenson began the year as one of Britain's golden hopes. Then 181 days before the Games she suffered a cruciate ligament injury training in Mexico. It was a setback that would be expected to take nine months to overcome.

With the assistance of the EIS, which has centres across England from Sheffield to Manchester to Bath to Bisham Abbey, Stevenson embarked upon an intensive and carefully mapped programme of treatment and rehabilitation that allowed barely a day off – she was allowed one to travel to Buckingham Palace to receive her MBE.

A team of a surgeon, two doctors, three physiotherapists, a psychologist, a nutritionist, an analyst, a strength and conditioning expert combined with her coaches to agree a schedule that broke every day into half-hour slots. "It's incredibly full-on – there is very little rest," said Chris Price, head of physiotherapy at the EIS.

Each 12-hour day began with the psychologist, at Stevenson's request. As well as extensive strengthening and physio sessions, the programme included the use of technology developed by Nasa to cool astronauts going into space. It has been adapted into a small cooling unit used to reduce inflammation.

The programme has worked and six months later Stevenson, like her 541 team-mates, is putting those tiny touches to her plans that she hopes will make the difference in the Games.

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