Sport: Helping to unravel the mysteries of sport

Steven Downes on the exhibition at the cutting edge of science
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The Independent Online
If you pay a visit to the Science Museum today, walk past NASA's lunar module as it bursts from a swathe of aluminium foil like some sort of oven-ready turkey, then past the old cogs and pistons of Stephenson's Rocket, you will come to the newest exhibition in South Kensington.

It is devoted to the cutting edge of science, an area which sees millions of research and development dollars spent annually, the results of which are watched and appreciated by millions. The Science of Sport exhibition, the largest of its kind in the world, sets out to unravel, among others, the various mysteries of golf's longest drives, rallying's fastest drivers, and swimming's deepest divers.

Dubbed "the exhibition where you're part of the action", it is a world away from the dull and dreary image many still harbour about museums. Rather, it is more NBA meets Nintendo, the epitome of the interactive exhibition for the information age.

To illustrate the point at yesterday's celebrity launch, the Science Museum had recruited half a dozen sports stars to give the exhibits a test run. When Kevin Keegan took on the pole vaulter Kate Staples on a snowboarding simulation, it was not long before someone was suggesting that it had all been downhill for the former Newcastle manager since his side blew their 12-point Premiership lead last season. This time, Geordies will wish to note, Keegan stayed on board all the way to the finish.

Rob Andrew, the former England rugby union goal-kicker, showed in the penalty shoot-out that it is often more difficult to keep the ball low than hit it high and handsome, but it was around this time that you could notice that the comments of Daley Thompson, the double Olympic decathlon gold medallist, were nearly driving Mark Bosnich up the climbing wall.

With its terrifying bobsleigh simulation ride and virtual reality volleyball, this is clearly a display designed with kids in mind. Seven years in the planning, and arranged at a cost of pounds 1.5m, nor does it ignore one of the principal driving forces of modern sport - money. With eight sponsors and an on-site sports store, the commercial possibilities for such a populist exhibition are there to be exploited.

That is not to say that Science of Sport lacks information - such as the fact that the Tour de France cyclist Miguel Indurain's resting pulse rate was a barely-noticeable 28 beats per minute. Or that the longest drive of a golf ball was more than 500 yards, hit by Michael Austin in 1974. Or that the energy required to run a marathon in four hours is the equivalent to that contained in 11 Mars bars.

But do not expect to discover the secret ingredient for winning gold at the next Olympic Games. For instance, there is no trial sample of the designer drug EPO, on offer in the brief section on drugs in sport, although the sprint starts arena is dominated by a dramatic backdrop featuring the powerful physique of Angela Issajenko, the former Commonwealth champion from Canada who eventually confessed to using steroids.

"Some people have been known to false start twice to avoid drug tests," Thompson quipped, mock-knowingly, as Keegan fell out of his starting blocks, proving that passion in sport can often play a bigger part than any amount of scientific preparation.

But perhaps the most poignant display is probably the easiest to overlook. On the floor beside David Coulthard's Formula One car, are the five footprints which precisely measure out Jonathan Edwards' world record hop, step and jump. It is just a short way from the lunar module, and perhaps shows what Neil Armstrong meant 28 years ago when he spoke of a giant leap for mankind.