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Quantum leap in sports technology

Doug Gillon reports on a stunning new exhibition Graeme Obree, world one-hour record-breaking cyclist and former world pursuit champion, rationalised his victimisation by the world cycling governing body, the ICU: ''They could handle the fact that I might be a brilliant design engineer, but could not acknowledge that I might be a brilliant athlete - especially one from a country with no cycling tradition.'' When the Scot stunned the world with his exploits on a bicycle he had knocked up in his Irvine garage, using cannibalised parts from an old washing machine, the ICU banned the bike. A handlebar innovation allowed him to adopt a more aerodynamic riding style, so they banned his position. ''They said it was unaesthetic - an affront to purist traditions,'' says Obree, ''but I think the fact I was from Scotland upset them more.'' The sport was ultimately forced to concede the Obree was not only one of the greatest cyclists ever, but also a creative genius and, from next month, the world can see why. Obree's bike, his ''Old Faithful'', is one of nearly 400 items on display in Winning: the design of sports, which will kick off Glasgow's programme as 1999 UK City of Architecture and Design. Director Deyan Sudic says the exhibition, which runs (free) at the McLellan Galleries from January 9 to April 5 ''is the first in a series of popular exhibitions on design for the real world, created to attract new audiences to architecture and design''. Sport, because of its populist appeal, has been chosen, wrong-footing those who anticipated open season for posing pseuds, indulging their pastime of over-intellectualising. ''Winning is calculated to appeal to a very broad range,'' says curator Susan Andrew. ''Not everyone wants to see a highbrow architecture exhibition. It is an absolutely legitimate topic. Sport has exploded to permeate every corner of popular culture. That is why it is so relevant. Sport design has evolved sport itself, its rules, and the way we play it.'' Thirty years ago, when Glasgow opened Scotland's first custom-built sports centre, at Bellahouston, you could count the sports shops of Scotland's biggest cities on the fingers of one hand. Woolies' black gutties were under threat as Dunlop Green Flash assumed the role of the nation's luxury sports shoe, but more exotic training shoes, when they could be found, came by mail order, from Japan. Nike was not even a gleam in its founder's eye. Yet now, according to American research, sport is bigger than the movie, radio, TV, and education service industries combined. The UK sports goods market last year was valued at #2830m, with footwear worth 46.9% - 34 million pairs - accounting for 18% of all footwear sold, yet only a tiny proportion was worn for sport.

There were 850,000 Manchester United replica strips sold last year; motorsport in the UK was worth #1300m; and in Scotland, where 56,000 full-time jobs are dependent on sport, hill-walking alone generates #110m. Sport, using icons like Michael Jordan and Linford Christie, sells everything from shampoo to life assurance. This is not novel. It was Scotland's Olympic 100m champion, Allan Wells, who triggered the lycra explosion with the cycling shorts he wore to beat Ben Johnson in 1986. Technology often presents such a quantum leap it endangers itself - traction control, the equivalent of steroids for F1 cars; golf clubs which negate the course designs of yesteryear; tennis rackets that have reduced the sport to boring serve-and-volley duels; and even running tracks like that in Tokyo, for the 1991 World Championships. The surface was so artificial it is now banned, making a mockery of the seven world records set thereon. Positive benefits, however, include enhanced car industry safety, spawned by F1, and life-expectancy for a yachtsman overboard enhanced from 15 minutes to two hours. A revealing book, bearing the exhibition's name (#15.95 to visitors), is available yet explains little about Obree. The Ayrshireman, who has donated several items for display, rates a scant 15 lines. Chris Boardman, the Darth Vader-helmeted English Olympic pursuit champion, whose wind tunnel-perfected Lotus machine cost #500,000, spans four pages, plus the front-and-back cover. Yet Boardman's bike, which Obree's garage-special upstaged, is not on the exhibit list. Pity, because no comparison can be made. A stunning range of equipment is on display, however: Tyrell and Maserati cars, Norton bikes, Bobby Charlton's boots. You can compare the feathery with the balata ball, or hickories against the titanium rocket launcher. There are also examples of objects whose design proved so effective that they were banned - golf clubs with adjusting heads, and dimpled baseball bats. Yet others slipped through: hinged clap skates and go-faster silicon stripes, which helped rewrite speed-skating records at this year's Winter Olympics; caps, goggles, and costumes which have revolutionised swimming; recurve bows of high-tensile aluminium and magnesium alloys; limbs of wood and glass fibre compound, or carbon fibre and ceramic. Modern wimps cannot draw the 100lbs longbow of Robin Hood, which launched six shafts per minute, but archery claims to be 30,000 years old, and the modern version of Asia's ancient Tatar weapon makes its own sharp point: technology and design determines the shape of sport to come. But remember Obree. It is possible to be too good. Cheating, sadly, can be tolerated - but nobody loves a smart ass.

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