Christy O'Connor on the science behind hurling's great strides

Technology and improved training conditions have changed the small ball game
Christy O'Connor on the science behind hurling's great strides

Robert Downey of Cork in action against Séamus Flanagan of Limerick. Even tall players like Downey now use small and light hurleys. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

AFTER the Olympic 400m hurdles final broke all records four weeks ago, the race was labelled the ‘greatest ever’.

The times, and the records they shattered in Tokyo, provided ample proof that it was. When Karsten Warholm hit the line, in 45.94, the Norwegian had wiped out the field with a new world record. Yet Rai Benjamin, who came in second, in 46.17, also sliced a huge chunk off the world record, of 46.70, which Warholm had run in Oslo earlier this summer.

In third, the Brazilian Alison Dos Santos set a South American record of 46.72, which was faster than Kevin Young’s previous world record, of 46.78, which he set in Barcelona and which had stood for 29 years, until Warholm began rewriting history this summer.

In athletics, though, incredible performances invite doubt. Not with Warholm, who is a once-in-a-generation talent and who has an insatiable appetite for training. His credibility — and that of his coach — has always been impeccable, but the lens is still always looking for a focus and it narrowed around the advances in track and shoe technology.

Warholm has been fully transparent on shoe technology, revealing that his sponsor, Puma, had been working with Mercedes to develop a carbon plate for the sole of his spikes.

Warholm and his coach, who had worked on its development, ensured Puma did not follow designs used by Nike, whose top-of-the-line spikes contain airpods under the plate, along with a layer of hyper-responsive foam.

Norway's Karsten Warholm. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Norway's Karsten Warholm. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

Experts say innovation will continue to radically change the landscape of track and road running, because athletes are thriving on new technology that has pushed the biomechanics of the running shoe to a new level.

With some athletes in Tokyo wearing the super-light shoes that contain a rigid plate and unique foam, which lend a propulsive sensation to every stride, critics claim the shoes are an advantage. On the flipside, supporters hail them as a revolutionary advance after decades of stagnation.

There seems to be an acceptance that the new generation of shoes are moving the sport forward. US-based journalist Brian Metzler, author of Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes, doubts the public care about the shoes, and their propensity to improve performance. “That leaves only the sports historians and sports statisticians to debate what they should do about the fast new performances,” said Metzler.

Science continues to change modern sport, at all levels, but how much of an impact has it had on hurling becoming unrecognisable from the game it once was?

How much of that change is down to increased fitness and strength and conditioning, where every aspect of a player’s physical preparation is forensically measured and managed? All players are built to break tackles now. They’re programmed to run as fast, and for as long, as professional players.

Despite such an emphasis on weights training, hurlers didn’t take to the gym looking for greater distance in their striking, but it was a byproduct of that increased physical strength. Has the advancement in hurleys been a factor in such improvement in the modern game?

Players use smaller-sized hurleys now for quicker striking in less space. A bigger bas creates not just more weight, but a bigger sweet spot for striking. According to the GAA’s official guide, a bas can only be 13cm at its widest point, but that regulation is unpoliced and routinely flouted.

TOO LIGHT?

The sliotar, though, is still the dominant topic in this debate. The analysis is that the ball is too light, but is it? Under the GAA’s specification, the sliotar must weigh between 110gm and 120gm. Most balls on the market are close to the bottom of that weight spectrum, but not below it.

If the GAA were to make 120gm the minimum weight, for example, what impact might it have? Making the ball heavier isn’t going to reduce short-passing and possession retention. It’s not going to stop goalkeepers taking short puck-outs.

The main issue with the old ball was that the rims were too thick, which made short stick passing and laser puck-outs more difficult to execute. 

Because the traditional cork cores absorbed moisture, the balls were liable to lose their shape. No player wants the old ball back.

Technology and science have advanced sport at all levels, but most of the gains come down to that individual and collective pursuit of perfection.

Sixteen years ago, Donal Óg Cusack caused a minor storm when he began wearing Nike Maxsight, tinted, soft contact lenses. They helped eliminate image distortion and improve field of vision.

Major League Baseball players had begun using the lenses to see the ball with greater clarity and reduce sun glare, and Cusack saw no reason why a hurler couldn’t do the same. In the 2006 championship, Galway goalkeeper Liam Donoghue also wore those lenses, which were a different colour — brown — to the red lenses worn by Cusack.

Players will always try something new to make themselves better. Anything that may grant that 1% or 2% extra is worth a shot.

But, similar to Warholm, talent development and improvement are based on hard work and supreme dedication.

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