In early 2008, a Greek scientist, who is a food connoisseur, and an Indian restaurateur, with special interest in the science of sport, met in Glasgow. Over naan, curry and wine, they spoke endlessly about the role of genetics in sport. Eventually, in March that year, they set off for Jamaica where the scientist’s brains and the gourmet’s money led to one of the most definitive works of research on the Caribbean island’s sprinting legacy.
Today, Yannis Pitsiladis is in the news for his latest innovation: a technology that will investigate the effect of extreme weather conditions on elite athletes in real-time using a smart wrist band, which he is developing, and an electronic pill. He is hoping the technology will be ready in time for next year’s Olympics to “protect athletes, fans and officials from weather conditions that could make competition quite dangerous”.
Read | E-quating endurance
At the same time, the 52-year-old recalls with great affection that chance meeting 11 years ago with Neki Sumal, the owner of Balbirs, a fine-dining Indian restaurant in the West End of Glasgow, which gave him one of his first funding breaks.
“I would eat in the restaurant at least once a week. They knew I was struggling and offered to help support my research,” says Pitsiladis, who is now a professor of sport science with the University of Brighton.
Pitsiladis calls Balbirs, which was started by Sumal’s father in 1973, his “home”. Says Sumal, 36, whose family is from Jalandhar: “He’s a bit of a personality. He came to our restaurant with a mutual friend. He started talking about food, the spices and the oil. He enjoyed nice wines as well. We used to sit down a lot and I just kept questioning his research and he kept giving answers.”
In the decade since then, Pitsiladis went on to author pioneering studies on some of the biggest issues in sport — from anti-doping to transgender and intersex athletes — and now sits on the medical commission of the International Olympic Committee as well as on an expert panel on the conditions in Tokyo for Olympics 2020.
His work is considered provocative and path-breaking: be it genetics or the ambitious sub-two project — a quest to make a human run a marathon inside 2 hours, within rules, without the use of performance-enhancing drugs and with the assistance of technology.
“We should definitely use technology as a means to make sport exciting and safer. Most importantly, such innovations detract the athlete from going down the drug route,” he says.
In this context, Pitsiladis refers to the Chandrayaan-2 mission. “India has a very successful, pioneering space industry. When you send a rocket into space, you want to see everything that’s happening to that rocket. That is how one can basically look after that rocket. So why not apply the same effort and innovation with humans who send rockets into space or Mars or the Moon?” he asks.
Born in Australia after his father migrated following World War 2, Pitsiladis hoped to become an Olympic volleyball player for Greece. Instead, a major chunk of the last three decades have been spent on research at laboratories in England and Scotland.
Simultaneously, he went on expeditions to East Africa and Jamaica to investigate the role of genes in influencing sporting abilities, collecting DNA samples from Olympic and world champions, along with other athletes.
Pitsiladis continues to be obsessed with the idea of testing the limits of human endurance in sport. The fixation has come at a great personal cost, too. There have been times when he has had to spend his own money to fund his research. Twice, he has had to mortgage his house. And his marriage ended in divorce — although he later got back with his wife.
Although the lack of funding for research projects continues to frustrate him, he admits that the early days of struggle are over. But the man who is challenging established notions in sport also seems to be on a culinary pursuit. “My family and I miss the restaurant in Glasgow. We cannot find better Indian food anywhere in the world as much as we have tried,” he says.
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