How far are scientists willing to go to investigate the limits of human endurance in sport? This month, they are about to insert radio transmitters and batteries into an athlete’s system to find out just that. Moments before midnight on September 27, when they will assemble at the start/finish line of the marathon at the World Championships, a bunch of runners will pop an ingestible electronic pill. The capsule – standard-sized, weighing 1.7 gram – will pass through the stomach, into the large intestine. From there, it will record the body’s core temperature.
This, researchers argue, is a more dignified – and reliable – method to measure the core temperature rather than inserting a rectal thermometer. And the data compiled, they hope, will help them investigate the effects of hot weather conditions on elite athletes, which will, in turn, be used to protect them during next year’s Tokyo Olympics where concerns have been raised over athletes’ safety due to possible heat exhaustion.
On the face of it, the track and field World Championships, which get underway in Doha on September 27, will be a crucial precursor to the Olympic Games. Behind the scenes, though, the Worlds will be a a testing ground for scientific studies to examine the correlations between performance and temperature, and to monitor the reactions of competing in extreme climates.
Male and female athletes competing in the 10,000m, marathon, 20km and 50km race-walk events have volunteered to be part of the study, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which is conducting the research. These events are considered to be of high risk, given September temperatures in Doha generally, hover around 35 degree Celsius.
Safe to ingest
The e-pill, IAAF claims, is harmless and will be excreted out of the system within 48 hours of consumption. “Athletes will receive individual information on their personal results, profile and hydration status, as well as how they compare to the average of their competitors,” the world governing body’s spokesperson said. “The knowledge gained will help these volunteers to prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and other events in the heat.”
The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), too, has expressed no reservations. “Temperature-monitoring devices, in general, are not prohibited and there doesn’t seem to be any substance delivered in this process (let alone a prohibited one) so it would not seem to fall under any area of concern for WADA,” a spokesperson said.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said they are monitoring the ‘different uses’ of electronic pills. “As with any scientific development linked to sport, the IOC has been monitoring the different uses of electronic pills by International Federations and debriefs with them on their results and potential future applications. WADA, which is responsible for regulating the global fight against doping, does not prohibit temperature monitoring devices in general as it understands they do not seem to deliver any substances in the process of being used,” the IOC said.
The track and field athletes won’t be the first to use the e-pills. It is believed that Australia’s hockey team were the pioneers in the sport, using it at the Beijing Olympics. In 2015, footballers at French club Nantes consumed these pills in training as well as competition while some cyclists at the 2016 Road World Championships – also in Doha – too tried them as part of a research.
What is new, however, is the technology that is currently being developed to supplement these ‘thermometer pills’. Even as the e-pills will be trialled at the Worlds, scientists at the University of Brighton are developing a system, which they hope to roll out at the Olympics, that will relay the results in real-time and not after the event, which will be the case in Doha. Through a wireless hook-up, the technology can tell coaches and medical staff how the athlete is faring under extreme climate conditions.
This technology is being developed by Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor sports science at the University of Brighton and one of the founders of the Sub-2 Project, an ambitious quest to make a human being run a marathon inside two hours without the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
“I am not interested in developing thermo ‘pills’, they are already developed. That is not a novel idea in itself,” Pitsiladis said over the phone from Eastbourne, UK. “What is novel is to take the idea which has existed for 20 years and modernise it, make it useful in sport. What I am doing is transmitting the important information from the pill to go the user, support team, or medical staff and the challenge is to do this in real time.”
Pitsiladis will use similar pills – although not necessarily by the same manufacturer – which will perform the same sensory role. The ‘clever bit’, he said, is the smart wrist band which he’s developing; a gadget that resembles your usual physical activity tracker.
“The pill is identifiable, it has a unique number. Once activated after entering the body, the pill will send low-frequency radio waves to the Sub2 smart band. All the band is doing is converting radio waves into Bluetooth and you can then, through the mobile network or the internet, get all the information on your mobile phone or computer,” Pitsiladis explained.
The data, the 52-year-old Greek scientist said, will help them understand the makings of the elite athlete – their body temperature, heart rate, cortisol levels, ECG, body balance. Broadcasters can flash this information on TV screens during races, as if the athletes were F1 cars. “If you look at F1, cycling, rugby… more and more information is being transmitted onto the screen. It is all about what the individual experiences,” Pitsiladis said.
Crucially, he argued, the real-time technology will help in making the sport safer. At the Commonwealth Games last year, Scotland’s Callum Hawkins was in a gold medal position after 40km of the 42km course on a scorching day in Gold Coast. Just then, he collapsed and could not finish the race.
The weather conditions in Tokyo next year are expected to be similar, if not hotter. As a member of the International Olympic Committee’s medical and scientific commission, and a part of the expert group that is monitoring the conditions in Tokyo, Pitsiladis has been working closely with the organizing committee over this issue.
The conditions, he said, will be around 32 degree Celsius or even as high as 40 degree Celsius, with humidity of around 60 percent. “For certain sports, these conditions could make competition quite dangerous,” he said, adding that events such as marathon, race walking and triathlon are some events that have been identified as ‘high risk.’
“The IOC – and I’m not speaking for them right now, I am only one of the members of the commission or expert group – is conducting a very thorough investigation in order to implement as many changes they can make sure athletes, spectators, officials are safe,” Pitsiladis said. “Last year during the same months of the games, there were a large amount of deaths – about 57 deaths and more than 18,000 people taken to hospitals due to heat-related medical issues over the week starting the 29th July 2019 in Japan; the exact date of the Tokyo Olympics next year. So it would be remiss of the IOC not to take action.”
Analysing body functions in real-time will allow an athlete’s support team to alter on-field strategies and take precautionary measures to prevent physical problems due to heat stress; and in rare events, even withdraw the athlete from the race – just like how a referee stops a bout to prevent a boxer from getting seriously hurt.
Pitsiladis said his team is ‘working around the clock’ get the innovations ready in time for Tokyo Olympics – and even convince the IOC to try it at a test event in build-up to the Games. There were reports that the IAAF would use his technology at the Doha World Championships. However, they will just be using the pill and not study its findings in real time.
“What the IAAF is doing in Doha is important as it (the event) is in Doha. For the first time, it will allow us to understand what the real temperature challenges athletes face – the male and female differences, different sports,” Pitsiladis said. “We want to measure everything about the individual – we need to understand the makings of the elite athlete. It (e-pill) may seem strange now. But this is going to become normal in the very near future.”