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How are Royal Holloway researchers contributing to London 2012?

Posted on 02/05/2012
Vancouver Olympics ceremony

Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony

Royal Holloway’s research is included in a new report showing the impact of universities’ research and sport development on the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The report has been released as part of Universities Week (30 April – 7 May) which aims to increase public awareness of the wide and varied role of the UK’s universities.

The report, Supporting a UK success story: The impact of university research and sport development, highlights just some of the many ways in which research has helped Team GB limber up and prepare for London 2012.  Dr Narender Ramnani’s research into the brain processes behind split-second decisions and Professor Helen Gilbert’s cultural analysis of the spectacle of opening and closing Olympic ceremonies is highlighted in the report.

While sporting success is dependent on talent and dedication,  Dr Ramnani and his team have discovered that success also lies in the ability of the brain to develop automatic thinking and movement. The research involved scanning participants’ brains using a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI ) scanner while they were asked to learn certain skills. This allowed the researchers to analyse the ways in which the brain learns mental and motor skills.

By the end of the study, these mental skills had become so automatic that the participants were able to perform them well, even while simultaneously performing a second task which was distracting. As each participant practiced a task, the cerebellum (a structure in the brain containing half of the brains neurons) showed activity changes suggesting it was storing up the learned information which could be used again. Understanding how the brains of elite athletes work could help athletes to achieve sporting excellence by thinking and acting fast and efficiently.

Professor Helen Gilbert’s research analyses Olympic opening and closing ceremonies - the time when the eyes of the world focus on the host country.  Her research has looked at the history of these ceremonies, what they have said about the host country and what they sought to display to the world.

In particular, Professor Gilbert has researched the complexities of Aboriginal and native people’s participation in opening and closing ceremonies in Canada, Australia and the United States, and the difficulty in translating cultural traditions for a vast media audience. She has found that although the host country ideally wants to display a united front to the world, many indigenous people’s performances in Olympic ceremonies have subtly highlighted particular concerns and contradictions.

Professor Gilbert now hopes to chart these historic messages by looking at specific Olympic performances in ceremonies across the past 35 years in her work funded by the European Research Council. “The Olympic ‘spirit’ promotes utopian notions of a ‘common humanity’ that asks us to put personal and political tensions aside”, Professor Gilbert says. “Amid this celebration of global communitas, rigid formulas for Games ceremonies govern what can be said and shown. Nevertheless, key issues in the cultural politics of host nations are often writ large on the global stage during Games ceremonies, and they are certainly under tremendous scrutiny.”

The Universities UK report takes an in-depth look at how exploration and development in the areas of technology, health and wellbeing, design, sport development and participation and the Games past and present, have contributed to London 2012 and the UK sports industry.

For more information on how Royal Holloway’s London 2012 research, visit the Colleges Olympic research pages.

For more information about Universities week, visit the 2012 event website.  www.universitiesweek.org.uk


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