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Sir Steve Redgrave: “Sport helps us relate science to real life”

27 Jul, 2012
Sir Steve Redgrave and pupils at St Paul's Way Trust School

Sir Steve Redgrave and pupils at St Paul’s Way Trust School

“Sport helps us relate science to real life,” says five-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave. 

At school I was always more of a practical person, so preferred subjects like woodwork to science. But one physics lesson sticks in my mind, some 35 years on. Demonstrating the principle of friction, the teacher hung a 2 kg weight from the ceiling. He proposed letting go of the rope it was tied to, above the head of one of the more boisterous boys in the school. Reluctant to believe that friction was enough to prevent the weight hitting him in the face, the boy declined, but one of the girls took his place and survived unscathed!

The idea of relating science to everyday things in a memorable – but perhaps not as extreme – way is one of the inspirations behind the Wellcome Trust’s In the Zone kits. The kits, which will be arriving in schools by the end of March, will provide a physiology-related science experiment for every student of school age in the UK.

Why is it important to understand the science behind our bodies when we undertake physical activity? I believe that the more you know about what you’re doing, the better you’ll be able to perform. When giving advice to rowers, I get them to teach the sports science aspects to someone else. This is not because I want them to be teachers, but because if they understand it enough to explain to others, then they’ll understand it themselves, and it could improve their performance.

In a way, we’re applying this principle to the experiment kits. While understanding more about their own lung function or lower body strength, for example, may not make students better sportspeople, it will help them understand more about why these things are important for everyone. We’re not so much about inspiring students to become the next Usain Bolt, but more about helping them know why elite athletes like Bolt are as good as they are. What is it about his physical make-up that makes him a great sprinter? What kinds of training does he undertake to hone his performance?

When I first got involved in the bid for the 2012 Olympics, back in 2000, I wanted everyone in Britain to be part of the Games. Of course, only a very small percentage of the population will be selected to compete for the country, but Olympics-inspired events and initiatives, like In the Zone, contribute to the human legacy and influence the next generation growing up here.

Even if you’re not the one on the starting blocks getting ready to race, I believe we can all feel the passion of the Games. And if we can make people a bit more aware of their own bodies, through the great work of projects like In the Zone, then we can all be winners.

Steve Redgrave

The In the Zone exhibition is currently on tour around the UK. Find out more at

This article first appeared in Wellcome News issue 70.

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