'Sciences 2024': research goes for Olympic gold

The 'Sciences 2024' research programme was launched on September 4th 2018 to help boost French athletes' performances at the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games. It is now drawing to a close and has clearly helped bring sport and science closer together for the long term as we now await France's results at the Games.

In 2018, Christophe Clanet, a CNRS research professor, announced the launch of a totally new research programme, 'Sciences 2024', in the columns of CNRS News. The programme was launched in the run-up to the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris and is the first in France to combine sport and science to this extent. Its stated aim is to increase the medal haul of the French delegations. What has become of 'Sciences 2024' six years after its launch and a few months before the Olympic Games? What has it achieved and what will its legacy be once the Games are over?

There is no denying the prime merit of the programme, namely "putting 'hard science' at the service of elite sport" as Christophe Clanet is delighted to recount as director of the programme. There have been a few individual initiatives along these lines in the past but France has never had such an ambitious and structured programme. 'Sciences 2024' is also supported at the highest levels of the French state and involves around fifteen grandes écoles, national research bodies – the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), the CNRS and the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (Inria) – and sporting institutions such as the National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance and the Centre national des sports de la Défense. Christophe Clanet praises the role played by the French government: "Without the French government and the National Research Agency (ANR) there wouldn't have been any funding for research into elite sport". With this level of support the initiative's aim is to make up ground on other major sporting nations. Christophe Clanet explains that "the nations that perform best in sport also do the most research on the subject. The United States, China and the United Kingdom publish the most in this area". The High-Performance Sport Priority Research Programme (PPR) has used part of its €20 million budget over five years to finance twelve national projects via the ANR and the 'Investments for the Future 3' programme. Scientific teams from the 'Sciences 2024' programme are involved in five of these – 'Neptune' for swimming, 'CtoOr' for sailing, 'REVEA' for boxing and gymnastics, 'THPCA' for cycling and rowing and 'Paraperf' for Paralympic sports. The 'Sciences 2024' teams have also responded to requests from other sports federations like those for equestrian sports, table tennis, athletics and badminton. The associated scientific teams then divided up the different elements of the PPR including the mental preparation of athletes, using video and artificial intelligence tools and so forth.


Exercice sportif lors d'un audit évaluant la qualité physique de véliplanchistes
Sports exercise during an audit assessing the physical quality of windsurfers. © Cyril FRESILLON / ISM / CNRS Images


Research serving France's teams

Unlike fundamental research, the research applied to the Olympic Games is intended to be utilitarian, with a short-term focus and to serve sports teams. Rémi Carmigniani is a Ponts, Eaux et Forêts engineer and researcher at the Saint-Venant Hydraulics Laboratory at the École des Ponts ParisTech and this is a subject he knows well. As a former top-level swimmer involved in the PPR's Neptune project, he aims to enhance the performances of French swimmers through learning and optimising sports gestures. His work anything but arcane – he aims to "transform field expertise into scientific expertise and quantify sports coaches' assessments". Élizabeth Colin is an academic at the Efrei Engineering School of Digital Technologies where she is the scientific contact person for 'Sciences 2024'. She confirms the need to convert empirical knowledge into scientific knowledge thus: "We need time to translate problems in the field into scientific problems".     

Time is the major challenge facing scientists studying sports because training and competitions make it a precious commodity. The members of 'Sciences 2024' are having to adapt to the constraints faced by sportsmen and women in this context. Rémi Carmigniani has organised rapid poolside feedback to confirm or refute the perceptions of coaches and swimmers in his work in collaboration with the French Swimming Federation. Such constraints also lead to their own scientific challenges. As a modelling physicist, Rémi Carmigniani is particularly interested in a science he considers "tailor-made, whose models are adapted to each athlete", like, for example, Maxime Grousset, gold medallist in the 100 metre butterfly at the last world swimming championships. The members of 'Sciences 2024' express a general feeling of pleasure in their work which leads Christophe Clanet to consider the initial objective has been achieved: "We are where we wanted to be – working on a daily basis with coaches".


Prise de notes lors de l'évaluation des effets d’un entraînement perceptif au volleyball
Note-taking during evaluation of the effects of perceptual volleyball training. © David VILLA / ScienceImage, CBI / CERCO / CNRS Images


The scientific legacy of the Olympic Games

With the Olympic Games fast approaching what are the future prospects for sports research? The stakeholders involved in 'Sciences 2024' have a unanimous reply – whatever the French teams' results, their initiative will have helped bring worlds together that actually did not speak to each other until now. Faten Chakchouk is a professor at the Efrei and the director of a thesis on using artificial intelligence to carry out a video analysis of characterising the gait of horses. She is part of 'Sciences 2024' and confirms that the programme has "built bridges". Her PhD student, Benoît Pasquiet, is also a research engineer at the French Horse and Riding Institute (IFCE) and confirms the programme's link with the IFCE, an institution that has firm sporting roots: "By opening up partnerships with leading schools, 'Sciences 2024' has taught us technical possibilities we had not previously mastered like data processing using machine learning. This means we can carry out more advanced analyses of sporting movements". The IFCE had also asked the Efrei to benefit from its data processing expertise and support because the IFCE was "technically stuck because of a lack of the right skills". All of these partnerships have succeeded because the parties involved adopted a common vocabulary and a shared objective namely to enhance sporting performance. As these collaborations come to a close, many in sport have found how much they appreciate the specific role of scientists within their teams. Rémi Carmigniani agrees with this and sees his work providing as "decision-making support" for coaches.

Many of the projects launched as part of 'Sciences 2024' will not come to an end with the Olympic Games, far from it. The Efrei and the IFCE still have a number of research projects on using data in equestrian sports to launch. Benoît Pasquiet thinks IT tools could provide a better understanding of "fatigue, injury, behaviour and even certain warning signals in horses" as well as their input in analysing technical movements. Rémi Carmigniani insists the French Swimming Federation will appropriate his research and the analysis tools he developed to facilitate training for future generations of swimmers: "We are lucky to have the chance to work with the best in the world, like Maxime Grousset, to construct quality physical models that will be passed on to future generations. What interests us the most is leaving a legacy."


Robot nageur utilisé lors de l'étude des mécanismes propulsif et résistif chez le nageur expert
Robot swimmer used to study propulsive and resistive mechanisms in expert swimmers. © Cyril FRESILLON / PPRIME / CNRS Images


At the end of the day, the French delegations' sporting results will matter little to the project as the new relationship between sport and science is very unlikely to stop there. Perhaps Christophe Clanet's dream will come true – to see 'Sciences 2024' and its legacy "become the French national research team".

The CNRS leads the Sports and Physical Activities GDR

As well as the CNRS's support for the 'Sciences 2024' project on high performance, the organisation has set up another federative initiative on sport – the Sport and Physical Activities Research Network (GDR) launched in 2018. This GDR's stakeholders work with a multi- and interdisciplinary research approach on both sports and other physical activities with the first five years mainly taken up with constructing and running the network. Now the CNRS has asked its Mission for Transversal and Interdisciplinary Initiatives to steer the second phase of the GDR's work on four new research areas – 'The human and social factors linked to high performance', 'Sport, health and well-being', 'Sport and education' and 'Sport, territories and employment'.