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SPORTS: THE NEXT DECADE : TECHNOLOGY : Searching for Perfect Fit With Designer Genes : ELLIOTT ALMOND / Times Staff Writer

December 28, 1989

The Tech Heads are out there. Men and women in little white suits tooling with test tubes, dabbling with diodes. They are drenching us with the machinery of the future as we enter the final episode of the 20th Century.

Enough already?


These software sissies are just starting to roll.

Already, they are wedging their way into the vast sports science market. As athletes stride toward new frontiers, a retinue of technocrats are tagging along for the ride.

Joining coach and trainer are biomechanicists, orthopedists, nutritionists, massage therapists. All user friendly. All claiming to have a stake in the construction of tomorrow's athlete.

What in God's name are they going to build?

Let's find out.

BIONICS: Send in the Clones "By 1996, a marathon runner equipped with a super-efficient artificial heart might actually be disqualified because he would have an unfair advantage," Dr. Willem Kolff of the University of Utah said.

Perhaps Kolff seems flip, but the construction of artificial humans is under way.

You want parts? They've got parts: artificial pacemakers, artificial heart valves, blood vessels made of polyester fibers, prosthetic hip joints and knees.

They make shoulder, elbow, wrist and ankle joints from acrylic plastics and metal alloys. And one of the latest--artificial stapes, a Teflon and metal substitute for a tiny bone in the middle ear that restores hearing in patients suffering excessive bone growth.

As science progresses, every RNA-DNA will be overturned to understand the mystery of life. Physics and molecular biology will be trying to decipher the inner workings of genes and atoms.

Perhaps, said Dr. Stephen C. Jacobsen at the University of Utah, scientists will graft arms of gorillas for football players of the future.

However, Jacobsen, director of the Center for Engineering Design, said science is not ready to introduce a humanized robot.

"The first thing you learn, human and animal bodies are absolutely ferocious machines," he said. "A machine that has the strength, speed and control of a football player is beyond imagination.

"I can build you a robot as strong or as fast as a person. But I can't get whole thing together in one package."

That's not to say Jacobsen and his colleagues are not trying. The Center for Engineering Design produces an artificial arm that is electronically manipulated to perform menial tasks.

Willem hypothesizes about the future artificial hand: "It will be gentle enough to hold a tomato or to peel an orange. At the same time it will be strong enough to crack a nut. Some artificial arms will move fingers 1,000 times faster than normal."

It is feasible to implant muscles and direct their movements from a computer. And wouldn't that be fun? Athletes would be living, breathing Foosball players, manipulated by outside sources.

Stop, says Gideon Ariel, a biomechanicist from Coto de Caza in Trabuco Canyon.

"You can do amazing things but you defeat the purpose," he said. "It's not sport anymore. You can create all kinds of situations, create movement that is not natural. You can create electric shocks, change tendons. You can use remote control to control muscle movements. To even think about it is horrifying."

Horrifying, perhaps, but on the cutting edge.

For those about to panic, remember this. Scientists have not devised a machine to duplicate that special something that turns Joe Namath into Broadway Joe . . . Joe Greene into Mean Joe Greene.

"There still is that inherent something, whatever it is, that you can't really quantify," said Dr. Lewis A. Yocum of Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood.

So when you find it, what do you do? Clone it?

"You're not going to clone or try and recreate the Nolan Ryans, the Tom Kites," Yocum said. "But you can take certain attributes from these people, and apply them to the average amateur athletes.

"In no way shape or form are we going to try and create a 900 m.p.h. fastball. But what we can do is to start to groom the athlete the right way."

And that means giving an athlete a perfect model to emulate.

BIOMECHANICS: VidKids Are All Right You have seen Six-Million Dollar men and Bionic Women. R2D2s and 3CPOs. RoboCops and cyborgs.

Even Sons of Flubber.

On film, anyway, man and machines mix.

They also are mixing on computer screens everywhere. Biomechanicists, who take the principles of engineering and apply them to the human body, are utilizing high-speed film of movement and translating it into digital form.

What they get are a series of stick figures that can pinpoint flaws in technique. Computerized stick figures were introduced about 20 years ago. Since then, athletes have compared their movements on screen to opponents'.

Robert O. Voy, a sports medicine doctor working in Las Vegas, said the technique is being refined so scientists can accurately gauge specific movements.

That is what the next decade of sports science will be about: Isolating muscle deficiencies with regards to specific activities.

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