The science behind sporting performance: Ghent University’s best expertise in the second season of ’Wereldrecord’ on Canvas


Why are Ghent University researchers studying the motor skills of sports journalist Maarten Vangramberen? Much has to do with the matter of how world records are made. Exceptional performance that no-one can explain.

Or can they? As from Monday, Canvas will launch the second season of ’Wereldrecord’ (World Record), during which Maarten Vangramberen joins other researchers from Ghent University in searching for scientific explanations for top performance.

For example, Wayde Van Niekerk, who managed to break a 17-year world record during the 400m final at the Olympic Games in Rio. One year previously, at the World Championships in Peking, he was carried off on a stretcher after the final. The reason? Acidification. Quite common for this distance apparently. Using a laboratory experiment, professor Wim Derave (exercise physiology) explains acidification and how sportspeople build up a pH-buffer.

Nafi’s motor skills

In 2017, Nafi Thiam was the star of the Athletics World Championships, winning the gold medal in the heptathlon. For decades, however, the world record held by Jackie Joyner-Kersee in this category seemed invincible. The performance of Nafi Thiam, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and other competitors is incredible. Do their motor skills have something to do with it? Professor Frederik De Coninck (motor control) took on the challenge and developed a kind of motor-skill heptathlon. In doing so, he was able to compare the motor skills of the athlete Thomas Van Der Plaetsen with those of Maarten, as presenter.

Fast or slow muscle fibres?

The bodies of those doing a heptathlon are of scientific interest for a range of reasons. Their muscles, for example. Top athletes who run longer distances have slow muscle fibres. In comparison, explosive sports such as sprinting require fast muscle fibres. But a heptathlon combines the different disciplines. So what do heptathlon athletes’ muscles look like? Professor Deraeve performed a Muscle Talent Scan on the heptathlete and student at Ghent University student, Hanne Maudens, in order to investigate the composition of her muscle fibres.

Mythical jump

One of the most amazing world records is that of the long-jumper, Mike Powell. It has not been beaten in almost 30 years. In 1991, he jumped what can now be referred to as the mythical distance of 8.95 metres during the World Championships in Tokyo. No-one has yet managed to beat it. Is there such a thing as the optimal jump? If yes, can this be calculated? Professor Dirk De Clercq and professor Veerle Segers (biomechanics) made a study of this using a 3-D Motion Capture.


Do trained athletes demonstrate a different pattern of vision? Professor Matthieu Lenoir (motor control) and his team checked this out using an eyetracker, comparing the long-jumper Matthias Broothaers with Maarten. They also took a better look at balance among gymnasts. After all, that perfect gymnastics routine by Nadia Com-neci in 1976 required nothing less than perfect balance control.