80 French medals. Twice as many as in previous editions. This is the target the French government has set for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris . In order to support athletes, the Minister for Sports is keen to give them the backing of the scientific community. A €20m package will fund a call for tenders within the context of the priority research programme (PPR).
The researcher Franck Multon has been tasked with coordinating all Inria initiatives relating to sport at a national level. "We have at least 23 teams whose work may be of interest to athletes, beginning with motion capture, whether this is using video or sensors, such as the Zyggie developed by the Cairn team in Lannion. Then there is data processing with a team such as Linkmedia in Rennes, motion recognition with Stars in Nice and big data and artificial intelligence with Modal in Lille or Misits in Grenoble. Running parallel to all of this, there is also modelling of physical interaction, as seen in the work carried out by Acumes involving the motion of a kayak on water. Not forgetting biomechanical analysis and movement simulation, the two areas in which my team, MimeTIC, based in Rennes, specialises. All of this information then has to be reproduced through either virtual or augmented reality, with this work carried out by teams such as Hybrid in Rennes, Loki in Lille or Potioc in Bordeaux. "
With this expertise at its disposal, Inria will be involved in a number of projects within the context of the priority research programme (PPR). "MimeTIC will be responsible for heading up two such projects. The first of these will involve virtual reality, working in partnership with the French national federations for boxing, taekwondo, gymnastics and shooting, while the second will be on tennis with the French Tennis Federation. We will also participate in other projects on cycling, swimming and surfing. Meanwhile, in Grenoble, my colleague Lionel Reveret will be heading up a project with a number of Inria teams; France's national institute for sport, expertise and performance (the Insep); and several biomechanics laboratories. Lionel will also be working in close collaboration with the French Climbing Federation. At the Inria Saclay - île-de-France centre, we also have Frédéric Chazal from the DataShape team, who will be working with the French Sailing Federation. "
Clubs, federations and local authorities eligible for Cifre theses
Another key factor in this preparation stage will be the national association for research and technology. The ANRT will be handling Cifre theses, a scheme that traditionally enables companies to fund PhDs within public research laboratories.
"The ANRT is keen to see more Cifre theses in the field of sport. As we draw ever closer to the Olympics, it is reminding local authorities, sports clubs and federations of their eligibility for participating in this scheme. We currently have a PhD student working within my team in Rennes, funded by the French Tennis Federation. " In partnership with the Movement Sport Health (M2S) laboratory and supported by the researcher and former player Caroline Martin, the aim of this research is to help prevent injuries among young athletes.
The deadline of 2024 is forcing teams to really up their game. "The Organisation Committee was clear in stating that they did not want these games to become a testing ground. " In other words, "the technology being deployed must be operational two years in advance, in 2022. Because of this, it is essential for work to begin on theses as quickly as possible. Three PhD students have just joined our team and we are anticipating several more. "
That said, athletes and scientists have been working together for a long time now. "Take football, for example. MimeTIC has an ongoing contract with Stade Rennais, training their goalkeepers in the use of virtual reality. " These exercises make it possible to track several players while promoting peripheral vision. "Benoît Costil, a former goalkeeper for Rennes and a French international, is our best ambassador for this training exercise, which has since become routine. We also work with the club's medical staff for the biomedical monitoring of other players. "
Research work is rendered much easier by the existence of Immermove. Located in Rennes and devoted entirely to research, "this platform is one of a kind in Europe, both in terms of its surface area and the level of equipment on offer. This includes a 20 x 30 m gymnasium kitted out with around sixty or so cameras. The extension, meanwhile, is home to a virtual reality room 12 m wide, 4 m deep and 4 m high, making it one of the largest in the world. "
For scientists working in the world of sport, these Olympics will also provide an opportunity for them to become more organised. The CNRS has just put together a research group around this very theme, and the same thing has been happening at Inria. "This is the second component of my assignment. More specifically, we are beginning to forge closer ties with the Insep, the body dedicated to high level sport in France, which will enable us to set up collaborative partnerships. Inria has also just signed an agreement to join Sciences 2024 as a partner. Headed up by Polytechnique, this group of 11 grandes Ecoles is responsible for performing what we call mining. This involves delegations visiting Olympic teams in order to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges facing athletes, enabling them to devise research questions. Inria will now be taking part in this process. "
In late September, scientists from Inria also attended the Sport Unlimitech festival in Lyon, where we had the opportunity to establish some valuable contacts.
"Indeed, it was at Sport Unlimitech that Anne-Hélène Olivier, a researcher within our team, met the French national rugby union team's doctor. She discussed with him her work on detecting concussions in rugby players based on analysis of pedestrian collision avoidance. Following an initial concussion, it is essential to make sure that the player is not suffering from any after-effects before they are allowed to return to the field. Doctors currently examine footage during matches, observing the players so as to be able to detect any anomalies in terms of their conduct, which could be a sign of a deeper issue. But that's what happens during the game. What we want is to be able to take action ahead of time, during training. Anne-Hélène has carried out a substantial amount of work on pedestrians avoiding each other on the street, collating terabyte upon terabyte of data on their behaviour. Automatic image analysis makes it possible to statistically identify when someone is deviating from their normal behaviour. Could these same principles be used to detect concussion in rugby players? That, in any case, is the concept. The research still has to be validated, but the early signs are encouraging. "
It is worth pointing out that we have also been helped by Christine Azevedo from Camin, who uses electrical stimulation and neuroprosthetics to take paraplegic patients to the Cybathlon, a sporting competition for disabled athletes assisted by new support technology.
Our contacts are not limited to sporting bodies, however. "During Sport Unlimitech, we also met with companies such as Orange, who want to improve the spectator experience for future competitions. We also spoke to regional bodies who are looking to develop events targeted at the wider public mixing sport and science. Inria also presented two start-ups: Ambiciti, which was not initially from this sector but which could be of interest to it, and AnatoScope, whose work involves carrying out individual anatomical modelling, including for prosthetics. "
Working alongside a former PhD student, Franck Multon has also just launched a start-up. Its name: Moovency. This is a bit further away from sport, remaining within the confines of biomechanics. The company is interested in capture and the ergonomics of operators at their workstations, based on criteria relating to difficulty. We are currently in high demand, particularly in the agribusiness sector, for musculoskeletal disorders.