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Science: sport, the science behind the medals

Examine the roles that science and technology play in modern sport and develop an understanding of the scientific concepts that underpin many Olympic events.

This online course investigates a variety of sporting phenomena associated with the Olympic Games – including track and field, swimming, diving, and cycling – and the scientific concepts that athletes need to understand if they are to compete at this elite level. Science: sport, the science behind the medals is one of a series of 100-hour flexible online courses introducing fascinating topics in science. It allows you to learn about this topic just for interest and enables you to try out a new area of study before you commit yourself to further study. You can register and begin this course at any time and will have at least 6 months to complete it.

This is a non-credit bearing version of the now discontinued Sport: the science behind the medals.

Standalone study only

You will not be awarded credits for studying this course. It is available for standalone study only and cannot be counted towards an OU qualification.

Short course

Short course code
This is a non-credit bearing course.
Study method
Distance Learning
Short course cost
See Registration
Entry requirements
See Entry requirements

What you will study

This is a highly interactive online course that focuses on the physical science that underlies sport. You will study the course using a combination of online text, video clips, animations of sporting phenomena and a series of interactive computer activities that focus on specific scientific topics.

A central theme of the course is the concept of force, which is one of the most fundamental factors that affect sporting action. You will learn about the force of gravity, how this affects the motion of athletes in jumping and diving events, and how it affects the motion of balls in sports such as tennis and volleyball. You will learn about the basic nature of air and water, and how this leads to drag forces due to air and water resistance in swimming and diving. You will learn about frictional forces, and the effect that these forces have on performance in track sprinting and speed skating. Finally, you will see how the way that athletes move during sport and their overall performance depends not on any individual force but on the combination of many different forces.

Another theme of the course is the role of technology in modern sport. You will learn about the nature of materials such as carbon-fibre, and the effect that such materials have had on sports such as cycling and wheelchair racing. You will see how a better understanding of the human body has led to the development of specialised sporting drinks, training regimes and even specialised drugs that can influence sporting performance.

The course also introduces the quantities that athletes and coaches use to evaluate performance. You will learn about the concepts of speed, velocity and acceleration, and see how measurement of these quantities enables improvements in many sports, including the way that sprinters move away from the starting blocks and swimmers move though the water.

By the end of the course you’ll have developed a greater awareness of the role of science and technology in sport, and a greater understanding of the fundamental scientific concepts that underpin many Olympic events. You’ll also develop a range of study skills associated with finding, interpreting and communicating scientific information. You will develop graphical skills that enable you to plot and interpret scientific data and a special emphasis is placed on developing skills related to finding, evaluating and summarising scientific information on the internet.

By the end of this course you should be able to:

Demonstrate general knowledge and understanding of some of the basic facts, language, concepts and principles relating to the study of physical sciences in the context of sport, in particular:

  • forces, and their role in determining performance in sport
  • quantities such as distance, speed and acceleration that are used to analyse performance in sport
  • the properties of gases and liquids, and the effect of air and water resistance in sport
  • chemical notation and its application in the analysis of chemical reactions
  • the science behind new technologies, and their impact on sport.

This course will require 80–100 hours of your time in total, which can be spread over at least 6 months. Register online today and start tomorrow – no need to wait!

The course features the distinctive strengths of The Open University (OU) from its years of expertise in distance learning:

  • The convenience of accessing its clearly presented and sequenced materials, activities and support whenever suits you and wherever you have access to the protected course website – if you prefer, you can print key materials to work on them offline.
  • The support of an expert learning adviser who can clarify study materials, answer questions and help you relate the course to your specific needs.
  • An online interactive quiz that you can attempt as many times as you wish to help you test your own learning.
  • A statement of participation from the OU which you can use this to demonstrate your engagement with the course. (N.B. The course does not carry academic credit points.)

Some of the pages within the course contain links to external sites. Accessing these sites is part of the allocated study time for the course. You may also wish to undertake additional background study or reading if some of the concepts introduced are completely unfamiliar to you.

Learner support

Expert, confidential learner support is available when you need it from a learning adviser, who will respond to you directly. Other support is available via the course forum, library, dedicated website and computing helpdesk.

Teaching and assessment


There is no formal assessment on the course but you will be able to assess yourself on your factual knowledge through an online quiz that gives detailed feedback to help your learning.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations which are available on our Student Policies and Regulations website.

    Entry requirements

    The course does not assume any previous scientific background or any specific sporting knowledge and teaches the ideas and skills needed as and when they are required. All you need is an interest in the relationship between sport and science and the motivation to understand more of the science, and particularly the physics, behind a range of different sports.

    Mathematically you need only to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide simple numbers. The structured teaching will take you to a level at which you are happy to use mathematics as a tool in a range of scientific contexts. You should be able to read and understand written English of a style and complexity characteristic of a professional magazine or quality newspaper.

    You can study at your own pace and attempt the online quiz at any time before the end date for the course. Information about the end date is available when you register and will be at least six months after registration.

    If you want to see if this material is suitable for you, try a sample of the study material.


    Start End England fee Register
    At anytime Flexible - see Entry requirements for more detail £165.00 Register

    Ways to pay

    Credit/Debit Card – We accept American Express, Mastercard, Visa/Delta or Visa Electron.

    Sponsorship – If this course is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could ask your employer to sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. Your sponsor just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.

    The fee information provided here is valid for short courses starting in the 2019/20 academic year. Fees for short courses starting in the 2020/21 academic year or later may increase in line with the University’s strategic approach to fees.

    What's included

    All learning materials, activities and study support are delivered entirely online.

    You will need

    A basic scientific calculator.

    Computing requirements

    A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module.  Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

    Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

    A desktop or laptop computer with either:

    • Windows 7 or higher
    • macOS 10.7 or higher

    The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

    To participate in our online discussion area you will need both a microphone and speakers/headphones. 

    Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students. 

    If you have a disability

    The course is delivered online and makes use of a variety of online resources. If you use specialist hardware or software to assist you in using a computer or the internet you are advised to contact us about support which can be given to meet your needs. If you are a new learner with the OU, make sure that you look at our website.