If Larry Tanenbaum has his way, the new institute of sport science at the University of Toronto bearing his name will produce research of global importance that could improve the performance of professional and amateur athletes, and spur scientific discoveries in health and wellness for everyone. But perhaps most important for fans of his pro teams, which include the Toronto Maple Leafs, he is convinced the institute’s work might even offer an edge that could lead to a Stanley Cup.
“There’s not even a question about it,” Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Monday. “This will help us win championships.”
On Tuesday, the University of Toronto and Sinai Health hospital network are set to unveil the Tanenbaum Institute for Science in Sport, a global centre of excellence for high-performance sport science and sports medicine kickstarted by a $20-million gift from the Larry and Judy Tanenbaum Family Foundation. U of T and Sinai Health will contribute an additional $21.5-million.
The funds will endow a number of positions in rapidly evolving fields, including a chair of musculoskeletal regenerative medicine, a chair in sport science and data modelling, and a professorship in orthopedic sports medicine. It will also back a research-acceleration fund focused on discoveries across a number of disciplines, from concussions to biomechanics, wearable technologies, nutrition, parasport, orthopedics, and regenerative medicine.
Tanenbaum said that as an owner of professional sports teams for more than two decades, he has considered the issue of athlete training and injuries. “Are we the best prepared, from a physical point of view, from a training point of view, to win championships?” He added that “championships in some cases rise and fall on whether your one or two or three key players are injured. So, if we can speed recovery by a week, by a month – if we can cut the injury time in half, that gets the player back.”
Ira Jacobs, the interim director of the institute, who stepped down last fall as dean of U of T’s faculty of kinesiology and physical education, said that it has been challenging to finance sports medicine research in Canada. “To go through a granting agency, and say that you’re going to be focusing only on high-performance athletes, is not a good recipe for success.”
“This gives us resources to recruit and hire great people,” said Jacobs, who noted there is funding for postdoctoral students, fellowships, and trainees in the field. “That’s a dream,” he said. “We have really big expectations of what this will do.”
He noted that the institute will be able to draw on large data, including the approximately 1,000 athletes that comprise U of T’s varsity teams, as well as patients in the Sinai Health system, which includes two hospitals and a research centre.
Alex McKechnie, the vice-president of player health and performance for the Toronto Raptors, who provided input into the development of the institute on behalf of Tanenbaum, said that, as an example, the youth soccer program run by Toronto FC could capture large amounts of health data on athletes as they develop. “You can be tracking these kids through growth states, growth spurts, all of these different areas that are quite interesting: How certain training levels can affect joints, for example.”
He also noted that research that emerges could help teams such as the Raptors size up prospects.
“When we draft a player, we certainly do our due diligence,” he said. If the Raptors are considering signing a player beset by nagging injuries, the team could tap into a deep well of data, compiled by the university, on similar injuries, to be able to offer prognoses and treatments that have worked for players of similar body types.
Kia Nurse, the Canadian-born basketball star who plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, noted that wearable technologies are helping her recover from a torn ACL she suffered last October during a playoff game.
“I wear ankle bracelets every single time that I go to do a workout,” she said. “It tells me how much force I’m putting through both my feet, so you can tell if I’m leaning off of my ACL leg and giving my other leg a little bit too much pressure. I can tell if I’m running equally on both feet.”
She also noted that the institute’s work would benefit diverse populations, including para athletes.
And Tanenbaum noted that the knowledge that emerges will not just be applicable to professionals. “The information that’s going to come out of this institute is going to benefit all athletes everywhere.”
For the foreseeable future, the institute will exist in a purely virtual form. There is no grand building planned with the Tanenbaum name on it. “That’s not the reason I’m doing this,” Tanenbaum said. “All the money is really directed programmatically. It’s building this program that I truly believe is going to be a globally recognized institute within a short period of time.”
While the institute is not a for-profit undertaking, it may develop intellectual property that can be commercialized and sold to pro sports teams. Still, asked by a reporter how the institute might offer an advantage to the teams of MLSE if its research is designed to be shared with the global sports community, Tanenbaum joked: “Maybe I won’t release it for a year, so we can have the Leafs, the Raptors, and TFC get a head start on it.”