Science Spat: Is the use of technology in sport cheating? Round 1.

It appears that in this year’s Olympics, the issue of technology in sport is as big an issue as it’s ever been.  And with running suits appearing in athletics, it is bound to be a hot topic of conversation.  The ‘science spat’ below is the first of three letters and responses between Steve Haake and Jim Parry that originally appeared in People and Science.

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Dear Jim,

As a sports engineer, I am really keen to ensure that our Olympic athletes have access to the best that technology can bring them.  Why spend 4 years doing all that training and spending those early hours at the track just to ruin it by using some soggy old running shoes?

I’ve worked for companies such as adidas and Prince, for ruling bodies such as the International Tennis Federation and the England and Wales Cricket Board and there is a real desire for technological improvement.  When it comes down to sports where equipment is a key component, then performance can be improved markedly.  Accepted concepts in sport that were once controversy are now widely accepted: the wider-bodied carbon fibre tennis racket; dimples on a golf ball; solid aerodynamic wheels for bicycles.

Those in charge of sport at the highest level – the IOC, FIFA etc. – spend a lot of time on the rules of sport and performance technology to them generally means ‘drugs’.  Introduce something from the world of engineering such as new swimsuits or goal-line technology and they go into a panic.

Best wishes,

Steve

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Dear Steve,

Of course, the technology is part of the sport – no football without the ball! And that will advance with benefits: no more brain damage from heading a pudding; fewer knee injuries from better soles and studs; better surfaces to play on – great!

But we can see why there’s tech-phobia out there, when advanced (= rich) countries can buy success for their athletes with better technology – like Atlanta 1996, when ‘moonbikes’ won cycling medals for the US. Formula 1 or Formula Ford? F1 is a championship for drivers AND manufacturers. FF gives the ‘same’ car to everyone, and so provides a competition only between the drivers. Sport should be about competition between athletes, not technologies. Identical javelins test for the best thrower. ‘Bring-your-own javelin’ allows a secret tech-race for tech-superiority, and an inferior thrower could win.

Also, technology can go too far – who wants a tech-javelin so good that we risk killing spectators! And we have to consider the way in which a technological innovation changes the sport.  With fast-skin swimsuits (borderline case), at least you’re still ‘swimming’. Would we allow flippers (no) or a monofin (no)? Why not? Because then you’re obviously not doing what we call ‘swimming’.

Best wishes,

Jim

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