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.

Nike Pro Turbospeed tracksuit

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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About stevehaake

Steve did a first degree in Physics at the University of Leeds before landing two job offers: the first with BT turned out to be in a porta-cabin in the middle of a marsh, while the second was supposed to be image processing but was really smart-bomb design. This left a third option – a PhD in the mechanics of golf ball impacts on golf greens for a person who’d never hit a golf ball. It was a simple choice (the PhD if you didn’t guess) which led 25 years later to being head of a research team of 30-40 looking into similarly unlikely topics. Highlights of the career so far? The early years setting up the ISEA with the likes of Steve Mather, Ron Thompson, Clive Grant and Ron Morgan; the fact that the 1st International Conference on Sports Engineering in Sheffield in 1996 didn’t also turn out to be the last; and getting out the first issue of the first journal on Sports Engineering in 1998. The absolute high point, though, was being in the British Club in Singapore as a guest of the High Commission when the bid for the 2012 Olympics was announced. This has led to the team delivering projects with Olympic athletes that every scientist with a love of sport can only dream of. Steve is now a Senior Media Fellow funded by the EPSRC to encourage the public to engage in science, particularly in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

3 Responses

  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 second of three letters and responses between Steve Haake and Jim Parry that originally appeared in People and Science.  See the first letter here. […]

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