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.
On your main point – sport should be about competition between athletes, not technologies – I can see that this is a compelling argument. The rules of sport, however, actively encourage technological innovation by including in them specifications of what can and can’t be done with materials, designs etc. In the example of the javelin you gave, the competition set by the ruling body is “see how far you can throw a javelin”. For this you need the best thrower and the best understanding of what goes into a good throw, whether this is technique, aerodynamic characteristics or eating lots of red meat. This is the test set – it’s up to the ruling body if they want to change the competition to “see how far you can throw this javelin”.
Technology has a delicate role to play – generally we are happy if technology supports improvement but become unhappy if it appears to dominate. In many ways, technology helps with the survival of sport from an economic point of view – the sales of new tennis rackets and bikes keeps the interest and motivation alive. Many of these companies then become sponsors of their own sports so that it then becomes very difficult to bring in rules banning technologies without ruining the sport.
Yes, that’s a big problem. Technology companies are interested in making a profit out of sport. If they can come up with some technological ‘advance’, everyone will have to buy it, and they will cash in. Selfishly, they may then sponsor sport that promotes their own products, and their cash input might influence what’s acceptable as the next innovation. Thus, technology begins to determine the future of the sport. Nightmare.
One role for technology is to promote record-breaking, which is a central feature of ‘quantifiable’, high-performance sport. Since human abilities are finite, an important factor is better equipment: track, clothing, shoes, training technologies, etc. But isn’t this a kind of fraud? We think humans are getting better, because new records keep getting set – but is it down to the human, or the technology?
The pursuit of athletic records produces a desperate treadmill of technology-assisted quantifications. But the 100m record is doomed – it will eventually grind to a halt, after a period of nano-second improvements. However, quantitative records are unimportant for other sports, such as games – which are about who wins here and now. They will continue to provide endless joy, as technology improves qualitative aspects of our sporting experience.