Science Spat: Is the use of sport in technology cheating? Round 3.

It appears that in this year’s Olympics, the issue of technology in sport is as big an issue as it’s ever been.  The ‘science spat’ below is the third of three letters and responses between Steve Haake and Jim Parry that originally appeared in People and Science.  Read the first and second letters if you haven’t already done so.

Dear Jim,

The economic angle of sport could take up pages of words from us I suspect: ever since one runner said to another “I bet I can beat you to that tree and back” sport and money have been intertwined.  I wish I could be around for another 100 years to see what comes of the men’s 100 m sprint when it truly has leveled off (9.29 s anyone?).  Will we create new records in our heads?  The highest number of consecutive wins?  The most runners under 10 s in one race?  The point here is that there are an infinite number of sports that we could play – when the sport seems moribund we change the rules or invent a new challenge (e.g. the passback rule in football, [or the rise of] triathlon).

And technology is a crucial part of that evolution of sport.  Not in the 100 m perhaps but in the more technical and equipment orientated sports.  Two things that distinguish humans from animals is our cognitive abilities and the use of tools, both of which we have applied to sport.  I just love this fact – let’s use our heads to ensure that we keep the balance of tradition and technology right.



Dear Steve,
Nice idea – balance of tradition and technology. Take the 100 metres. To reject all technological assistance would mean sprinting nude and in bare feet on earth. (Even grass is a technology.) But we needn’t insist on such purism, since all the top sprinters have the same gear. So it’s win-win: technology enhances the event; and there’s no ethical issue of access or advantage. But a new kind of shoe or clothing could cause such a problem, as in swimming, and that’s why we have to beware technology. Rule changes – yes! We can see why 100/200/400 metres are classic events – but, if records stagnate, we could turn to the 50/150/300/500 metres for new events.

Or we could have medley events: best combined times over 100/200/400. Rule changes such as these permit development even without new technology. So we can’t go headlong into new technologies. Look how artificial surfaces have been great for hockey and awful for football. The first requirement is that we look at how the technology might impact on the sport, and take decisions on the basis of how we want the sport to develop, and what we want the sport to become. Sport first and technology second!
Best wishes,

About stevehaake

Steve is Professor of Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University. He has a degree in Physics from the University of Leeds and a PhD from Aston University on the mechanics of golf balls on golf greens. He has over 200 publications, including his first book "Advantage Play: Technologies that changed Sporting History" due out in October 2018.