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 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.