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Why technology in sport poses a threat to keeping the game fair, safe and affordable

The swimsuit worn by competitors throughout 2009 improved performance and was subsequently banned. Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay

The history of technology in sport is a long and sordid love affair. It has thrilled, broken hearts, and either built success or elicited cries of fraud.

The humble golf ball is a good example. Fundamental to the game of golf is striking it from point “a” to “b” to end up in a hole in as few shots as possible. But apply a dimpled pattern to its surface and it can go further for less effort. Then optimise the pattern of the dimples and the ball will hook or slice less when struck. Suddenly the skill required to play the game is made easier.

Allowing any of these evolutionary steps is bound to trigger a debate about the importance and limits of technological progression.

Keeping it controversial

History is littered with the controversial use of sports technology.

The Polara golf ball is a case of an innovation making a sport too easy, effectively deskilling it. The innovation benefited lower-skilled players who had a greater tendency to make mistakes but not higher-skilled golfers who were already adept at making an accurate drive. It essentially deskilled the game – and was banned.

Full-body swimsuits captured the public’s imagination at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The introduction of the suit was shown to improve a swimmers’ performance dramatically as the designs evolved. After 43 records were broken in 40 events at the 2009 World Swimming Championships and 130 world records were broken in less than a year, the global swimming governing body voted to ban the full-length suits.

The tragedy was not that the suits were banned but that the world records remained in place. This meant that future athletes did not have the same advantage as those that had set them. This decision was arguably unfair.

Likewise the case of South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. In 2008, he sought to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The use of his prosthetic legs with carbon fibre blades resulted in a furious debate on what advantage they gave him.

After a protracted dispute involving studies and counter studies, Pistorius was allowed to run in both – mainly due to lack of agreement on the issue.

Did the prosthetic legs of South Africa’s fallen hero Oscar Pistorius give him an unfair advantage? Reuters/Davis Gray

Faster, higher, stronger

The motto of the Olympic Games is “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (faster, higher, stronger). This suggests that we should embrace any progress and push all of our resources to achieve it.

Never is this more apparent than in cycling. Forty years ago riders were wearing woollen jerseys and using the same bike for all events. Now they wear advanced fabrics to maximise aerodynamics and optimise core body temperature while using different bikes based on terrain or effort. It could be argued that the technology makes the effort of athletes today incomparable to those of the past.

The cycling hour record involves riders cycling as far they can on a velodrome in 60 minutes. In the 1990s there was a flurry of innovations and bikes evolved away from the design that had remained virtually unchanged since the 19th century.

Worried that things were getting out of hand and that engineers might be dictating the results, the international cycling governing body outlawed these designs. It then rewrote the rules in such a way that a rider was expected to use a similar design to those made 50 years ago. It was a noble idea, but cyclists continued to try and find loopholes.

In late 2014, the governing body rewrote its rules again to allow contemporary time trial bike designs. The reality is that giving a sport some technological wiggle-room can keep sponsors coming, provide interest to fans and may prevent a sport from stagnating.

Keeping it accessible

The equipment needed to perform a sport can determine its success and levels of participation. New and interesting technology may keep us engaged with a sport. But cost and access need to be monitored for it to remain accessible.

Part of the controversy around swimsuits was the fact that only athletes with the right sponsors could access them. Many others couldn’t – effectively making it a case, metaphorically speaking, of bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Make sports equipment and technology too expensive and very few future athletes will participate. Keep the equipment too technically difficult to use and amateurs will have to move onto something else.

Stand-up paddleboarding, for example, has been described as the world’s fastest growing watersport. But no robust governing body or equipment specification guides what length or width boards should be. Board width determines how stable the board is when paddled and therefore how skilled in balance a person needs to be. The narrower the board, the faster it will go but the more challenging it will be to use. Go wider and raw performance will suffer but more people will be able to engage with the sport.

The safety conundrum

What about the impact of technological progress on safety? For example, the centre of gravity of javelins was changed in the late 1980s to ensure that they remained within existing throwing infields as athletes were throwing further and further. Likewise, headgear in amateur boxing was eventually adopted to provide extra protection to its athletes.

But unintended consequences also have to be taken into account. While headgear has reduced the general severity of head injuries, it can also give a boxer an increased sense of invulnerability. This might explain why there has not been a reduction in the number of recorded head injuries since headgear was introduced.

Ultimately, there is a philosophical difference between technologies that facilitate a sport and those that enhance it. Empirical science often needs to be accompanied by philosophical debate. In the case of runners with an amputation, it isn’t just about how a prosthetic limb performs. It also challenges perceptions about disability and how closely humans should engage with technology.

Technology is there to facilitate a sport and to challenge the limits of our performance. But this has to be tempered with caution and vigilance to ensure a sport remains fair, safe and accessible.

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