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The Role of Technology in Sport

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By – Vinay Narayan, Gujarat National Law University

Technology has been intrinsic to the development and advancement of Sports, much like it has in other aspects of life. From changing the shape and material used in tennis rackets to make them more effective or developing lighter, more accurate football boots to implementing video referees in various disciplines, technology has changed the dimensions of sport. Sports Engineering is a term that is frequently used to describe the technological advances that have helped facilitate a sport and challenge the limits of human performance. Technology, therefore, certainly seems to have a cherished place in sports.

However, there is also a darker side to the use of technology in sport. With significant advances in technology, players now receive competitive advantages from the use of certain sporting equipment, and many view this as anathema to the spirit of sport. This is especially so when you consider that sport has historically been a pantheon for human endeavor and testing the limits of human potential. The use of the term “Technology doping” to refer to this practice, indicates its seriousness and severity. To put it in context, doping, or the act of enhancing one’s performances through the use of drugs is considered one of the gravest crimes one can commit in sport. It is seen as being contrary to the very spirit of sport and has a separate international governing body, the World Anti-Doping Agency, governing the administration and penalizing the use of performance-enhancing drugs. To equate technology that might affect performance to the level of doping, indicates the seriousness with which this issue is considered.

Technology doping is not a new issue. Technological advancements through history have caused controversy. The ‘polara’ golf ball, invented in the 1970s, used technology to determine the most accurate placement of ‘dimples’ on the golf ball to negate any possible effects of hooks and slices. The innovation benefitted lower skilled players who were prone to mishit, but not highly-skilled players who could already hit with a great degree of accuracy. In effect, it removed a significant component of skill from the game. The United States Golf Association banned the use of these balls in 1971.

In 1993, Brian Obree decided to challenge the cycling world hour record, which is the record for longest distance cycled in one hour. Obree built his own bicycle for his attempt and produced a model that enabled him to generate more power from his thighs while being more aerodynamic. The International Cyclist Union (UCI) proceeded to ban it and a later model of Obree’s and instituted strict guidelines for cycles, stating that the models must mirror those used in the 1970s, so that current cyclists are not unduly advantaged.

In 2008, Speedo introduced their LZR swimsuits which allowed for better buoyancy and better oxygen flow to the muscles. The efficacy of the swimsuit was seen in the 2008 Olympics where 23 out of the 25 world records that were made, were done so by swimmers wearing this swimsuit. In total, in a period of 17 months, 130 world records were broken. FINA subsequently banned it, stating that it provided the athletes with an undue advantage. Bizarrely, however, the world records that were set using these swimsuits were allowed to stand, and without the help of these swimsuits, athletes are now at a disadvantage in trying to set world records.

Given the pace of technological development in modern times, and the commercial viability of sport, more and more athletes are looking to gain competitive advantages using technology, making this issue a very hot topic.

A common solution to this problem that’s been put forth is that teams can be allowed equal access to sporting equipment, thus levelling the playing field. There are two major problems with this argument. The first is that, in a world obsessed with ‘world records’, this solution does not help. A prime example of this is seen in the discipline of pole vaulting. The first Olympics saw the use of wooden poles, with a winning height of 3.3m. Subsequently athletes achieved higher heights with steel poles and then with a switch to glass and carbon fibre poles, athletes managed a height of 5.96m. While some of this can be attributed to player skill and technique, it is inevitable, that the equipment has played a part in achieving the record.

The second and more concerning problem is the access to technology and the affordability. Many nations and teams invest a lot of money into research and development and they may not particularly be open to sharing the equipment they have resulted in. At the same time, the high cost of such equipment could also deter a lot of athletes who are simply not in a place to afford them due to a lack of resources. Research carried out by the United States’ teams in two disciplines is a principal example of this. American speed skaters wore uniforms manufactured by Under Armour, an American sports apparel company. The unique thing about these uniforms however, was that Under Armour teamed up with Lockheed Martin, one of the foremost aerospace and advanced technologies companies in the world, to develop the suit. As a result, the suit now includes methods of dealing with wind resistance to help reduce time and give the athletes an advantage.

Similarly, the United States Bobsled team, has teamed up with German Car Manufacturer BMW to help design their Bobsleds. One needs to have only a very brief glance at the bobsled to realize that BMW has completely redesigned it and has built the thing entirely out of carbon fibre. Considering that BMW develops cars that perform in a number of motorsports and have state of the art aerodynamic technology, it is a certainty that the American Bobsleds will be quicker and more aerodynamic. Does the USA then gain an unfair advantage with this bobsled? And if one were to put forth the solution of allowing all teams access to such technology, the question that needs to be asked is not if BMW will part with such technology at a low cost, but rather whether other teams can afford such cutting-edge technology, which is bound to be expensive.

Even when one considers advanced training and recovery techniques athletes use, the issue of access comes up. Oxygen chambers which are designed to help an athlete recuperate after a hard training session, football boots with imbedded microchips, which track data about which part of the foot the ball is kicked with, most certainly help athletes and teams train in a more effective manner by fine-tuning the specific areas where improvement is needed. These technologies are not cheap however and only the top teams can afford them at the moment.

There is also the not so small matter of the use of prosthetics. While athletes with prosthetics have traditionally seen their arena limited to the Paralympics, South African ‘blade runner’ Oscar Pistorius challenged these notions by petitioning to be allowed to take part in races against able-bodied athletes. After a five-year battle, Pistorius succeeded, by proving that he gained no significant advantage from the use of his prosthetics, and made history as the first person to compete in the Olympics with prosthetics. (Pistorius has since then gained notoriety for murdering his girlfriend and is now currently serving his jail sentence) This again raises ethical and philosophical questions about the use of prosthetics and what an able-bodied athlete constitutes.

It is beyond doubt that technology has a place in the development and advancement of the sport. The trouble comes in drawing the line between technologies that facilitate a sport versus technologies that provide an undue advantage. Innovation in sports technology has made sports safer and accurate, but there has to be a caution to ensure sport remains accessible and fair. The challenge lies in ensuring that technology facilitates sport but does not overshadow the core skills of the athlete.

The charm of sport lies in its ability to transcend the barriers of politics and discrimination to celebrate human potential at its very best. Technology has its place in sport, but it shouldn’t take away from sheer human skill and hard work. There lies a certain beauty in watching Usain Bolt thunder to an Olympic gold through brute force channelled effortlessly. There is something enchanting about watching Federer and Nadal battle it out, one the epitome of grace and the other, the epitome of endurance. Sport enthrals us, not because of its glitz and glamour, but because, at its very core, it is a celebration of skill, desire and hard work. Technology must not take away from this, and the duty lies on us, to effectively regulate technology to preserve the spirit of sport.

The article was first published on Jury’s Out Blog (https://jurysoutblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/13/the-role-of-technology-in-sport/)

Categories: Ethics and Governance, Technology

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