Wednesday, 16 September 2009

In defence of sports engineering

In my previous post (Some thoughts on the fairness of sports engineering), I highlighted some of the intrinsic difficulties of trying to reconcile the ideals of ‘fairness’ and the work of sports engineers. In a nutshell, I argued that the overriding reason why this research takes place is to provide a performance enhancement to certain athletes at the expenses of others. From this viewpoint it is logical to conclude that sports engineering promotes unfair play and therefore damages the ‘spirit of sport’. It will come as no surprise that, as a sports engineer, I am not overly happy with this line of argument and I see things somewhat differently…
There are many arguments for, and against, the use of athletic enhancement technologies. I will endeavour to explore all of these arguments on this site, but in this post I will reflect on some recent personal experience.

Last weekend I competed in the Helvellyn Triathlon. It’s recognised as perhaps the hardest triathlon in the UK and it certainly caused me a few aches and pains as I hauled myself round the course. Almost everybody who competes in this sort of event has a plethora of specialist equipment; from wetsuits that provide buoyancy during the swim to aerodynamic bikes that reduce drag on the ride, getting your kit right is seen as an important part of the event. Technology is part of the fabric of sports like triathlon; it makes it possible, enjoyable and acts as a catalyst for performance development.

As I was swimming in the water in my relatively basic wetsuit I wasn’t overly concerned that the guys that were moving past me were probably wearing suits that cost more than twice the price and incorporated special features that reduce hydrodynamic drag. I knew full well that they were better swimmers than I and that the principal reason why they were moving faster was due to their individual ability. On the bike things were a little different, rather than dropping down through the field I was moving up and pushing hard on my fancy carbon fibre bike. Did my competitors think that this was unfair as I overtook them? I don’t think so. Once again, the main reason why I was moving faster was because I am a moderately good cyclist, something that I’ve only been able to achieve after 20+ years of training!

For a great many sports like triathlon, technology is eagerly endorsed by its participants and audiences. In these ‘technical’ sports, people generally believe that although equipment can be used to enhance performance, individual results are still predominantly dominated by the individual’s athletic ability. Technology is seen as a means to move things forward, to stop the sport from stagnating, to maintain public interest and to stay relevant. Sports engineering is generally accepted to be a good thing as long as it does not corrupt the nature of the sporting test. If the sporting test is to swim a mile in a freezing cold lake as fast as possible it’s OK to use a high tech wetsuit that’s been specifically designed for this task. Conversely, it’s not OK to wear a pair of flippers and webbed gloves as this would give an individual an unfair advantage over the sport. It is my belief that performance enhancing technologies should be allowed as long as they don’t fundamentally change the nature of the sporting test. The real challenge is to know when the sporting test is being changed.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Some thoughts on the fairness of sports engineering

Well, I’m now three months into my fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering and although I have to confess to feeling a little apprehensive, the time has come for me to share my new understanding on the ethics of engineering athletic performance! I’ve been busy reading lots of books, reports and academic papers on the subjects of human enhancement technologies, fairness, cheating, equality, and not least of all, those level playing fields… it’s been a fascinating journey into a new academic realm and I’ve been struck at the immense volume of literature and divergence of opinion that’s out there. However, with a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of this literature has focused on the various technologies that athletes can use to enhance their physiological prowess; through nutritional, chemical and even genetic means. To be fair, this focus on what’s been happening to the inside of our athletes is hardly surprising since it deals with that ever so thorny issue of doping. However, it does seem that the ethicists and philosophers have, as of yet, paid relatively little attention to the work of sports engineers. Whilst this is probably because of the dominant concerns about drugs in sport, it is also perhaps due to a lack of knowledge about the capabilities of advanced engineering and its impact in the sporting arena.

I’m not philosopher and my understanding of ethics is definitely still ‘in-development’, but I am a pretty good sports engineer with lots of experience in many different sports and I hope that this background will allow me to bring some valuable insights to the table. So, where to start? Well, how about an interesting paradox that goes right to the heart of our industry…

As sports engineers we are concerned with enhancing athletic performance through developing fundamental understanding, creating new technologies or refining existing pieces of equipment. We may be looking at the designs of next season’s tennis rackets, developing a track bike for the next Olympics, or developing a new wireless measurement system to record every movement of a swimmer. Now this will not come as a big shock, but we don’t do this out of the goodness of our hearts, we do it because people pay us to do it. Our paymasters are fundamentally interested in one thing, gaining a technical advantage over their competitors. Manufacturers sell products on the basis of some performance advantage over their fellow competitors in the market place and likewise, sports governing bodies invest in research in order to boost the chances of national success. It is important to note that in the world of sport, stakeholders fund research so that they alone will be able to benefit from the resulting technical advantages; their opponents are not invited to reap the rewards. If the full results and innovations arising from sports engineering research were automatically available to all, it is really quite difficult to see who would be willing to invest in the research in the first instance?

So, as we have seen, sports engineering research is funded by people who want to see an advantage bequeathed to their specific athletes, does this therefore mean that sports engineering is intrinsically unfair? This is a big topic and one that ultimately comes down to an interpretation of what fairness really means. One may argue that sports engineering should not be allowed if it gives some competitors an unfair advantage over others. I would suggest that if this argument were widely accepted then it would be the death nail for almost all sports engineering and hence the progress of sports equipment technologies. The argument may seem like a fairly straight forward proposition, but for many reasons that I will delve into in future posts, it is actually quite incoherent. My current belief is that a much better argument is that sports engineering should not be allowed if it gives a competitor an advantage over the sport. This may sound a little obscure at first, but what it really means is that sports engineering should only be banned if it makes a mockery of the sporting test in question. For instance, we don’t let marathon wheelchair athletes compete in the same event as marathon runners since they are clearly undertaking a very different type of activity. I will try my best to expand on these different ideas of fairness in future posts, but for the moment, let’s get back to my great sports engineering paradox…

Sports engineering exists to give certain athletes specific types of advantage over their competitors. If having these specific advantages is deemed to be ‘unfair’, it follows that these techniques should be banned. One can easily see a situation where all athletes are required to use identical equipment to ensure that they are all equally advantaged (they won’t be, but more about that later) and this will give rise to the situation whereby the principal motivation for investing in sports engineering research and development is lost. In a world full of new materials and technologies, the idea of seeing no development in sporting equipment seems alien at best, and yet on this premise, the engineering of sport appears to be intrinsically linked to promoting unfair play. Hummmm…..

Over the coming weeks and months I will build on these ideas and try to highlight them through past and current sporting controversies. Let me know what you think!