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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the insights. We as a people have come to take the rapid changing of technology and its effects on sports as normal. Perhaps if we did such an experiment on a population of mice and administered "change" progressively over time, they'd come to accept it too, rather than being startled. :)