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Athleta ex machina

By Joel TichinoffSports Editor

Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza sit across from each other at the local coffee shop discussing sailing as an Olympic sport. George says it’s too easy to cheat: “You stick a small motor under the hull. They’d never check!” To which Jerry replies: “Don’t you think they’d be suspicious when boat one wins by 16 hours, with no wind?”
While the advantages conferred by technological improvements in sports equipment haven’t quite reached that point, the recent banning of the Speedo LZR swimsuit, which not only reduced drag but also added buoyancy, from international and Olympic competition suggests we have reached the threshold of what technological enhancements we are willing to accept before human performance takes a back seat to technological performance.
The LZR suit was so effective that some swimmers wore two at a time. The LZR was made available in early 2008, a year that saw 93 swimming world records broken by swimmers sporting the body-compressing, skin-vibration-reducing, ultrasonically-welded suits. If it sounds like space age technology, that would be because many components of the LZR were developed by NASA. Thirty-three of 36 total swimming medals went to LZR-wearing swimmers at the Beijing Olympics.
Within a year of the LZR’s release, FINA, the international governing body of swimming, had announced new regulations meant to address the outcry of “technological doping” from across the swimming world. Not surprisingly, the NASA-designed LZR was the first to go. The question now is whether or not those world records set in 2008 will stand. After all, they belong to the LZR as much as they do to the swimmers in the suits.
The blurring lines between technological performance and athletic performance are not limited to swimming; ice hockey for example has seen the rise of the carbon-fibre hockey stick, and now heated skate-blades seem a marketing campaign away from becoming a reality. But aside from the moral questions of technological enhancement of sports there are growing concerns about the dangers of uncontrolled sports tech. As companies vie to produce the latest must-have innovation in athletic gear, their products have begun to test the limits of the human body in a different way.
The skiing world in particular has witnessed an epidemic of horrible injuries attributed to new ski designs, which, while improving performance in a sport measured by the micro-second, appear to be generating more force than human knees and ACLs can handle. Many also place the blame on the water-injected race courses meant to reduce friction by artificially icing the course. The highly-touted Canadian ski team lost five of its most promising athletes to leg injuries between November and December 2009. The ski-equipment industry’s response? New knee-braces and boots meant to mediate the new stresses put on skiers’ knees and legs.
However much it will rankle the purists, sports equipment manufacturers will always be tweaking their products to squeeze every drop of increased performance out of athletes. However with FINA’s ban on the LZR, a horizon setting limits to the advantages of performance-enhancing technology, has come into view. The better regulated the technology, the better for sports as a challenge to human performance. Perhaps the most disturbing ramification of the interplay between technology and sport is the problem of access to performance-enhancing technology. Had Michael Phelps come out of a less affluent nation’s swimming program that did not provide him with an endless supply of expensive, buoyant swimsuits, could he have competed at the same level he did? If the regulation of sports technology fails to prevent technology from outstripping human performance in determining athletic success, there must be an effort made to keep the playing field level ensuring everyone can compete in sports, not just those who can afford to swim in spacesuits. If we’re going to put motors on our sailboats, let’s all do it; one would hate to see those sailors using only the wind, left behind.


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