Engineering a sporting chance

23 July 2012
Dr David James, senior lecturer, sports engineering at Sheffield Hallam University

Throughout the history of sport, athletes have always used the very best technologies available in order to push the boundaries of performance, but where do you draw the line, and who draws it? asks Dr David James, senior lecturer, sports engineering at Sheffield Hallam University

All too often we idealise our athletic heroes’ pursuit of the virtuous perfection of natural talent, and fail to recognise that technology is fundamental to this process. For individuals who are close to the world of elite sport, the very notion of a ‘natural performance’ is an abstract concept that is far removed from reality. It is no overstatement to suggest that science and engineering are absolutely central to the modern sporting world; however, this is a relationship that should not be feared, but rather embraced.

Contrary to widespread opinion, gaining an advantage over your competitor is not a problem, indeed it is the very essence of what sport is all about. Literally everything an athlete does is focused on gaining a competitive advantage; the purpose of all their training and preparation is to disrupt the so called ‘level playing field’. Technology is just another part of this process, and arguably many sports now test the skill to which an athlete can exploit technology as well as the somewhat more traditional ideals of natural talent.

We see the most visible manifestations of sports technology in the Paralympics where athletes are often fundamentally integrated into a sophisticated artifice, engineered for function, and optimised for performance. Clearly the first objective for the engineer is to create an enabling device that provides the opportunity for the disabled athlete to perform, but it is naïve to expect that this process will occur without a degree of enhancement. The carbon fibre running prosthetics as worn by athletes such as Oscar Pistorius are not designed to be only just good enough; they are designed to be as fast and as efficient as possible. What is so fascinating here is that we have a technological system that is arguably faster and more efficient than ‘natural’ muscle and bone.

Aside from the somewhat extreme example of running prosthetics, the desire to maintain the ideals of a ‘natural performance’ is massively out of alignment with the realities of modern sport. The availability of sporting infrastructure, training knowledge, performance analysis systems, bespoke sporting hardware and specialist medical support all make the business of competitive sport fundamentally unnatural on every level. It is interesting to note that in the 1920s, many considered the act of physical training before a sporting competition to be tantamount to cheating as it corrupted the test of natural ability. Thankfully we seem to have moved on from this antiquated view, although the opinions expressed by some commentators and sports authorities indicate that elements of this philosophy remain.

Sport needs to be able to evolve in order to thrive and maintain relevance in a rapidly changing world. Holding on to traditions too tightly can lead to stagnation and decline. The history of sport is littered with events that are no longer practiced competitively. It is in the sports own interest to permit technologies that do not give a competitor an advantage over the sport by fundamentally changing the nature of the sporting test. Wearing a pair of flippers in a swimming race fundamentally changes the nature of the test and provides an advantage over the sport, but does wearing a polyurethane full body swimsuit (now banned) really challenge the nature of what it means to swim?

The internal goods of a sport describe its traditions, its outlook and values. Sport is a broad church and individual sports should be allowed to make their own decisions about what constitutes their internal goods. Rules and regulations should reflect these internal goods, but there is no need for a one-size-fits-all policy as espoused by organisations such as the World Anti-Doping Agency. There is nothing morally wrong with using science and technology to enhance athletic performance; it is just that some techniques are arbitrarily proscribed whilst others are not. There is no philosophical difference between engineering a performance advantage and using a banned drug to enhance one’s capacity; neither are intrinsically bad, it is just that one breaks the rules, and in sport the rules define the test.

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