Technology in sports

There has been a lot of talk recently about the new swimsuits that are being used in the World Swimming Championships. They apparently make you more buoyant and therefore reduce drag, making you swim faster. An astonishing number of world records have been broken at these championships, and people are beating their own personal best times all over the place. In some cases, records are being beaten by a full second or more, in a sport where hundredths of seconds aren’t always accurate enough to determine the winner (remember Michael Phelps in the 100m butterfly at the Beijing Olympics?) and I heard about one guy who broke his own personal best in one race by four seconds. Many swimming enthusiasts are going apeshit over this, saying that this is making a mockery of the sport. Why? If the suits are available to all of the swimmers, then why is this unfair? It’s not like the suit has a motor on it, it’s still the swimmer doing the work. If two swimmers both have the new suit on, then the suit helps them both equally and we’re back to skill against skill. What’s the problem here?

Technology improvements have affected every sport. Hockey players shoot the puck much faster with composite sticks than with the old wooden ones. The latest skate technology allows skaters (and hockey players) to skate faster. Skis are better. Baseball gloves and bats are better. Tennis racquets are better. Bicycles are better. Golf clubs (and balls) are better. Even shoes are better. Now we have better swimsuits that allow faster swimmers and just because these changes are more dramatic than in other sports, it’s unfair?

Obviously I don’t have a problem with using technology to your advantage in sport. But aren’t pharmaceuticals a form of technology? What makes them different? Using a graphite oversized tennis racquet instead of an old wooden one allows you to hit the ball faster without working any harder, so what’s wrong with using a chemical supplement to enhance your body to allow you to do the same thing? Perhaps it’s the safety aspect – steroids in particular can cause all kinds of health problems if they are overused or misused. But performing in sports at a high level is not without risk anyway – baseball players get hit by 95 mph pitches all the time, cyclists ride at breakneck speeds down hills and crashes happen frequently, and concussions are commonplace throughout many contact sports. These are just risks that athletes implicitly agree to when they perform at that level.

I thought that maybe the fundamental difference is that in one case you’re using technology to improve sports equipment, whereas in the other case you’re using technology to improve the athlete. Well, there have been many advances in training, exercise, and nutrition over the last, say, fifty years that are being used to improve the athlete as well. Using a new training regimen and watching what you eat, an athlete could become stronger or more flexible or just fitter overall with less work than they could have fifty years ago, so we are using technology to improve the athlete. They say Babe Ruth lived on a diet of burgers and beer – just think of how he would have played if he’d hit the gym several times a week and worked with a personal trainer who kept him on a strict diet.

I can’t explain why drugs seem to have different rules than other forms of technology when it comes to improving the performance of athletes. They just do.


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