26 March 2017

Pushing Limits: The Ethical Use of Technology

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

At what point does the integrity of competition become tarnished by the intrusion of science? Elite sport’s mission is to push the boundaries of human performance, but if those boundaries are bridged by variables beyond the realm of physical ability, does sport lose its purpose? With the help of world renowned sports scientist Ross Tucker, CONQA addresses these important questions.

Dennis Kimetto's record for the marathon of 2:02:57, set at the Berlin Marathon in 2014, is under threat. 

Dennis Kimetto's record for the marathon of 2:02:57, set at the Berlin Marathon in 2014, is under threat. 

Fernando Alonso, the two-time Formula 1 World Champion universally regarded as one of the most gifted drivers in a generation, could not hide his frustration when asked to comment on the poor performance of the Honda engine that has powered his McLaren since 2015.

“It is frustrating that after two years, everyone is moving forward and Honda is where they were two years ago,” the winner of 32 races said before the start of the first race of the 2017 season at Melbourne’s Albert Park. His concerns would prove prophetic as a suspension problem ended his race on the 52nd lap with his struggling car astoundingly in the points in tenth place.

How can it be that one of the most talented athletes in Formula 1 is consigned to mediocrity? The answer is obvious to the hordes of fans that have become disenchanted by the over reliance on technology. Sure, the car has always mattered, but the intuition, skill and bravery of the driver could once compensate for mechanical deficiencies.

One could make the case that not since Alonso clinched the 2005 title with Renault, or Kimi Raikkonen became the last World Champion in a Ferrari two years later, has a driver topped the standings in a car that wasn’t the most dominant on the track. If this is true, the last nine or eleven championships have been determined by the fastest machine.

Technology has always improved athletic performance but problems arise when the integrity of competition is threatened. If everyone could drive the same car with the same engine and tyres, perhaps then we’d know who the best Formula 1 driver is. Until then, fans of the sport have to be content with the glaring caveat attached to each victory and failure.

A similar conversation has propped up in long distance running, a sport seemingly the least at risk to such a technological intrusion. Nike, the multinational sportswear company, has been working on a shoe that they claim will help the very cream of long distance runners break the two-hour barrier in the marathon. That would mean shaving off a whopping 2 minutes and 57 seconds off the current world record set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto at the 2014 Berlin Marathon.

So how does it work? The shoe, named the “Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite”, has a curved carbon fibre plate inserted into the midsole that acts as a spring as well as state of the art cushioning material that claims to return 13% more energy than conventional shoes resulting in 4% less oxygen used by the athlete.

The question that is being asked here is not if the shoe works as well as the marketing team at Nike claims it does, though world renowned sports scientist Ross Tucker has his doubts. What we are raising is whether or not this shoe crosses an ethical Rubicon that leads to a steep decline where athletic competence has less impact on the result than the instrument used by the athlete.

“We need to believe in what we’re watching, that the athlete that wins is the one that deserves to do so because of his or her athletic ability,” Tucker says. “We have to believe that the credibility of competition has remained intact.”

Two questions arise when discussing the “credibility of competition” in relation to the input of technology. The first centres on accessibility to the technology. Does everyone in the field have an equal opportunity to use the best resources available?

The second question deals with how much of an advantage the technology provides. Does the input of technology improve performance too much? Can an ordinary or just very good athlete challenge or even get the better of an elite athlete as a direct result of the technology?  

To address the first question one can look at our initial case study in this discussion - Formula 1. Clearly not every driver has access to the same technology and as we’ve shown, that creates heavy favourites and heavy outsiders. Would Nico Rosberg have won the title last year if he was driving Alonso’s McLaren? Absolutely not.

But that’s Formula 1, a sport that uses the technological arms race as a hook to attract new fans that have an interest in the engineering marvels that these multi-million dollar machines show off. What of other sports that are supposed to celebrate the raw capabilities of the human form?

Swimming experienced a similar dilemma on the eve of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. One of the swimsuit manufacturers, Speedo, had revolutionised the sport by producing a line of swimsuits known as the LZR Racer composed of woven elastane-nylon and polyurethane.

Fernando Alonso was once a perennial winner in the most prestigious motor racing sport on the planet. Now, because of an inferior machine, the glory days are but a distant memory. 

Fernando Alonso was once a perennial winner in the most prestigious motor racing sport on the planet. Now, because of an inferior machine, the glory days are but a distant memory. 

No expense was spared in the design process as even NASA’s wind tunnel testing facilities were used to produce the most streamline and seamless piece of equipment swimming had ever seen. The suit allowed for better oxygen flow to the muscles, held the body in a more hydrodynamic position, increased flexibility and repelled water off the body more efficiently than any other suit at the Games.

The results were astounding with 94% of all races and 98% of all medals won by swimmers wearing the LZR. In total, the suit accounted for 23 of the 25 records broken at the Games. Performances were only improved by 1.9 to 2.2 percent, which might not sound like a lot, but at the sharp end of athletic competition, the smallest margins make all the difference.

“Over the course of a marathon, 4% improvement accounts for 3-4 minutes. At the elite level, that’s the difference between finishing outside the top 10 and winning the race,” Tucker says. “If the outcome is decided by an extra variable that has nothing to do with athletic ability, there is a problem.”

This problem could be eradicated by giving every athlete in competition equal access to the best technology available. According to Tucker, that would only half solve the issue. “In a competitive sense yes, we’d be content knowing that at least the athletes would finish in the ‘correct order’, that is, in an order determined by their athletic ability,” he says.

But that would do nothing for the integrity of human performance which leads us to the second question in this dilemma concerning the amount of advantage that should be tolerated. This is a lot more challenging to answer.

Firstly, how much is too much of an advantage? “Before even discussing at what point we draw a line in the sand, one must understand that the task of trying to pinpoint the exact causes of performance is almost impossible to achieve,” Tucker says.

“You can’t differentiate between 1% and 2% improvements in performance. The performance outcome is too complex to simplify it down to just that. One runner might have forgotten to take his carbohydrate drink at 30km while another might be having issues at home.”

We have discussed in a previous article how difficult it is to agree on what is an acceptable level of improvement based on a variable that certain athletes benefit from and others do not. Caster Semenya, the South African runner who stormed to gold in the 800m in Rio last year, benefits from increased levels of testosterone.  Those who called for her exclusion argued that her advantage was great enough that it made a mockery of the notion of competition.

“If we allow 1.5% improvement today, will we decide that is enough?” Tucker asks. “But what about if we keep allowing that advantage to increase slowly over the years. In a year’s time it’s 2.5%, is that too large? Then in 2019 it’s 5% after NASA collaborates with a rival manufacturer. At what point did we cross the line and if we agree that we have crossed a line, how do we turn back the clock?”

If technology is allowed to run rampant, we run the risk of leapfrogging the natural evolution of athletic performance. As Tucker says, “One of the reasons we love sport is to follow the progression in training, nutrition and conditioning. If the shoe fulfils its promise, the records that exist today will be relegated to the scrap heap very quickly.”

I ask Tucker if he would then put a freeze on technology in sport. Should we throw our hands and say “enough”? Here, the scientist offers perspective on what that could entail.

“Look at the Space Race during the 1960s and ‘70s. In NASA’s pursuit to send man to the moon, humankind benefited from a host of technological breakthroughs” such as the improvement of satellites, the invention of laptops and even the introduction and widespread use of Velcro. “I am advocating the banning of all external pieces of equipment in the running shoe but not for the development of technology. Allow manufactures to compete in the aerodynamics of the shoe or the material that it is made from. But not carbon plates that, no matter what Nike says, acts as a spring.”

Tucker points out that we as a society benefit from the by-products of Nike’s innovative shoe, or a rival’s attempt to better it. The knock on impact on orthopaedic shoes, prosthetic limbs or any number of walking and running improvements could be endless. If the IAAF stipulates that technological developments in footwear have reached its zenith and should therefore be halted, the incentive to keep improving will be stifled.

As it stands, the 2 hour barrier remains intact and if Tucker is to be believed, it will do so for a while still. However, technology is improving every day and Nike has put a lot on the line in their quest to make history. One day the record will be broken. Whoever manages to cross that threshold will be remembered forever. Will that individual be spoken about in the same breath as iconic athletes such as Roger Bannister and Jim Hines? Or will this landmark victory come with an attached asterisk that tarnishes the integrity of competition?