Levelling the Playing Field

Read Clive’s article on the impact of science and technology on sport here. Published in Public Service Review: UK Science and Technology 6. Pg. 11.

I wonder how much time would be added to Usain Bolt’s world record if he were to run 100 metres wearing the same type of running shoes Jesse Owens wore in 1936, having started from blocks he had dug for himself out of a grit track surface using a Brickie’s trowel and timed by someone holding a stopwatch?

Practically every element of this scenario has changed compared to today’s technology; starting blocks, track surfaces and timing systems are beyond comparison and create a level playing field. But what of the technology that goes into the equipment designed for individual athletes?

Usain Bolt is certainly a bad example to use because he would probably win even if he ran in a plaster cast, but when we are talking about differences between athletes of split tenths of seconds, sports technology is a very important factor indeed.

Technology today allows a pair of running shoes to be custom designed to maximise the performance of a particular athlete helping them gain that extra fraction of a second.

In 2008 Speedo launched the LZR Racer swimsuit designed to reduce body friction of swimmers in water by up 24%. This impressive piece of technology was developed in partnership with NASA. Over 90% of the swimming gold medals in Beijing were won by athletes wearing these types of suits leading FINA, the sport’s international governing body to ban their use the following year.

I am no Luddite, and I do not believe that the perfect running shoe or the most water resistant streamlined swimsuit is going to turn an also-ran into a world beater. But when I sit down to enjoy the Olympics I want to see the best athletes competing on equal terms with the one that is best in the competition taking gold.

Sports science has moved to mind boggling new levels since the days of Jesse Owens and the early years of the modern Olympics. Sport and sports equipment are at the heart of a vast international industry and no one can stand in the way of its progress. But as the world’s greatest sporting show on earth approaches we have to ask ourselves whether we have done enough to ensure that technology is used to create level playing fields, where individual ability alone will determine who wins and who loses?

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