Wearable technology or technological doping?

Every four years, at the Olympic Games, the issue about the limits and effects of the use of technology in sport is back to the agenda. It was no different at the Tokyo Olympics. After winning the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles event, slashing his world record by seven-tenths of a second, Norwegian athlete Karsten Warhol declared that the use of carbon-based shoes by many runners undermines athletes’ credibility.

He was referring to a new model of sneakers used by several athletes (including the runner-up in the competition, the American Rai Benjamin). It is a kind of super-light shoe with a rigid plate and a special foam that has an effect similar to a trampoline, giving propulsion with each step.

The statement sparked the discussion. For critics, the new sneakers technology configures the so-called technological doping, that is, the situation in which the technology gives an athlete an undue advantage. On the other hand, the argument is that the new generation of running shoes is part of the sport’s advancement. 

Rubber and air also turn racetracks into a trampoline

New technologies were not just at the feet of some athletes. Tokyo Olympic Stadium’s race track has also incorporated advances to contribute to the athletes’ performance. The designers of the Olympic Stadium added rubber beads to the track and made its last layer with a  hexagonal design that retains small air pockets to absorb foot shock, store energy and provide an immediate kinetic response. In other words, the track absorbs the energy generated by the athletes’ stride and returns it to the runner, boosting their steps. The difference, in this case, is that all athletes use the same track, keeping the condition of equality.

Throughout history, high-level athletes’ performance has been the result of a lot of discipline, hard training, and years of dedication. But technology can increasingly make a difference. Establishing the limits so that it does not overlap with human conditions is a great challenge.

From the use of special fibers in swimsuits to specific running shoes, from biomechanics and data analysis to video recording and the use of augmented reality to assess and improve performance, virtually all athletes have been using different technologies both in training and during the competitions.

We all remember the uproar caused at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 by the   LZR swimsuit   (Laser). With it, 23 of the 25 world records in swimming pools were surpassed. After much analysis and discussion, they were considered an unfair advantage by the FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation) and banned in competitions.

Olympic and Paralympic

Likewise, technology plays an important role for athletes with disabilities provoking the same controversy. At the 2016 Paralympic Games, German athlete Denise Schindler was the first cyclist to compete with a fully 3D printed leg prosthesis. But the most emblematic case is perhaps that of the South African Oscar Pistorius.

The athlete, who wears prostheses on both of his amputated legs, became the first amputee to compete in an Olympics. He was banned from competitions with athletes without disabilities but ended up winning the case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in 2008, and competed in the London Games, in 2012.

The use of new technologies has proliferated on and off the tracks and stadiums. Force sensors placed on shoes, ski boots, or bicycle pedals are great allies in improving performance because they can provide a continuous stream of data during workouts.

In Tokyo, a  3D athlete tracking system made it possible for coaches to evaluate the movements of their Olympic athletes at every minute. The system using artificial intelligence helps to understand the biomechanics of movement captured by cameras, revealing the position of the main joints of the body. This makes it possible to adapt training methods to improve the result.

While not directly interfering with events, as the sneakers or the track do helping boost stride, the wearable technologies used in training are not accessible to all athletes. Due to its high cost, advanced sports technology has widened the gap between teams from rich and developing countries. It may also harm the development of athletes with lower purchasing power.

Despite the controversies surrounding the so-called technological doping and inequality, sports technology will certainly continue to advance. It’s up to us to ensure its influence in sports remains fair and accessible to all.