Written by Richard Wee, Saphna Ravichandran, Wong Zi Ying, Sophia Ismail.

Introduction

What is sports technology? 

Technology in sports ranges from body techniques, traditional sports equipment used by athletes within competition, to performance enhancing machines, substances as well as methods used outside the competitive setting. Undoubtedly, changes or introductions of technology or equipment can affect how a sport is played or influence an athletes  performance. Concerns that technology advancement gives athletes an unfair and unnatural advantage have even been described by critics like Kyle Barnes, a movement scientist, as “technological doping”.

In this article, we intend to break down some examples of sports technology, its advantages and manners in which they are regulated by providing real life examples.

In October 2019, Kenya’s Olympic medallist Eliud Kipchoge took part in the The Ineos 1:59 Challenge where runners were challenged to break the two hour mark to finish the marathon. Kipchoge successfully broke the record by clocking in a time  of  1:59:40 with an average speed of 21.18km/h.  Kipchoge’s win however resulted in a lot of controversy.

For the marathon, Kipchoge wore an advanced prototype of the Nike Vaporfly which was not available to the public. Both independent and Nike-sponsored studies have confirmed that the shoes increase athletes’ energetic efficiency by 4% or more, which yields significant dividends in marathon-length distances. Further, the shoes’ foam and carbon-fiber sole is designed to ensure that less energy is lost in each footfall.

Since then, World Athletics, which governs most international track and field events has since addressed the problem. New rules have stated that road shoes must have soles no thicker than 40mm and not contain more than one rigid, embedded carbon fibre plate and limit the use of some track spikes on the Vaporfly models, but permit the continued use of most of the range. Additionally, from 30 April 2020 such ruling was made that any shoe to be used in a marathon must be available for purchase by any ordinary person and/or athlete in the open retail market (online or in-store) for a period of four (4) months before it can be used in competition.Due to this, the version of the Vaporfly worn by Kipchoge cannot be used to compete in competitions. Nike has since launched the Air Zoom Alphafly Next%, which includes one carbon plate, a sole thickness of 39.5mm, as well as newly added air pockets to meet the regulations. Even though the new Alphafly is not the same model that Kipchoge wore, it is a modified version based on the same technology. If anything, this just goes to show how much power and influence large sports brands and companies have regarding innovation and technology.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 98% of the Olympic swimmers were wearing Speedo’s LZR Racer swimsuit. The swimsuit was so groundbreaking that in a single competitive year, 25 new world records were set. You might be wondering, what was so special about this swimming suit? 

The suit was made to be either full-length, knee-length or shorter, with ultrasonically welded seams and a zipper.he suit compressed a swimmer’s body into a streamlined tube that sometimes trapped air, adding buoyancy and reducing drag. Through the use of polyurethane material, the suit was designed to also make these swimmers more hydrodynamic.

Even non-Speedo athletes had to switch and wear the suit or there was no chance of them competing. In response to the demand, companies such as TYR, Arena, BlueSeventy and more began creating wetsuit-like neoprene suits after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which ultimately led to a ban of the LZR Racer and the emerging class full-body polyurethane suits among all brands. The new regulations took effect on 1 January 2010. Now, swimsuits must be “textile fabrics” that are woven, knitted, or braided.

Steve Haake, a professor of Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University noted in 2020 that “you’re limited in what you can do with the body, because of the rules on the swimsuit, so it kind of goes into capes and goggles”. Today, it is said that manufacturers are focused on innovating with streamlined caps and goggles that maximize speed as well as wearable devices that allow athletes to aid better training.

In the 1970s, Polara Golf invented a self-correcting golf ball; one that automatically flies straight. The first of its kind, Polara’s patented asymmetrical dimple pattern technology reduces slices and hooks by up to 75%. The innovation benefited lower-skilled players who had a greater tendency to make mistakes but not higher-skilled golfers who were already adept at making an accurate drive.

Recreational golfers welcomed the special golf ball warmly and Polara sold more than 300,000 balls by the early 1980s. However, due to the unfair advantage of these golf balls and how it essentially de-skilled the game, the United States Golf Association banned the “Polara” golf ball in 1981 for use in tournaments. Even though they are banned for tournament use, it can be said that self correcting balls are still being used amongst recreational golfers around the world, which may boost confidence and make the game more fun for them.

In 1977 a patent was submitted for a ‘spaghetti’ stringing system which allowed the tennis player to impart considerably more spin on the ball than was possible with a conventionally strung racket. The spaghetti racket had 3 planes of non-intercepting strings in comparison to a conventional interwoven stringbed. Laboratory tests were conducted which showed that the ‘spaghetti’ strung racket imparts almost twice as much spin on the ball compared to a conventionally strung racket, for a typical oblique impact.

Therefore, players with  spaghetti rackets were able to apply a wider range of topspin to the ball, making their shots less predictable to the receiving player. This racket was subsequently banned by the International Tennis Federation in 1978. 

Even so, tennis rackets have changed considerably since spaghetti strings were banned. Racket manufacturers began experimenting with composite materials in the late 1970s and 1980s, mainly due to their high stiffness-to-weight ratio in comparison to wood. A modern composite racket is both lighter and stiffer than a traditional wooden racket. Composite materials have also allowed head sizes to increase by approximately 30-40%. These advances in racket technology have allowed professional players to hit their shots faster and with increased accuracy.

Conclusion

It can be said that even though the ban of certain sports technologies is crucial to minimise unfairness, the modern innovation of such technologies constantly encourages sports brands and manufacturers to think outside the box and for sports governing bodies to not be complacent.  

Sports technology controversies ignite a wider sporting debate; since advances in sports technology and equipment give competitors an unfair advantage, where should the line be drawn?

 

Published on 22 October 2021

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

 

 

Sources 

S Goodwill and S Haake,  “Why were spaghetti string rackets banned in the game of tennis?” (2002) The engineering of sport 4. Blackwell, 231-237. <http://shura.shu.ac.uk/2237/> accessed 18 October 2021

Sigmund Loland, “Technology in Sport: Three Ideal-Typical Views and Their Implications” (2003) Journal of Sports Studies 2 (1) 2002 <https://idrottsforum.org/articles/loland/loland031009_2.pdf> accessed 18 October 2021

Tom Allen, “Revenge of the spaghetti strings?” (Engineering Sport, 2010)

<https://engineeringsport.co.uk/2010/01/19/revenge-of-the-spaghetti-strings/> accessed 18 October 2021

Blake Snow, “Banned but Awesome: Self-Correcting Golf Balls That Always Fly Straight” (Fox News, 2011) <https://www.foxnews.com/tech/banned-but-awesome-self-correcting-golf-balls-that-always-fly-straight> accessed 18 October 2021

Bryce Dyer, “Why technology in sport poses a threat to keeping the game fair, safe and affordable” (The Conversation, 2015) <https://theconversation.com/why-technology-in-sport-poses-a-threat-to-keeping-the-game-fair-safe-and-affordable-44475> accessed 18 October 2021. 

Lianne Mccluskey, “One Decade Later, Do We Miss the Full-body Tech Suit?” (Swimming World Magazine, 2019) <https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/one-decade-later-do-we-miss-the-full-body-competition-suit/> accessed 18 October 2021

Aylin Wodword, “Nike’s controversial Vaporfly shoes are helping runners set new records, but some think it’s ‘technology doping.’ Here’s how they work.” (Business Insider, 2020) <https://www.businessinsider.com/why-nike-vaporfly-shoes-make-runners-faster-2019-11> accessed 18 October 2021

Robbie Reddinger, “Why The World Athletics Nike AlphaFly Ban Is a Nike Dream Scenario” (Believe in the Run, 2020) <https://www.believeintherun.com/world-athletics-nike-alphafly-ban/> accessed 18 October 2021

Emma Betuel, “OLYMPICS FLASHBACKS: HOW A NASA-DESIGNED SWIMSUIT ROCKED THE 2008 GAMES” (Inverse, 2020)  <https://www.inverse.com/innovation/olympic-glory-week-lzr-swimsuits> accessed 19 October 2021

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