AS PYEONGCHANG Olympics approaches and people are getting excited about the big event, doping issue is gaining more attention. Perhaps as a backlash of last year’s huge doping scandal led by Russia’s government, the biggest scale of doping test is expected. Thus, research and development on doping test have become increasingly important because manners of doping have become artful and diverse, such as brain doping and machine. As doping diversified, the controversy over doping extended to the use of sports equipment with cutting edge technology. Should we allow athletes to use high-tech equipment to outrun others? Or should we ban them as technology doping? When do we cross the line between technology and doping?
What is technology doping?
Recently, people began to argue whether it is fair to use high-technology sports equipment in competitive sports games. Some claimed that excessive technological intervention in the sports arena was unfair, from which the term technology doping emerged. According to various media coverages, technology doping refers to the practice of gaining a competitive advantage using advanced sports equipment.
Discussion of technology doping intensified when LZR racer, which is a high-technology swimsuit, was banned from the sports scenes. Swimmers wearing this technologically advanced swimsuit had noticeably higher record and had set 74 world records, making people doubt whether it was the swimmer or the swimsuit that brought forth such miraculous results.
After the Beijing Olympics and 2008 European Short Championships, many people began to argue that LZR racer should be banned because it gave unfair advantage to some swimmers. According to The Guardian in 2009, the world record setter, Michael Phelps, declared that he will not participate in any competition until the swimsuit is banned.
The era of LZR racer ended when the Federation Internationale De Natation (FINA), the international organization of swimming, modified its rules. In 2010, the LZR swimsuit was stipulated as ‘technology doping’ in FINA rules.
How do we differentiate technology doping?
‘Breaking 2’ project by Nike has provoked the controversy on whether some sneakers should be considered technology doping or not. The company’s sneakers are called “magic sneakers” because they reduce energy consumption by using carbon fabric. The project aims to develop new high-technology footwear to reduce the record of marathon within 2 hours.
Nevertheless, some believe that these magic sneakers are a sort of doping, and should thus be prohibited according to the official regulation. According to rule 143 of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), athletes cannot wear shoes that can offer unfair advantages to an athlete during the competitions. Nonetheless, there is no specific clause that bans “Nike sneakers,” providing room for interpretation. In other words, it is hard to pinpoint where the unfairness begins and ends in the spectrum of various equipment.
According to JoongAng Ilbo, Kim Jeong-hyo, the instructor of Seoul National University, said that it is almost impossible to measure the limit of human faculty. Thus, it is hard to draw the line between human ability and ability enhanced by technology. Because modern science has not been able to prove the maximum capability of human’s physical ability, it is hard to define what should be considered doping.
Furthermore, athletes’ physical abilities have continuously improved over the course of time, showing that maximum physical capability can expand. According to Seo Sang-hoon (Prof., Dept. of Physical Education), there are various factors that affect athletic performance such as genetics and environment. People who have inherited superb physical abilities and have received good training may exceed the known capabilities.
Teetering between ‘technology doping’ and ‘sports engineering’
Technology can clearly enhance performances of athletes, which could bring on positive improvement on human physical abilities. Taking this stance, some people reject the idea of ‘technology doping’ and prefer to call it ‘sports engineering.’ They uphold the promotion of advanced technology in sports to improve the performance of athletes.
For example, in 2014 Sochi Olympics, the new suits of the U.S. skaters were manufactured with the assistance of aerospace experts. With the development of new suits, the U.S. athletes were able to change the official suits after the first week of Sochi Olympics and achieve higher performance afterwards.
In contrast, the term ‘technology doping’ highlights that some sports equipment can give noticeable advantage in time-sensitive sports games, especially in which a hundredth of second matters. Technology has tipped to a point where it significantly influences the results of sports games. Without any limitation in the use of high-technology sports equipment, the meaning of sports games will become less of competing humans’ sports abilities and more of technological war.
In addition, athletes with access to big fund and high-tech equipment will make better performances. Therefore, sports organizations must establish a standard to prevent sports games from depending on the logic of capitalism.
The paradox of technology and sports ability
It is often criticized that technology in sports weakens the true meaning of sports, especially in terms of fair play spirit. This is why the LZR racer was banned ten years ago. Although wearing the LZR is considered a technology doping now, there was once a period when almost every swimmer wore it. 2008 Beijing Olympics was the peak of LZR racer wears and it brought the golden age of swimming with the unprecedented number of world records. But, in 2010, they disappeared into the mists of history after being criticized that they violate the fair play spirit.
However, some recently poses questions on whether it is fair to ban certain equipment while allowing others. “For instance, we need to think whether it is fair to allow field athletes to wear spikes, while preventing swimmers from wearing LZR racer,” said Seo. Ironically, the measures to remain impartial resulted in unfairness.
Technology doping is not just restricted to developing sports equipment but includes other kinds, such as brain doping. The term refers to technology that enhances sports ability by using a cerebral stimulus. For instance, ski jumpers use headphones that stimulate brain for better performance. Since ski jumping requires extreme balance and physical strength, cerebral stimulus through electricity improves the concentration and fatigue of the athlete. Brain doping is also used in cycling, which is one of the sports that require high level of endurance. Cerebral stimulus extends the time taken for muscles to get tired.
Nonetheless, brain doping has not received as much attention yet, probably because it is a lot more difficult to control. There is no method to monitor brain doping and thereby makes it impossible to regulate it as technology doping. We need to conduct more research on brain doping in order to distinguish whether the athletes have done it or not. Such attention may paradoxically lead to the spread of brain doping.
Although we need to ensure fair play in sports, excessive restriction on sports equipment may result in downturn of technology. Sportswear companies will be discouraged to develop high-tech equipment if the use of technology is indiscriminately banned. It costs a lot to research on developing products in sports, and therefore, the related companies will lose motivation when all of their products are banned. For better performance in sports games, technological development is essential.
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Technology doping is still controversial. Unlike what is commonly called ‘doping,’ or drug, there is a sheer line between ‘technology’ and ‘technology doping.’ And the line is quite blurry. Although technology doping and technological development seem incompatible, we need a clear distinction between them for both to coexist. Now let’s keep an eye on what will be banned and what will be allowed in the upcoming 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.