Technology's Positive Impact on Sports

Franz Konstantin Fuss

“Technology destroys the spirit of sport.” After having heard this sentence myriad times, I still beg to differ. On the contrary, technology makes sport more interesting.

Technological advancement is a natural process, and, with its introduction into a sport, athletes simply become “better.” This process is clearly exemplified by changes to, for instance, the material of vaulting poles, which were initially made of wood, bamboo, and metal. Before the change occurred, improvements in training rapidly delivered new Olympic and world records in the sport, which, after some time, saturated and started to enter a steady state. Once the pole material was changed to fiber composites, the process began to repeat itself, with athletes achieving rapidly improving records.

In other equipment, such as monocoque racing bicycle frames and buoyant swimsuits, this same effect was reversed by rules soon after the changes were introduced. Bike design returned to the conventional diamond frames, and swimsuits reverted to less buoyant, and more permeable, materials. Yet, independent of whether or not rules are imposed on technological advances, sports technology is almost always about the same principle: energy.

Sports performance is defined by the energy produced by the athlete and released into the environment. The energy must be exclusively produced by the athlete, and must not come from somewhere else (e.g. an external energy source). However, not all of the energy produced by the athlete is necessarily released into the environment. Common sources of energy loss (non-conservative, non-recoverable energy) are: external friction (e.g. sliding friction in skiing or rolling friction in cycling); internal friction (any energy absorbed by materials such as viscous polymers and foams); aerodynamic drag (produced, for instance, by sprinting, speed skating, cycling, or skiing); hydrodynamic drag (produced in sports like swimming or rowing); sound (in impacts); heat (frictional energy converted to thermal energy); vibrations (of equipment and surfaces); and the energy required for stability (unstable ski boots, broken laces of figure-skating boots, etc.).

The task of the sports engineer is to find energy leaks and develop ways to mend them. Solutions are readily at hand. For example, sports engineers can develop swimsuits that lift the body slightly out of the water, thereby reducing water resistance and increasing air drag (which is about 800 times smaller than water drag), or perform wind-tunnel tests of skiers to find ways to optimize the tucked racing position.

That said, there are some sports disciplines in which it is desirable to have equipment that enhances energy loss. Consider, for instance, sports equipment such as: parachutes; rope brakes (which convert the kinetic energy of a falling climber to friction and thermal energy); tacky ball surfaces (which enhance the grip and prevent slippage); and shoe sole modifications with spikes, studs, and cleats.

Conservative energy corresponds to the energy component that goes into the equipment, and is a form which, instead of being absorbed, is returned to the athlete. This energy component is not generated by the equipment itself, but by the athlete – it’s just (intelligently) recycled. A typical example of this is in ice hockey, where players’ sticks do not hit the puck first, but rather hit the icy surface before reaching the puck. As a result, the hockey stick is bent and stores energy, which is released once the blade comes into contact with the puck. This adds more energy to the puck and increases its speed. Cheating? Who would complain if hockey became faster – and consequently more challenging and interesting – and drew more spectators to the stadia and TV screens?

However, people do complain about alleged cheating in situations that are quite similar, such as when sports shoes are designed to return more energy and make runners race faster. Consider the controversy surrounding South African runner Oscar Pistorius,’ who was banned from competing in events sanctioned by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) because it was said that his prosthetic limbs gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes. Pistorius was accused of cheating with his Cheetah Flex-Foot running prostheses, which allegedly returned more energy than a human foot. The IAAF had Pistorius’ running style investigated scientifically, and, in 2007, introduced anew rule saying that the “use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels, or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device” is not allowed.

Pistorius appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, which revoked the IAAF’s decision, arguing that the rule was “a masterpiece of ambiguity,” as any elastic material or object (including sports shoes and human feet) could be considered a spring. Thus, the Cheetah Flex-Foot is a spring, but it does not necessarily “incorporate” a spring.

Sports equipment that returns more energy has nothing to do with cheating. For one thing, it is the athlete’s own energy that is returned. It also provides another advantage: It can separate top athletes of equal performance into different performance categories (e.g. top and super-top athletes). The following example clearly illustrates this effect:

Imagine a planet in a distant galaxy where the population “invents” Olympic Games and introduces a single competitive discipline: the forward somersault. The athlete who performs the most consecutive forward somersaults in a single jump, and lands on his/her feet, wins. Landing on one’s feet is essential, as the exercise is carried out on a wooden surface without cushioning. The athletes destined to compete find that they can, when landing on a cushioning mat, produce between 1 and 1.8 revolutions of somersaults (where 1.5 revolutions would mean landing on one’s head). Even an athlete who performs 1.8 revolutions does not necessarily land on his or her feet. As a result, everyone aims for one revolution (for safety reasons), and, unsurprisingly, every participating athlete wins a gold medal. Considered boring, further competitions are cancelled, until someone has the bright idea of making the wooden surface more elastic. They create a new area-elastic surface that is still wooden, but that deforms slightly so that it acts like a trampoline, thus storing and returning some energy to the athlete. Suddenly, the athletes capable of 1.8 somersaults can now produce 2.1 revolutions. The field of competitors is now separated into single and double somersaults, resulting in gold and silver medals.

As plausible as this example may be, improvement of equipment might sometimes have exactly the opposite effect. Imagine a sporting implement capable of transferring more energy to a ball, thus enhancing the ball’s outgoing speed. The faster the ball, the shorter the receiver’s reaction time must be in order to catch and/or return the ball. At first, this principle would split the top athletes into fast and ultra-fast reacting groups, comparable to the example given above. However, if both technology and training methods continued to advance further, the ball’s speed would eventually become so fast that no athletes would be able to react in time. A similar situation was seen in tennis, when top athletes increasingly gained points on their first serve, such that games became predictable, concluded by long and boring tiebreaks. The answer to this was an appropriate counter-technology, which was both simple and effective: Increase the size of the ball, thus slowing down its speed with aerodynamic drag.

If athletes’ performance is improved by new training and recovery methods, or through psychology or nutrition, no one complains about cheating or destroying the spirit of sport. Technology – especially smart equipment and biofeedback methods – is a crucial component of training optimization. For example, a ski tachometer not only measures the skier’s forward speed, but also feeds back to the athlete (in real time) the amount that he or she is slipping sideways. In a perfect carving turn, the ski is not supposed to slip sideways, as this movement produces friction, which consumes the energy that the athlete produces, and consequently slows the skier down. The biofeedback signal provided by the ski tachometer helps skiers recognize their imperfect techniques and thereby improve their performance. It was this very ski tachometer that contributed to the success of the U.S. alpine team at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games.

Furthermore, while many landing slopes in winter-sport freestyle parks are still constructed according to an old design that is dangerous, and that has resulted in numerous severe, and even lethal, accidents every year, technology has enabled engineers to develop safer landing slopes, thus limiting the number of ski-related injuries.

There are a couple of important aspects to sports technology that further buttress its positive impact on sports:

  • Technology makes many sports that were previously confined to remote areas such as highlands and mountains more convenient, accessible, and popular. For instance, climbing gyms – even ice climbing facilities ¬– and white-water parks enable the general public to enjoy sports like climbing and rafting, which they would normally be unable to do unless they were in the wilderness.
  • Technology also makes better information available to the coaches, athletes, and spectators, and this serves the sport on many different levels: It enables better match analysis, performance ranking, player selection, sports statistics, and predictions, and, in general, makes the games more interesting. The Hawk-Eye system is a typical example of a beneficial technology that provides a multitude of information during cricket and tennis matches.

All this adds to the global sports business and market, which is currently worth about US$800 billion, and is as big as the aerospace industry. Yet the costs of so-called “high-tech” sports equipment are prohibitive, and prevent many promising athletes without funding from participating in competitive sports. Thus, while sports technology offers myriad benefits to sports, it is clear that (even high-tech) sports equipment must be accessible to every one, and must not hinge on financial power.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.