In sport, there is a fine line between innovation and technological doping

Dthe world records broken in one evening, those of the 10,000m men for the Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei and the 5,000m women for the Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey. An evening, and not a classic meeting, specially organized at the Turia stadium in Valencia to break these records, with high-level hares, light guidance on the ground and special shoes.

The equipment manufacturer Nike has already shaken up road running with its Vaporfly soles launched in 2016. They allowed Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge to run the marathon in less than two hours. Ensuring better energy return, they offer a performance gain evaluated at 4%.

Regulations, which state that footwear cannot provide “Unfair help or advantage” and must be “Reasonably available”, run behind innovations. World Athletics made theirs more restrictive earlier this year. Insufficient, and too late? In the marathon, the athletes wearing Vaporfly have the five best men’s performances of all time …

Prohibitions and approvals

The technology used for performance dates back to the Greeks, who in Olympia used leather thongs as propellants for their javelins. In 1990 a type of javelin appeared, the rear part of which was striated to improve lift: in less than a year, the world record gained more than seven meters. The model is prohibited.

« I was not beaten by a player but by a racket ”, coward Guillermo Vilas in October 1977, defeated in the final of the Aix-en-Provence tournament by Ilie Nastase and his “spaghetti racket” with double string. This gives a very powerful effect to the ball – and unexpected results to average players. The International Tennis Federation bans it.

Banned, also, the rowing with fixed seat and sliding oars which helped the German Peter-Michael Kolbe to become world champion in 1981 by ensuring a better stability of the boat. Just like, in 2009, the polyurethane swimming suits which made the 2008 Olympic Games the scene of twenty-five world records.

In the 1990s, Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman broke the hour record with prototype bikes, but the International Cycling Union adopted stricter regulations and erased the new brands to revert to that of Eddy Merckx in 1972 .

Other innovations are at least partially approved: in cycling, lenticular wheels, triathlete handlebars, disc brakes or ear cups. They support the development of disciplines – fiberglass poles, parabolic skis, carbon snowshoes, energy return track surfaces, etc.

The share of the athlete and that of the engineer

There is a fine line between innovation and technological doping. It is necessary to establish the share of the athlete and that of the engineer, to ensure that the second remains minor in the result. The ban or the rapid generalization of a novelty ensures that it remains sufficiently temporary so as not to oblige to go back and “reset” the records.

However, many processes have been approved because of affinities between sport and technology, around the idea of ​​going beyond (“Sport has always been the propaganda of progress”, summarized Paul Virilio), or because we felt that they would contribute to the show.

But at what show? Magical shoes and record breaking shows translate a design that favors pure individual performance over competition. And sporting events take the form of marketing operations: from the controversy to the possible ban, there will have been only advertising for shoes at 275 euros.

The next stage in technology-assisted sport would be the augmented athlete. Sprinter Oscar Pistorius’ flap leg prostheses had already sparked technical-philosophical debates … “We went from the art of the body to the art of the motor, to prosthetic doping”, also wrote Paul Virilio. Sport can thus provide many anticipatory scenarios.

While waiting for the exoskeletons, let us remember that optimizing performance is not just a matter of equipment: the medicalization of preparation, the rationalization of training methods, the use of biometric and tactical data have also contributed. And of course doping – period. Science has not finished advancing, nor athletes to surpass themselves.

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