Technology, Sports and Cheating

A lot of the Olympics news coverage has focused on the fact that so many swimmers set world records in their events, partly because of advances in swimsuit technology.  Speedo’s LZR Racer, a full body swimsuit that reduces drag by using ultrasonic welding rather than stitching and by streamlining the 2% body fat of elite swimmers (it takes even the leanest athlete a half hour to shoehorn his body into the suit), has been worn by athletes setting dozens of swimming records.  The reduction in drag is reported to be 5% over the previous state-of-the-art swimsuits and 40% over a traditional swimsuit.  Filippo Magnini, an Italian swimming champion, has said that wearing the suit is equivalent to “technological doping.”  The OCC apparently disagrees since it allows the use of the suit.  Because of this official sanctioning of the suit, no one accuses a swimmer who wears one of cheating despite the fact that the rules state: “No swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device that may aid speed, buoyancy or endurance during a competition”.   Clearly, this swimsuit aids in speed by reducing drag.  But the Olympic committee has decided that wearing the suit is allowed.

Meanwhile, Korean pistol shooter Kim Jong-Su won silver and bronze medals in pistol shooting at the Olympics but was expelled (and therefore lost his medals) after he tested positive for a banned beta-blocker called propranolol.  Beta-blockers block the effects of adrenaline on beta receptors and are used to treat hyper-tension and heart-related problems.  Adrenaline, of course, can cause hands to shake and heart rate to increase.  When an athlete such as a pistol shooter uses these drugs to control his “nerves”, his hands may be steadier and therefore, his shooting will be more accurate.  So the Olympic committee has banned the use of these drugs for athletes in sports such as pistol shooting.  When propranolol was found in Kim Jong-Su’s system, he was accused of cheating and was stripped of his medals.

So what’s the difference between using the technological doping of the LZR Racer and the chemical doping of propranolol?  I have two ideas about why the Olympic committee might see these two situations differently.  First, the swimsuit is worn outside the body and the effects of the suit are gone as soon as you take the suit off.  Propranolol is ingested and affects the athlete’s entire system.  There’s no way to simply take something off to remove the effects of the drug.  Second, the LZR Racer was designed for swimmers.  It has no other use than to make swimmers more effective.  Propranolol, on the other hand, was designed for a medical use.  So when Kim Jong-Su took the drug, he was misusing it, that is, using it for a different purpose than it was designed for.  (Unless, of course, he has high blood pressure or a heart problem.)

These two reasons for why the Olympic committee has problems with one technology and not the other fall apart, however, when we look at the case of South African runner Oscar Pistorius.  Pistorius is a paralympic athlete who runs with the aid of Ossur’s Flex-foot carbon fiber lower legs.  In 2007, he began to compete in able-bodied competitions and set records in a number of events.  The International Association of Athletics Federations, whose rules govern the Olympics, examined Pistorius’ performances and changed its rules to ban the use of “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.”  That wording sounds eerily similar to the rules for the swimming competitions but in this case, Pistorius was told that he couldn’t wear the Flex-foot prostheses in able-bodied competitions, including the Olympic games.  That ruling was overturned in a court (which said that the IAAF hadn’t shown that Pistorius had an advantage over other athletes not using the prostheses).  Pistorius then became eligible for the Olympics.  The immediate controversy died when Pistorius failed to make South Africa’s Olympic team.  But since he is only 21 years old, the controversy is not likely to have ended permanently. 

The Flex-Foot prostheses don’t seem very different to me than the LZR Racer swimsuit.  Both were designed for the purposes that the athletes are using them for.  Both are worn outside the body and the effects of them are gone when the device is taken off.  So perhaps the difference that the Olympic committee sees has to do with access.  Anyone can put on a swimsuit while someone who has legs cannot wear the prostheses.  Only amputees can wear them.  In fact, the issue of access is hinted at in looking at how the rules are worded.  The swimming rules do not mention advantages over other athletes while the rules for the running competitions use the phrase “an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.”  But if access is the issue, then all of this technology should be banned.  Athletes from poorer countries will never have the same access as athletes from wealthier countries.  The swimsuits cost over $500 each, which would be prohibitively expensive for some athletes.  It seems that economics-based access has never been an issue for Olympic committee rulings so why would other types of access be an issue?

The rules governing which technologies are allowed and which are not seem to be quite arbitrary.  Until some objective principle is developed to decide what is cheating and what is not, we can expect this controversy to continue to rage.

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