When Does Sports Technology Go Too Far?

Advances in sports performance come directly with advances in technology: Track times dropped with the advent of synthetic surfaces, and so did swim times with the introduction of tech suits.

Advances in sports performance come directly with advances in technology: Track times dropped with the advent of synthetic surfaces, and so did swim times with the introduction of tech suits. While many records have been broken with the help of technology, unrestricted innovation in sports will inevitably draw us farther and farther away from the original purpose of athletics. Recently, Nike’s ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT% has been brought under fire as a technological advancement that aided marathon runner Eluid Kipchoge’s successful attempt of breaking the two-hour mark. Some argue that the sneakers are simply another technology breakthrough as its design only makes a runner’s stride more energy-efficient; however, many attribute the achievements of marathoners to their use of Vaporflys, even comparing the shoes to performance-enhancing drugs. So, where should the line be drawn concerning the role of equipment technology in sports? As long as technology does not become a larger factor in performance than the ability of the athlete, is available for all athletes, and is suitably regulated in competitions, the improvement of sportswear should not be considered crossing the boundary.

If marathoning wants to remain a relevant aspect of athletics, technology cannot be the deciding factor in an athlete’s success. Eliud Kipchoge, for example, did not achieve something completely unexpected with the first sub-two-hour marathon, as his personal best was about two hours and one minute. Surpassing the limits of human capacity was not achieved solely due to the footwear and under normal conditions, even with the use of the VaporFly sneakers, no one else has run abnormally fast. Michael Phelps still broke swimming records after the banning of LZR tech suits, showing that the individual ability of the athlete still matters more than the technology. As broken records can be attributed to the abilities of athletes more than the equipment, such technology should not be considered crossing the line.

Regarding limits to technology in sports, the swimming world sets a good example by regulating the use of full-body LZR suits. Within months of its release in 2008, wearers of Speedos’ LZR Racer Suit, which was co-developed with NASA, broke an unprecedented number of records. 23 of the 25 world records broken at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 were by swimmers wearing the LZR Racer. The full-body suits mimicks sharkskin and minimize the amount of drag a swimmer faces in the water. The suit itself was banned due to the unprecedented number of records that were broken in such a short amount of time, but the sharkskin-like technology is still permitted as long as the tech suits are not full length. Rather than discourage the technological progress that has pushed the sport of swimming to new heights, rule-makers adjusted the role that technology plays in the sport. The same should apply for the Vaporfly—rather than putting an end to all advances in shoe technology, officials should set a limit.

Due to the high level of competition in Olympic marathons, gear can make the difference between a win and a loss, making equal access to Vaporfly technology a must in order to level the playing field. If there is not equal access to similar innovations, then Nike athletes will be guaranteed an advantage every race, such that five of the top 10 times in Marathon history have come from Vaporfly wearers. However, if all athletes are provided the option to wear advanced sportswear, nobody gains an unfair advantage, and the consequences of not choosing to use certain sportswear will come at their own choice. As long as athletes are provided the opportunity to compete on a level playing field, the integrity of the sport remains unbroken.

The inevitable progression of sports technology should not be feared by the sports community, rather, we should embrace the progression that aids us in pushing the upper limit, but we must also implement barriers to the amount of influence technology has in performance to maintain the integrity of athletics.

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