Technology pushing the barriers in sport

Technological advancement in sporting equipment has raised questions of fairness time and again.

Written by Shahid Judge | Published: March 24, 2017 11:44 am

In early March, Nike unveiled the prototype shoe to be used in their ‘Breaking2’ project. The mission was to create a shoe that would help runners complete a marathon — 42.195 km — inside two hours. But the IAAF has raised fears that the shoe may provide an unfair advantage. SHAHID JUDGE looks at other cases in sport, where technological advancement in equipment came under the scanner or raised questions of fairness.

MORE THAN JUST A SHOE

Nike’s Breaking2 shoe prototype. (Source: Nike)

What is it?

The product is the customised version of the shoe — developed to break the two-hour marathon mark — used by the top three finishers in the men’s marathon at the Rio Olympics.

How it helps?
The shoe has a carbon fibre plate, similar to another shoe Nike produces. But additionally, it includes a thick lightweight midsole that is designed to return 13 percent more energy than regular shoes. The overall design and technology saves four percent of energy.

Why is it under scanner?
According to the IAAF’s Rule 143, all equipment “must not be constructed so as to give an athlete any unfair additional assistance, including by the incorporation of any technology which will give the wearer any unfair advantage.” The IAAF is expected to give its decision by the end of the month.

FULL BODY SWIMSUIT

Full body swimsuits were unveiled before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Source: AP File)

What is it?
A full-body swimsuit that was introduced by Speedo shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

How did it help?
During the development phase, Speedo used NASA’s wind tunnel testing facilities and fluid flow analysis software to design the suits. It proved to be so effective, that 23 of the 25 world records set at Beijing, and 33 of the 36 medals won, were by athletes (including Michael Phelps) wearing the suit.

Why was it banned?
The LZR Racer’s design compressed the athlete’s body and trapped air to provide buoyancy, also decreasing drag to increase speed. Critics dubbed the suit ‘technological doping’ or ‘Spanx on Steroids.’ The International Swimming Federation was alarmed by the sudden surge of world records and banned the body suits in 2010.

‘OLD FAITHFUL’ CYCLE

What was it?
Legendary Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree designed and built a bicycle for the One Hour Record, using parts from a washing machine.

How did it help?
Obree turned the handlebars around, designing the bike with a ‘tuck’ position, similar to what skiers use. It gave him more aerodynamic support and more room to push by generating strength from his thighs. The Flying Scotsman used Old Faithful to break the World Hour Record in 1993 (51.596 km) and again in 1995 (52.713 km). Representing Great Britain at the World Championships, he twice won gold in the 4000m Pursuit event in 1993 and 1995.

Why was it banned?
The world body for cycling first banned his riding position, after growing concerns about customised bicycles improving track records. Obree developed another riding position, ‘Superman,’ which allowed him to fully extend his arms in front of him. That too was banned.

SPAGHETTI STRING RACQUET

What was it?
Essentially, a double-strung tennis racquet invented in 1971 by German horticulturalist Werner Fischer.

How did it help?
The double-strung system allowed the strings to shift when the ball was struck, producing extra topspin without much effort.

Why was it banned?
The International Tennis Federation banned the ‘Spaghetti’ stringing system in 1978 after a number of lower-ranked players used it to pull off upsets against the game’s top names. Mike Fishbach toppled two-time Grand Slam winner Stan Smith in the second round of the 1977 US Open. Former world number 1 Ilie Nastase used one such racquet to end Guillermo Vilas’ run of 46 straight victories.

GROOVES ON GOLF CLUBS

What is it?
Grooves cut into the faces of clubs with lofts greater than or equal to 25 degrees.

How did it help?
The increased spin greatly reduced the difficulty of certain shots, particularly from the rough.

Why was it banned?
Sharper, deeper grooves in irons produced so much spin that players could hit into the rough and still control iron shots to the green. It did not penalise wayward shots and in reaching the decision in 2010, rule-makers feared that over-reliance on technology, and not skill, could determine results.

TABLE TENNIS HANDLE INNOVATION

Lim Sze Choong of Malaysia invented the racket in early 1990’s.

What is it?
A regular table tennis racquet which has an oblique handle – resembling the grip of a pistol – rather than the conventional straight handle. Its inventor Lim Sze Choong of Malaysia filed for patenting rights in 1992, which was granted in 2007.

How does it help?
Given the shape of the handle, an athlete doesn’t need to extensively bend the wrist while playing a shot, compared to standard designs. It makes for more comfortable gripping since it reduces stress on the wrist, and can extend reach by roughly 5 cm.

Is it being questioned?
According to Lim, the design does not break any of the rules regarding racquets set by the International Table Tennis Federation. So far, Lim’s patenting rights extend to over 160 countries.

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