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Is technological doping the strongest force in the Olympics?

July 24, 2012|By Jon Bardin | Los Angeles Times
  • Michael Phelps wore the Speedo LZR Racer at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Michael Phelps wore the Speedo LZR Racer at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Robert Gauthier )

2008 was a banner year for swimmers: That year, swimmers broke 105 world records in all, including 17 at a single event in Croatia. A full 79 of those 105 records were broken by racers wearing a particular suit: the Speedo LZR Racer.

The suit covered the whole body from shoulder to calf and was designed to optimize body compression and hydrodynamics. Its design was informed by tests in a NASA wind tunnel and numerous advanced computational models. The advantage given to racers by the LZR Racer was so great that Japanese authorities decided to break exclusive sponsorship agreements with other companies to allow their racers to use the suits; the decision came after a coach told reporters that "if swimmers don’t wear the LZR Racer, they won’t be able to compete" in the Beijing Olympics.

While the suits remained legal throughout what would become known as the 2008 Michael Phelps show in Beijing, they will not be seen this year in London: FINA, the governing body of the sport, has since changed the rules to ban suits like the LZR Racer. The decision came amid growing cries that the LZR Racer amounted to “technological doping.”

The short history of the LZR Racer is but one example of the effect of technological development on sports. In a commentary in the August 2012 issue of Nature Materials, three sports technology experts argue that, while better training and stronger athletes have driven some improvements in performance, huge paradigm shifts are generally the result of technological breakthroughs. That leads to the age-old question: How do we compare the times of a swimmer in the LZR Racer against a swimmer from the 1980s, or even a swimmer from the London Games?

In most popular sports, teams play against each other under the same rules with the same access to technology, and all the fans care about is which team wins. Though this is also true in the Olympics, fans also care whether the winner has set an Olympic record, or even a world record. But what does a record mean when the technologies keep changing over time?

There may be no better example in the Olympics than pole vaulting. In the first Olympics, American Bill Hoyt won by leaping 3.30 meters using a wooden pole. But by 1950, athletes were using metal poles, which immediately led to a half-meter gain in the pole-vaulting record. A switch to glass and carbon fiber poles has pushed that record up to 5.96 meters. There are currently no rules restricting what materials vaulters may use, and we are unlikely to find out any time soon how high current world-record pole vaulter Steven Hooker of Australia could get using a wooden pole.

Cycling is another area where new technologies have entirely changed the sport. Regardless of the ongoing controversies surrounding doping in cycling, the movement from metal frames to carbon fiber frames certainly has had a greater effect on speed than any drug can: Over the last 111 years, cycling performance has improved 221%, generally tracking the introduction of new types of bikes.

The authors also point to examples of how technological advancement has led to the very edge of where sport can safely go. In the case of amateur baseball, where metal bats are legal, advances in carbon fiber and aluminum bats enabled batters to send the ball at the fielders with such velocity that it became dangerous — especially to pitchers. Since then, the leagues have instituted strict guidelines for bat manufacturers, including techie-sounding metrics like “the bat-ball coefficient of resolution,” which determines how fast a ball can leave the bat relative to its incoming speed, and the bat’s “length-to-mass ratio.” Consider these tests for technological doping.

For the 2012 Olympics, Speedo has worked within the new FINA guidelines — which now forbid men’s suits to go above the waist or below the knee — to produce an entirely new suit. Even the goggles are redesigned: In an interview in the same issue of Nature Materials, Speedo’s Tom Waller says they’ve managed to reduce the force striking the goggles when the swimmer dives into the water by a whopping 63%. So far, though, the records are not falling.

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