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In Sports Events, Are Performance Enhancing Gear A Techno Dope Or Nope?

Updated 
March 2, 2021
Written by 
Mari Chico, PT

As a cycling enthusiast, I regularly invest in protective and performance gear to make my cycling journey enjoyable, comfortable and safe.  If you’ll ask me, I’m all for it for speed, safety and aesthetics (kind a makes me look like a pro).

I bought a few aero bike helmets, modified my bike with a comfortable seat, sealed bearing pedals, alloy handlebars and even made an effort to buy “super suits” made of dri-fit material for support and enhanced aerodynamics.  I also have the basics such as front and back lights and protective eyewear. These are the things I had to get before my first  50 km bike ride.

Why did I buy these? Mainly for protection and to take me from point A to point B as quickly and safely as possible. The question is, are these types of upgrades allowed in actual sports events? 

Do they offer an unfair advantage to competitors? I would say otherwise, I consider them tools to further boost my athleticism. 

Let’s explore first by defining what “techno gear” is.

WHAT IS PERFORMANCE ENHANCING GEAR?



You’ll be surprised if you typed performance enhancing gear definition, you’ll get a different result- “Technology Doping”. Judging from how it was tagged as “doping”, similar to substance abuse in sports, does that make me an “addict”? Yeah, kidding aside, I must admit I’m hooked on cycling.

But back to the topic...

Wikipedia defines Technology Doping as the practice of gaining a competitive advantage using sports equipment. 

Here’s the list of a few wearable tech or aerodynamic gear used by famous athletes: 

Special Skin Suits - Michael Phelps’ Speedo LZR, now the Aqua Lung which will be showcased in Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.

Shoe Insoles - Quinnen Williams’ VKTRY insoles in his 40-yard dash at the 2019 NFL 

Speed Shoes - Helah Kiprop’s Adidas AdiZero Adios Boost 3 in the IAAF World Championships in 2017

Speed or Aerodynamic Helmets - European ITT Cycling Champion-Victor Campenaerts’ famous HJC Adwatt helmet 

Sports Masks - in pre-COVID-19 times, LeBron James wore sports training mask during workouts 

  


HOW DOES TECHNO-DOPING IMPROVE ATHLETICISM FAIRLY OR UNFAIRLY?


As I was trying to find answers (on the internet) as to how techno-doping enhances the competitive advantage of athletes or teams who can afford “techno dope”, I found an article by cyclingnews.com in 2014: 

In an event organized by Union Cycliste Internationale, according to cyclingnews.com’s Stephen Farrand, UCI “…has announced changes to the rules governing Hour Record, with several big-name riders now expected to target cycling’s most prestigious record now that modern endurance track bikes fitted with aero bars can be used”.

How I interpreted it is best defined in a comparison between 2 record holders in a 1-hour cycling tournament:

Eddy Merckx -1972, 30.7 miles, on traditional bike, 12-year record holder

versus

Francesco Moser -1996, 35 miles, on full aero set-up and superman position

Fair? - I’d say Yes. This wouldn’t be as controversial as it was in 1996 if all the riders had the same set-up as Moser’s. Clearly, with Franco Moser’s legendary winning distance, technological advancements set out new world records, making any sport competitive beyond its known limits.

  

WORLD ANTI-DOPING AGENCY (WADA) AND TECHNOLOGY DOPING


Wikipedia quotes: “The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) considers prohibiting sports gear if they are performance-enhancing or being against the spirit of the sport". 

In 2006, WADA initiated a consultation on technology doping which is now officially recognized as a threat, whilst the decision to allow or ban a new technology, specifically relating to sports equipment, is the responsibility of each sport’s own governing body”

This is quite a relief to know that WADA passes the torch to the likes of NBA, NFL, UCI and other agencies. That is to set the standards on what’s allowed or not, clarifying grey areas on what will be considered as a threat to the spirit of sportsmanship. 



SPORTS EVENT REGULATION ON “INNOVATIVE WEARABLES”


WADA will still hold its strong stand on regulating performance-enhancing gears, and filtering these will be the task of individual governing-agencies such as Federation Internationale De Natation (FINA).

FINA, which banned Speed LZR in 2013, still continues to regulate the use of super suits in swimming to further promote “the main and core principle that swimming is a sport based on the physical performance of the athlete’’ (BBC Sport, 2009). 

In 2019, another debate on technological doping involved one of my favorite shoe brands, Nike. Geoffrey Kamworor, who emerged as the winner, wore the most controversial Nike pair and finished the New York City Marathon in 2 hours 18 minutes 13 seconds (Standard Reference: Men’s for age 18-34 is 2:53:00). A remarkable record by Kamworor who had reached podium finish for all of his four TCS NYC Marathon participation. 

A mass protest among runners ensued when they found out that the shoes increase an athlete’s energy efficiency. For marathoners a significant rise in running efficiency of 4% encourages an unfair advantage in a game of endurance and speed, which I find an “amazing” breakthrough in the marathon world. 

And whoa, imagine yourself superseding your fastest record with the help of these speed shoes? Who wouldn’t want that? As long as no alterations in the human anatomy are done in an athlete’s body, I’m all for these types of gear. 

However, World Athletics (the international track and field governing-body) created a special group to further study the technology behind Nike’s Vaporfly. Further investigation, a new set of rules, and continuous product testing on running shoes were performed on all gear entries became their focus for future marathon events. 


Geoffrey Kamworor wearing a pair of Nike Vaporfly in a marathon 

                                 

Though controversial, wearing performance enhancing gear is often allowed in any sport event. The task of regulating their use is the responsibility of the sport event organizing body. These organizations are to keep the core value of athleticism alive, which is the “triumph of human spirit” over the “power of sports engineering”.

  

THE FUTURE OF PERFORMANCE ENHANCING TECHNOLOGY IN SPORT


According to an article on the future of Technology Doping,Researchers are developing sports apparel and equipment that aims to boost performance and prevent injuries”

As a physical therapist who supports and promotes athlete’s safety and sound physical condition, this is something to look forward to. Not only that it makes our job a lot easier but it decreases the heartbreaks shared to us by athletes who were left shattered after an injury that takes them away from what they love the most. 


At present, how do we (PTs) deal with sports conditioning and (athlete) injuries?

In the field of physical rehabilitation and sports medicine, innovation in sports is not only geared towards wearables enhancing performance, but also with devices that will improve and speed-up an athlete’s recovery, such as the cryotherapy or ice baths, massage guns and leg compression boots.

In the world of sports, the focus evolved from aerodynamics to artificial intelligence, there is no doubt that we are approaching space-age technology in the field of athletics. Something that is unstoppable, that we may be able to witness once the Tokyo Olympics resumes on July 23, 2021.




CONCLUSION

WADA and other sports agencies will continue to see to it that fairness and balance is still in place for competing athletes and countries in all sporting events. 

To date, more and more athletes are breaking records with the combination of sports psychology, improved fitness condition, enhanced recovery methods and mechanical tools gearing towards new standards in athleticism.

Change and innovation is inevitable in the field of greatness and history. Whether pro-rich or anti-poor, technology is a necessary condition for many sports to arise at all. I take a stand in taking advantage of what technology has to offer to level-up your game, and take any sport a step further towards advancement. 

Performance enhancement gear shouldn’t be tagged as a “techno dope”.  Rather than protests, we should start embracing the space age technology in sports and be keen in effectively regulating the process.


As a physical therapist and a fitness trainer, I have seen numerous winning moments and losses in sports. For athletes to be champions, I’ve also witnessed that more than the aesthetics and gears, it takes a lot of hard work, perseverance and resilience. Legends like Michael Jordan are not made overnight. That preparation is the key and timing are everything. 


If you happen to be an athlete, a fitness advocate, a sports enthusiast or just being the competitive you. Champ, if it’s your time, you’ll definitely shine! 


Cathy Freeman’s (AU) winning moment in the Sydney 2000 Olympics on Nike Swift Suit

“Success is where preparation and opportunity meet”. - Bobby Unser.


Want to share your thoughts about the topic? Let’s exchange views and comment below, who knows, you might inspire a future sports legend.