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Coaches treading an ever more precarious ethical line | Embracing Technology

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Posted in: All other conversations about technology

Coaches treading an ever more precarious ethical line

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  • Blake

    I started a conversation on ConnectedCoaches, just over six months ago now, on whether “the line between permitted technological improvements and unfair advantage is becoming greyer by the day.” And I have a few more questions that I would really like to get your observations on.

    In one breath, coaches are told to embrace technology to the hilt.

    At an elite level, the English Institute of Sport spends a considerable amount of money developing cutting edge kit in James Bond-style labs, which coaches and athletes can use to improve athletic performance that can be translated into Olympic success. 

    In the other breath, coaches and athletes are warned about the dangers of using technology to gain an unfair advantage.

    The milestone marathons in Vienna and Chicago over the last few days serve as perfect examples of the blurred lines that remain and so often polarise opinion.

    The performances of Eliud Kipchoge in running the first sub 2-hour marathon and, hot on his heels, Brigid Kosgei in setting a new women’s marathon world record, were jaw-dropping.

    There was nothing covert about Kipchoge’s use of artificial advantages in his ‘unofficial’ tilt at history. Rather, Nike shone a spotlight on them for all to see, brighter than a Bat-signal hologram – all part of its flamboyant marketing tactic. From prototype Nike shoes, to laser beams projected onto the road as positional markers, to the 41 rotating pace-makers running in a reverse V formation to protect Kipchoge from the lightest of breezes.

    But it was Brigid Kosgei’s achievement, and the intense post-race scrutiny she faced, that really got me to thinking about what technological innovations are deemed ‘above board’ and what spill over into the ‘unscrupulous’ bracket. And I was left with more questions than answers.

    It would be great to hear your thoughts on the questions I have been ruminating on…

    • So what if she wore the same cutting edge shoe design as Kipchoge? Does it matter?
    • If it does, then should the fuzzy rules for what constitutes permissible racing kit/clothing/equipment be made clearer to prevent such controversies becoming irresolvable disagreements?
    • Would you advise your athletes to wear said shoes if there was a good chance they would shave seconds, or even minutes, off their personal best?
    • And, finally, what is the difference between wearing performance-enhancing shoes and gaining an advantage by training for several weeks at altitude or using a hyperbaric oxygen chamber?

    Or maybe we should just ask Alexa for the answers!

  • Blake

    Interesting article on the fall-out from Shoe-gate here by Sean Ingle in The Guardian: "Do not be surprised if the arms race in shoe technology soon goes nuclear."

    He writes: "Depending on the model and athlete they typically improve a person’s running economy by 4-5% – which translates to at least a minute- to 90-second advantage for an elite male runner over 26.2 miles. Perhaps even more."

    Then goes on to say: "... whatever the IAAF does next, it must more closely observe its own rule 143.2, which states shoes 'must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage'."

    Before concluding that the IAAF will not ban the shoes, even though they clearly give athletes who wear them an unfair advantage. 

    Yet more shades of grey preventing us finding a way out of this moral maze.


  • stewmasterathletecomGIMOCP9R

    There comes the follow up discussion of what is performance enhancing and what is performance enabling :/

    Does the shoe, make the athlete move faster than they can go!.... No (obviously they can move faster as they are not sprinting)

    Does the shoe alter their physiology (such as EPO etc)?... Nope


    So does this shoe "enable" them to run simply within their limits? Yes.......


    I remember a discussion years ago regarding the use of Cortisone injections, not enhancing but allows the athlete to perform blah blah.  So it is a strange argument that will play out over the next few years for sure no doubt 

  • andrewb62

    Interesting question, and one that has been addressed recently in my own sport of cricket.

    The size of cricket bats has been regulated in an attempt to reduce growing the imbalance between batters & bowlers. Seemingly with some success — instances of the more outrageous hitting sprees do appear to have become rarer since the new regulations were introduced.

    But this is an artificial constraint — cricket grounds can’t be made any larger, so the distance a ball can be hit needs to be limited by the technology. I believe that golf club developments have been banned in the pro game where they allow a player to hit “too far”.

    The question of technology in “pure performance” sports, such as track & field or swimming, is notionally easier to address.

    If tech improves performance beyond human capability, it seems “unfair” - swimming skin-suits with less drag than human skin.

    If it merely reduces the disadvantage inherent in a piece of equipment, on the other hand (e.g. stiffer shoes that might absorb less energy than heavily padded trainers), then I would probably have no complaints.

  • andrewb62

    re performance-enhancing equipment vs. training at altitude

    I'd say "no" to the former, because the test is meant to be athlete vs. athlete, not tech vs. tech.

    But altitude training seems OK - admittedly, not every athlete has access to/can afford to travel for high altitude training, but the "output" is a better-adapted athlete, not a new piece of add-on tech. And if altitude adaptation was banned, would all Colombian cyclists and many Kenyan distance runners be banned because they were born at altitude?

  • lthorp

    Interesting debate and one that could get a lot greyer before we're done! It reminds me of when the Adidas Predators started having 'rubber elements for control, power and swerve' and the Nike Mercurial Vapors were made to be unbelievably light. I can't remember anyone claiming the opposition had advantages by wearing one or the other when they were both released and I don't think that FIFA commented.

    I suppose the question is, if this innovative equipment is there to be used for all (and is not deemed illegal by governing bodies) then why wouldn't you use them if you deemed them to be suitable for your individual needs? If everyone decided to wear the same shoes then surely all this does is level the playing field and strip it back to preparation and ability? Using my example above, a lot of professionals were dictated to by their sponsorship deals so had to wear Predators or Vapors respectively. Could either of the pairs of boots have made that much of a power or speed difference then? Maybe as you've said, are we all caught up in a very clever Nike advertising campaign for running shoes and a competitor will be releasing their (very similar) version soon?!

    I do agree that the sport's governing bodies need to be constantly reviewing technological advances, working closely with manufacturers and are therefore clearly and consistently defining the parameters for the sport. Finally, as you say Blake, athletes shouldn't have their great achievements written off by claiming it was only down to the equipment they wore. They were still great achievements and much more than the shoes the wore should be considered when we talk about why and how they did it! 

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