November 8, 2007

When Does Sports Technology Go Too Far?

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Thanks to the Patriots, the World Series, and the never-ending Michael Vick saga, most people have probably already forgotten about Barry Bonds and his home run hitting debacle last summer. Still, just because we all lost interest in Bonds doesn’t mean anyone has lost interest in the role steroids play in the world of Major League Baseball or in the entire world of sports.
While steroids deserve the negative connotation and reputation they have, they are not alone in changing the way athletes prepare to compete or in altering how fans expect those athletes to perform. Sports technology has revolutionized every facet of every sport we know and love. Infiltrations of the latest gadgetry is so pervasive that even kids playing little league “this” and midgets “that” use equipment and machinery that their parents never even fantasized about when they were children.
To be honest, my interest in this topic was piqued by a USA Today article about a new type of hockey skate that has a blade heating device built into it. A Canadian company called Therma Blade Inc. has distributed its newest product, which is intended to reduce the friction between the blade and the ice, thereby making the customer a faster skater, to 10 NHL players who will give the toasty tuuqs a trial run. If the new blades make the cut it’s only a matter of time before the Energizer Bunny becomes lord of the ice.
It’s unclear how significant the difference in speed will be between players using your standard run-of-the-mill blade and those using Therma Blade. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that it does make a noticeable (not necessarily drastic) change in a skater’s speed. If all you need is a little battery powered device in the heel of your skate to give you that extra umph, how different is that from say, using steroids?
Some would argue that, like apples and oranges, it’s completely different. Using steroids creates an unfair advantage over athletes who choose not to because it helps build muscle much faster than simply following a rigorous weight training regimen. Steroids are unhealthy and illegal in almost every sport, so using them is not only detrimental to your health, it’s against the law. On the other hand, sports technology does not have negative effects on your health and because almost all players invest in new technology once it becomes relatively main stream, there are no issues regarding a level playing field. Or are there?
I guess, technologically advanced equipment is fair. Everyone could potentially buy it and use it and most do, so no one is really disadvantaged unless they choose to be. But what about from an all-time-world-record perspective. How do you compare Sidney Crosby to Wayne Gretzky or Barry Bonds to Hank Aaron, when the current star has the advantage of so much more technology than the sports legend. Suddenly, world records and all-time statistics lose their validity and technologically advanced equipment doesn’t look quite so innocuous.
Due to all the equipment necessary to play, hockey makes for a great example. I mean forget Therma Blade and look at the technology we already take for granted every time we watch or play (as the case may be) this great sport. The sheer variety in the type of stick you can use is daunting. Wood, composite, one-piece or two, and now, the newest adaptation, a stick with holes in the shaft which (supposedly) make the stick more aerodynamic, all change how easy it is to take a fast, accurate shot. Is that cheating? By today’s standards it’s not, but what happens when you compare players today to players from, say, 20 years ago. Suddenly the playing field, if you will, is not so level.
Essentially, both team and individual sports tout the latest and greatest technology that will help athletes reach new performance heights. It would take pages to delineate all the different types of equipment that enhance (or create?) athletic ability. Without all of that, just by looking at hockey you can see that the possibility for technological advancement in equipment is almost limitless, and could potentially progress to the point where the future game of hockey is completely incomparable to the game played by hockey “greats” like Gretzky.
So, are sports technology and steroids really all that different? I guess it all depends on how far is “too far”. Where do we draw the line between equipment that provides greater protection or accentuates talent and technology that allows people to achieve athletic feats they could never attain on their own? Therma Blades could help to create a more exciting, fast-paced sport but then again, adding fuel injected rocket launchers to the back of a Bauer boot would increase speed as well, and I doubt that anyone in his right mind would consider that reasonable or necessary.
There’s little doubt that steroids destroy athletics, athletes, and sportsmanship. Most people treat steroids as the ultimate ignominy in the world of sports and maybe, in some respects, it is. I mean, what’s worse than discovering that Marion Jones, one of the best female track runners of our time, was under the influence of steroids when she won all of her medals at the 2000 Sidney Olympics. Steroids call every athlete, every coach, and every competition into question. If steroids are out there, how do we know that “the best” are really the best? Unfortunately, we don’t know. If we assume that Bonds did use steroids to enhance his strength, we’ll never know for sure if he could have beaten the home-run record on his own or if this achievement is solely attributed to steroid use. Are steroids just a radical aspect of weight training? Would fuel burning hockey skates just be the extreme version of Therma Blade? If we continue to tolerate more and more of these technological advancements, is it so hard to believe that a day will come when steroids are acceptable, too?