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Is Technology The New Performance Enhancing Drugs?

23/11/2016 13:21

Russia made headlines for its alleged illegal hacking during the US General Election, but Hillary Clinton's campaign team's emails are not the only thing that Russians have (allegedly) hacked this year. A few months ago, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was hacked. Russian hacker group Fancy Bears is providing us with a steady stream of leaks like the people who sell clean urine samples to national sporting teams.

This scandal has made two things as clear as one of those very samples. 1) Hacker groups always have terrible names, and 2) the public has no tolerance for anything that gives athletes an unfair advantage.

In this case, that thing is drug usage. But there is another thing that could be just as unfair and just as advantageous, and it's being used in sports everywhere: technology. So should the public aim some of their outrage at technology like a donor of toxin-free urine aiming into a bottle? Let's see how tech is used in sports to find out.

How technology is used in training

It seems some sports trainers saw The Matrix not just as a cyberpunk parable about the prison of our modern lives, but as inspiration for an entirely new way to train athletes. With virtual reality, we are not far off from the scene where Keanu Reeves learns how to use every martial art without once changing his oddly stiff facial expression, all in a computer-generated world.

The Stanford Cardinals American football team has players swap their helmets for VR headsets when they're off the field, allowing them to analyse plays like a tech'ed out literature student. US sports scholarship agency Future Elite Sports says this helps players factor the chaos of the pitch into their plans. The Stanford Cardinal's assistant coach (Vice Cardinal?) says this technology vastly improves players' insight.

Personal trainer to the stars Jon Denoris says VR is best used for fitness and motivation. People could train in different environments (such as Neo's Kung Fu room in The Matrix), or turn exercise into a game, where trainees can track stats in real time, before their very eyes.

VR aside, other sporting technology is being used to help the training process. Major League Baseball teams have been utilising wearable technology since 2013, with smart jerseys measuring athlete performance. The data is then used to perfect each player's bespoke training routine.

Similar tech is being used in the UK, too. Rugby players can often tear muscles if they spend too much time on their feet (or, you know, playing rugby), so Premiership teams are monitoring players' footsteps twenty four hours a day to make sure they spend enough time off their feet between games.

Using technology in these ways undoubtedly helps with athletes' performances, but it is on the field where tech makes a real difference.

How sports tech is used to play

American footballer and ponytail-haver Chris Kluwe gave a TED Talk about the way augmented reality will change sports. It wouldn't be a TED Talk if it didn't end with Kluwe touching on how VR will build empathy between humans, but before that he has some interesting information about how teams will use AR on the field. Footballers will have displays in their visors with stats, hints, and tips on what to do next.

Similarly, national swim teams have a bigger swimsuit obsession that the editor of Sports Illustrated. The LZR Racer Elite swimsuit was used to break countless records at the Beijing Olympics, and though it was banned after causing controversy, designers continue to work on faster suits.

Ironically pronounced 'loser' if you tried to say it as one word, the LZR probably deserved to be banned on the grounds that if every swimmer didn't have one, the playing field (or in this case pool) was not level. But official sporting bodies may not be doing enough to ensure all teams and athletes are using the same level of technology. If officials had banned the LZR before the Beijing Olympics, the medal table could have looked completely different. In the same way, if Chris Kluwe's AR American football happens, there is no doubt the better-equipped teams will win.

Though the equipment and clothing used in sports could be monitored, it would possibly require an entire WADA-style body to oversee everything. And even if that did happen, the tech used during training can likely never be regulated, even though all users indicate that it has been hugely beneficial to performance.

The impact of technology on sports has not, and probably cannot, be specifically measured, but it could well be just as performance-enhancing as drugs. Still, it seems there is no public outcry over sporting tech on the horizon. Perhaps the difference is this: striving to improve through technological advancement is seen as so positive elsewhere in society that we don't see it that differently on the playing field.

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