Viewpoint: Yes, advanced technology in sports has significantly narrowed the gap between world record holders and the way the athletic achievement is perceived.
Viewpoint: No, technological advances in sports such as tennis, golf, and track and field have not supplanted the athletic achievements of the participants in those sports.
In the twentieth century, the entire face of sports changed drastically with the advent of new technologies. Today advertisements for new types of running shoes, golf clubs, tennis rackets, and hundreds of other sports accessories bombard us. The level of scientific research into something as simple as a golf ball can be mind-boggling. With new materials and computer engineering, improvements are being made on sporting equipment faster than marketers can publicize them.
This advance in technology has broadened the spectrum of athletes. Improvements in safety standards, cost, and accessibility have allowed more people to take advantage of formerly exclusive sporting events. Self-improvement and exercise are thriving businesses, and sporting manufacturers have capitalized on this interest, promising better performance as the result of their equipment or product.
Sports technology has found its greatest proponents among professional athletes. Athletes like Pete Sampras, Tiger Woods, and Nick Hysong now have access to far better equipment than ever before. Advances in sports equipment have undoubtedly played a role in the achievement of these athletes in their respective fields.
Athletes are often elevated to the status of superheroes, revered by the public for their successes. Many consider the players even more important than the game. This, in turn, has made competition fiercer than ever. With enormous amounts of money, and sponsorship, riding on an athlete's performance, the old adage "it isn't whether you win or lose" has fallen to the wayside. Some would argue that today's athletes are willing to take any advantage they can get. They want to hit further, jump higher, or run faster and further than their opponent. Could it be argued that winning for the sake of winning has begun to replace the wonder of athletic achievement? If so, how large a role does technology play in that success? What truly makes these athletes exceptional? Is it personal achievement in and dedication to their sport, or has technology made them into the athletes they are today? Did Venus Williams or her racket win Wimbledon in 2001? Did David Duval become the 2001 U.S. Open golf champion because of practice or because he used a certain type of club? Was it the shoes Marion Jones wore or her tireless training that captured the 2000 Olympic gold medals in the Women's 100M and 200M races?
While some would argue that there is no replacement for raw athletic talent, many maintain that the technological advances in sporting equipment have added significantly to athletic performance. For example, there is disagreement about whether current-day athletic achievements should be viewed with the same regard as records established in the past—when athletes were performing without the benefit of graphite tennis rackets, fiberglass poles, ultra-light running shoes, and titanium golf clubs. Even the athletes themselves are divided on the issue. Despite the ongoing debate, it is certain that athletes will continue to utilize advances in sports technology to enhance and better their performance.
—LEE ANN PARADISE
When people talk about the prowess of Tiger Woods, Michael Chang, or Stacy Dragila, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist in the women's pole vault, it's impossible to ignore how improvements in sports equipment contributed to their success. While technological advances do not negate the achievement of the athletes or fully explain their accomplishments, better golf balls, tennis rackets with bigger "sweet spots," and springier poles have enabled athletes to perform better in this century than ever before. No competitive professional would think of returning to the wooden tennis racquet or smooth golf ball. Today, the alternatives are just that much better.
In 1963 with the advent of aluminum, fiberglass, and graphite poles, the pole vault record shot up 2 ft (0.61 m) in three years and now stands at over 20 ft (6.09 m). Prior to that technological innovation, the pole vault record increased only about 2 in (5 cm) to 16 ft (4.88 m) between 1942 and 1960. At the Atlanta Olympics, Michael Johnson became the first male athlete to win both the 200-and 400-meter sprint. He also set the new world record in the 200-meter sprint—wearing specially designed ultra-light Nike running shoes weighing just 3.4 oz (96.39 g). Now, many sprinters also wear full-body suits to reduce wind resistance, which could make the critical hundreth of a second difference in a race.
In the future, the advanced technology of the vaulting pole, running shoes, or golf ball will make more of a difference in the future than it has in the past. In some sports it will be because the time differences between first and second place will continue to shrink, allowing more room for technological improvements in equipment to give athletes an edge. Also, sports technology is not just limited to improvements in equipment. The modern-day athlete can now depend on computerized training systems to analyze their swing, stride, and follow-through.
When discussing technological improvements to sports equipment a distinction must be drawn between legitimate improvements and improvements that give athletes an unfair advantage—the equipment equivalent of performance enhancing drugs. In almost every sport there's been debate about how this distinction should be drawn. After a German inventor devised a "spaghetti racquet" with a standard frame and double strings fitted with plastic tubes designed to give the ball more topspin, the International Tennis Federation jumped in to prevent potential uproar. A tennis racquet could be made out of any material, be any weight, size, and shape, the Federation said, but it cannot alter the flight of the ball and the strings must also be evenly spaced.
Sometimes the distinction is not so clear. A new golf club, the ERC II, does not conform to United States Golf Association specifications because of a "trampoline effect" that gives the club more spring. However, the USGA does allow some spring in golf clubs—as long as it's below a set "spring-back number" of 83%. Similarly, with the introduction of fiberglass poles for use in the pole vault there are now over 200 poles of varying stiffnesses from different makers. In 1998, a special United States Track and Field Pole Vault Equipment Task Force was created to determine if there should be a standard "flex number" for maufacturers to follow.
The recent push of athletic associations to standardize rather than outlaw new innovations points to the growing importance of sports technology for optimizing athletic performance. Although some current changes are more apparent than others—like form-fitting body suits that some world-class swimmers and sprinters now wear—there has been a steady evolution of even seemingly mundane sports equipment for decades.
One of the best examples is the golf ball. The first generation of golf balls resembled hacky sacks, covered and leather and filled with feathers. The ball, called a "feathery," could be struck up to 200 yd (182.88 m) but slowed when it became damp. Around the same time, ballmakers started experimenting with the gutty ball, a golf ball made out of a rubbery substance called "gutta-percha" from India. When softened in hot water, gutta-percha could be rolled into the shape of a ball with the hands.
Soon after, ballmakers made a sports-changing discovery: The newly made smooth balls did not fly as well as older balls. The reason? As golfers hit the balls, the surface of the balls became more nicked, and the bumpy surface is what made the difference in performance. The bumps or dimples on a golf ball trap a layer of air that extends the flight of the ball. Since the golf balls travel forward with a backspin, the layer of air on top of the ball moves faster than the layer of air at the bottom. This creates more air pressure underneath the ball, resulting in better lift. Years later, the dimpled golf ball still survived but in a different form. The new golf ball consisted of rubber strips wound around a rubber core—signaling the death knell of the gutty ball.
In the past century, carbon fiberglass—lighter than metal or wood—revolutionized both tennis and the pole vault. When pole vaulting began as a competitive sport, athletes used bamboo poles with a sharp point at the bottom to plant in the grass. Today, modern poles are made out of fiberglass and are much lighter than their bamboo or metal counterparts. The lighter poles allow athletes to run faster and gain the momentum they need to vault higher.
The new poles also have more spring. The fiberglass pole absorbs more of the vaulter's energy when it bends and as it straightens. Along with rubberized track surfaces, special boxes for planting the pole, and padded landing pits, the new fiberglass poles help athletes attain records that would be impossible to obtain using the traditional equipment.
Today, tennis rackets that used to be made out of wood have also turned composite. This in spite of former Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg's stubborn insistence on using his wooden racket even after the introduction of the new lighter metal and graphite rackets. In the 1960s, manufacturers started introducing metal frames of steel and aluminum, later turning to an array of materials from titanium to graphite shells with plastic foam cores. Modern-day tennis rackets also feature larger "sweet spots" that minimize vibration.
Aside from using new materials, manufacturers also started experimenting with the physical design of the tennis racket. When Head increased the size of the face of its racket 20%, it resulted in a 300% increase in the size of the sweet spot. Later, Prince introduced its Long-Body tennis racket designed to have a greater length and give the player more control. New lighter materials like graphite helped maufacturers to lengthen rackets, giving shorter players like Michael Chang a longer reach without a lot of additional weight.
As for golf, the traditional wooden golf club has changed as much as the ball. Golfers now use drivers with the weight distributed around the edge of the clubhead, specially designed to maximize the efficiency of each hit. The titanium-based shafts and club heads have also helped professionals and weekend golfers improve their game.
It's difficult to assess precisely how much of a difference improved technology makes in the competitiveness of an athlete. But it's undeniable that the equipment—whether it's the shoes, ball, or pole—is receiving more attention than in the past. The evolution of the pole vault is a prime example. In their coverage of the 2000 Olympics, Newsday.com ran an infographic about the switch from fiberglass to metal poles. Another Web site, NBCOlympics.com , hosted a chat with Stacy Dragila, the American gold medalist of the first ever women's Olympic pole vault. Participants asked her about her training regime, mindset, injuries, and the improvements seen in pole technology. To the questioner who asked, "How much of the sport depends on the pole? How much depends on the athlete?" Dragila gave this telling response: "That's a tough question. I think it's a 50/50 take right there. You have to be able to maximize your pole selection as well as your athleticism. If you're not comfortable with your pole, I think it's very hard for the vaulter to maximize her strength on the pole, so it's a 50/50 toss."
On the golf course, as the technological revolution of the golf ball continues, it appears that the wound ball with its core of tightly wrapped rubber bands will now go the way of the feathery and the gutty ball. In the 2000 Masters, 59 out of 95 players hit wound balls. A year later, only four competitors chose to use wound balls. The solid-core ball is quickly becoming the ball of choice. When Tiger Woods used wound balls, he averaged a 288.9 yd (264.17 m) drive. With the solid-core, he averages 305.4 yd (279.26 m). But the innovation doesn't stop at the golf ball core. When Jesper Parnevik won the Honda Classic, he cited the new Titleist Pro VI as contributing factor in his win. The new ball featuring an innovative dimple design and "ionamer casing" results in higher ball speed with lower spin.
In addition to revolutionizing equipment, improved sports technology has also shrunk the difference between winners and losers, allowing thousandths of a second to decide who finishes first and who finishes second. Modern-day timing systems start with the firing of the starting gun and stop when a light-based sensor detects the winner across the finish line. Now that there are fewer improvements that can be made to the equipment—namely limited to slight adjustments to the surface of the track and weight of the shoes—the difference in winning times of the 100-meter sprint has shrunk. Improvements are now made in about 0.006 second increments rather than the 0.015 second improvements seen in the early 1900s. Although improvements in time, at least in the shorter running events, will be largely due to the training regime of the athletes, the technology that measures their performance will be distinguishing a "win" that might have been a "tie" a century ago.
Computerized measuring devices might even change the judging of other sports like the pole vault. Historically, the pole vault has been judged strictly on the height of the bar that the athlete scaled. Now, poles with light-emitting diode (LEDs) can measure the actual altitude a pole vaulter has achieved.
Aside from altering the way we conceive of winning and losing, in sports like tennis and golf, computer-based systems are now helping players analyze their performance over weeks, months, or even during the course of a season. Since 1997, both PGA and LPGA Tour players have used a tracking system called SportsTrac to monitor their performance. Similarly, IBM computers at Wimbledon receive an input of shots played and points won, the umpires record information about the match in personal digital assistants, and a radar measures the speed of players' serves. At the end of a match, players and coaches receive a 40-page report of the collected data.
As the equipment and training regimes of athletes become more sophisticated, technological innovation will play a larger role in dictating winners and losers. Races that would have been ties when measured with older technology will now be definitively decided. Access to the latest golf balls that fly farther than their predecessors will not replace hours-long practice sessions, but the technology has become so advanced that it could make the one or two stroke difference at the end of the tournament. In the future, records will be broken in vanishingly small increments, not because there are no more great athletes, but because technology is helping to optimize the performance of all.
Sports have an intimate quality that makes the use of technology seem too intrusive. However, the use of technology in sports is not new and has led to many benefits for mankind. In fact, in some ways, these advances in technology help to justify the expense of time and money that we invest in sports. Probably the greatest and most persistent concern about technology and sports is that it diminishes the prestige of athletes by blurring the distinction between their accomplishments and those that are made possible because of the technology.
It certainly is the case that in the hands of a major leaguer an aluminum bat becomes a lethal weapon. Not only is an aluminum bat a more consistent tool than a wooden bat, but it also creates more force, allowing balls to be driven further and harder. In fact aluminum bat, although allowed in college play, is banned in most professional leagues, including the major leagues. Similar concerns have been raised about the differences created in tennis when larger metal rackets totally replaced wooden rackets at the professional level. And professional golf has put specific limits upon the materials that can be used for golf clubs.
It is unlikely that anyone would insist on professional football players going back to the days when they wore leather helmets on the field. Similarly, there is no move to prevent athletes from improving their nutrition or engaging in exercise, often with the most advance resistance equipment and monitoring instruments. So where does the controversy lie?
There are two situations in which the move to new technology is most opposed. First, when it is believed that the "integrity" of the game has been put in jeopardy. Often the aesthetics and fun of the competition are keenly dependent upon such things as the dimensions of the field, the bounce of the ball, the height of the net, and other factors that developed over time and have proven their value. The second objection to new technologies is based primarily upon concerns over the health of the athlete. For instance, performance drugs, particularly street level performance drugs, have already demonstrated that they can cause illness and shorten the life spans of athletes. However, there is no doubt that some performance drugs can provide a margin of victory. This use of chemicals is perhaps the most difficult technological question that sports faces today. Looking at the Olympics, we see that there has been a continual struggle to set standards of fairness and safety, yet there is strong evidence that some athletes continue to seek an edge in this way, and, in fact, may be a step ahead of those trying to test them.
There is no question that integrity of the game argument holds in many cases. The same sort of caution should be shown in the introduction of new technology as when modifications are made, say, to the size of the strike zone in baseball or in the limits to roughness allowed in football. In cases where it could damage the aesthetics of the game or too abruptly separate today's athletes from past players, it should be rejected.
And while it is reasonable for athletes to assume some risk in their professions (in fact, it is expected as part of the game in many events), there are levels of unreasonable risk, and there are occasions when risk can be easily prevented. In the cases of performance drugs as they exist today, it is reasonable to protect athletes from the economic pressures that might force them to submit their bodies to unreasonable risk. On the other hand, we have many instances where technology can and does reduce the probability of injury to athletes. For instance, the chances of injuring one's arm in tennis go up significantly if one uses an old wooden racket. And it's obvious that the protective equipment we have today is of great benefit to athletes. No one would want to go back to playing baseball without batting helmets, or playing football without proper padding.
Injuries can be further minimized by the use of ergonomics, sports psychology, and sports medicine. For instance, a better understanding of ergonomics can help the pitcher move more fluidly and spare his body from injuries, even crippling ones. Sports psychology can help athletes perform better, and sports medicine has given us new approaches to treating injuries and to maintaining physical health.
To show that technology has supplanted athletes would require proving that the value provided by athletes has shifted in some way to technologies or away from the sport. So what value does sports promise? While different people might appreciate sports for different reasons, clearly sports provide entertainment, celebrity, instruction and development, commerce, aesthetics, and stories. Is the athlete's role in any of these degraded by technology?
Overall, the public's attention to sports, as measured by their investments in time and money, has never been higher. The status of individual sports may wax and wane depending upon a number of factors. One of these, of course, is how much fun the sport is, and this may be related to how closely it connects with daily life. For instance, it has been observed that in times of peace Americans tend to gravitate toward baseball, while in times of war they tend to gravitate toward football. Probably the most dependable predictor of whether a specific sport will be of interest is how well it keeps up with the pace of daily life (one reason given for the growing popularity of soccer over baseball among the young). Life's pace has continued to increase, and technology has helped to increase the pace of sports with faster serves, better runs, and quicker race cars. Technology also helps athletes demonstrate their full potential, so all manner of records are continually broken. Judging from the press attention to such feats, it would appear that these are appreciated by the public, and that they add to the excitement of sports.
Sports provides us with people to identify with, cheer for, and boo. Often our greatest attraction is to people that we know, people that we essentially share a history with. Technology can often displace these people if they do not respond well to the changes in the game. (One crisis in golf came when a younger generation quickly overcame the older, familiar players, and gate receipts declined.) However, it can also lengthen careers as better conditioning, new surgical treatments, and better medication make it possible for highly skilled athletes to have long careers. With effects on both sides of the ledger, it might be difficult to determine whether technology, overall, degrades the star power of athletes.
Sports often provides instruction in many areas. People often come to a better understanding of the possibilities for improving their health by observing sports and hearing details of sports treatments and training. Similarly, sports psychology has helped people to appreciate the connection between mental health and achievement, if not happiness. Strategists, particularly in business, have often relied on sports to provide analogies. And much of the original intent of sports was as
Given the pressure for success in sports, it is not surprising that advances in medicine, nutrition, and therapy have their origins in the world of sports. Since sports can accelerate the toll that life takes on the human body—wearing down joints and demanding more of muscles and ligaments—sports medicine has found particular application among the large and growing population of older people.
Sports also provides a market that supports the development of new materials and the study of the physics of athletic equipment. Helmets have been improved in football, and safety equipment is honed to perfection in auto racing.
Sports, even amateur sports today, is big business. The sales opportunities for athletes who have been on the scene for a long time and who can sell to his or her peers are enhanced. In addition, the updating of equipment, which can be recommended by athletes, can make sports more lucrative for athletes. This has been seen especially in the case of athletic shoes. Technology here can support the extension of careers, and, in a world where wealth is often admired, raise the respect for athletes. In can also damage the images of athletes who might be seen as having "sold out" or who have extravagant lifestyles that seem wholly unlike those of their fans, making them difficult to identify with. However, the role of technology here would seem to be minimal. Ticket prices and strikes are the main targets of fan dis-approbation when commerce lays too heavy a hand on the game.
At its best, sports is an artistic endeavor. The motions of athletes challenge those of the best dancers. The sounds of the crowd or the crack of a bat or even the gasp of the player surging over the goal line can rival music. The interaction between players on the field can be both intricate and intellectually satisfying. It is difficult to quantify the effects of technology on the aesthetics of sports. Certainly, there is no artistic merit to a performance that has been compromised by equipment failure.
There is a large overlap between aesthetics and the "integrity" of the game. We want to know that the achievements are real, not faked. Elegance should not come from fancy camera work or hidden wires. It must be about the body and the mind, and it must be connected to the traditions of the game. Replace baseballs with over-sized golf balls, and you'll get more home runs. But one would miss the timing, rhythm, and judgment of a "real" home run. And the game itself will no longer be the one that Babe Ruth played. Have sports ever stepped over the line? The argument can certainly be made that they have. But not far and not often. As much as synthetic grass fields are disparaged in baseball, they have never been as controversial as a nontechnical change, the introduction of the designated hitter. Free substitution made more significant changes to football than any amount of body armor. The best evidence that the integrity of sports has, overall, been maintained is that history is an important point of comparison in the world of sports, and fans continue to cheer for the achievements of the best.
There may be no greater contribution of sports than the stories it tells about itself and about us. The triumphs and tragedies of our heroes in sports provide us with lessons on how we should or should not lead our lives. They also inspire us and sometimes provide guidance for our lives. Just by virtue of the careers it lengthens, technology changes the nature of these stories: there are more novels, fewer short stories.
Against these positives is, again, the question of the integrity of the game. Is this drama true? Or is the game "fixed?" The 1919 Black Sox scandal stills lives in memory because the public wants, even needs, an honest game. A technical marvel, such as an advanced rudder, might take the America's Cup to Australia, but a resulting movie script, if honest, would more likely deal with the engineers than the sailors. It is possible to take the athletes out of the story with technology that actually changes the game, and it is the responsibility of the commissioners, referees, and judges to keep that from happening. Based on the reactions of fans, they are doing a pretty fair job, and the appreciation of athletes' accomplishments seems to be secure.
There are many ways that a sport can lose its currency with fans: It can be replaced by another sport that better reflects the spirit of the times. It can lose the fans' trust and affection through corruption, the attitude of athletes, or disaster (such as the death of a popular athlete). It can even be outlawed, as has happened with cockfighting and has been threatened with contact sports from time to time. But the tools athletes use and the advances they take advantage of in medicine, training, nutrition, and psychology have not presented any serious threats to sports. As long as the integrity of the game and the safety of athletes are not seriously violated by technological advances, athletes will still be the heroes of the games.
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A vaulting pole made of fiberglass has long, stiff filaments of glass fiber that is combined with a more flexible polymer. The stiffness-to-weight ratio can be engineered accordingly to different specifications.
A carbon-based material commonly used for the frames of tennis rackets. It's lighter than wood and 10 times stiffer.