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Is technology ruining sports?

March 20, 2016

9.79. Ben Johnson’s win in the 1988 Olympic Games 100-metre final was one that shocked the world. Against all odds, carrying a hamstring injury, being extremely off-form, and running in a field with the defending gold medallist Carl Lewis, Johnson ran home as the first Canadian to triumph in the blue-riband event. However, this race left a legacy not because of Johnson’s heroics, but because several days after the event, Johnson was reported for suspected drug abuse and eventually charged for using performance enhancement drugs. This was a pertinent issue because sports celebrate the human spirit, athletic achievements and challenge one to break his own physical limits (not the technological barrier). Technological achievements and new developments in medical science allow for the development of drugs to help humans exceed their limits and break new boundaries, which some have said ruin sport.

Certainly, with high profile cases such as that of Lance Armstrong and Maria Sharapova, it is only right to recognise the negative impacts science and technology have on sport. As sports people continue to challenge their own limits, they come to a point where they are only limited by the chemical barrier. In their opinion, they have reached the peak of human performance and can only advance further with the use of chemicals, with the use of drugs. Modern science and technology provide just that. With the introduction of performance enhancing drugs, athletes can train more than before, they can develop greater stamina and speed endurance but underlying all that is an ethical issue. Using these drugs thus allow athletes to ‘cheat’ because they are given an unfair advantage. It does not celebrate the physical prowess of a human being, but rather the achievements in medical science. In fact, in the 1970s, East Germany introduced a large scale doping system to train its athletes to ‘win’ glory for the nation. For one, female swimmers were given large amounts of testosterone, a male hormone that provides athletes with more energy. This programme allowed the swimmers to sweep almost all the female swimming titles on offer at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, defeating defending swimming champions, the United States. While technology generates results, it ruins the idea of sports and sportsmanship because athletes do not win by sheer hard work or talent, but rather, through unfair advantages, through cheating. It ruins the ideal of fair play and the image of the sports. But beyond that, it ruins the sportspeople themselves. A shot putter in East Germany, Heidi Krieger, took in so much testosterone during the course of her training that she eventually lost her sexuality and had to undergo a sex change to fit into societal norms. Other athletes under the doping programme also had several medical complications that continue to plague their lives. For the damages it has done to sport and sportspeople, modern science and technology may have destroyed sport.

However, science and technology have certainly contributed to sport over the years. Primarily, it has economised the cost of travel, and by extension, the cost of competitions. While 70 years ago, planes were either used for warfare or as an expensive mode of transport only for the rich, technological advancements have economised commercial flights, making it more affordable and allowed for significant participation in global or regional meets. The difference is real, for in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, the United States (the host country) swept almost all the gold medals on offer because it was simply too expensive and risky for other countries to travel across the Pacific Ocean to compete. This is a reason that may seem ludicrous today. But with the advent of safe and affordable commercial flights, athletes all over the world can now travel and compete. This was seen in the London Olympic Games four years back, the games that saw the highest participation of more than 200 National Olympic Councils. With increased competition, athletes are challenged to do better because they are no longer judged by their own standards, but by international standards. They see others doing well and strive to do even better. And this constant, high-level competition allows athletes to break their own limits, and for world records to fall, for incredible feats to be achieved. While the world did not see timings faster than 9.79 in the decade after Ben Johnson’s scandal, the increased participation of Jamaican athletes, who are reported to possess faster-twitched muscles due to genetics, raised the world’s standards once again; first with Asafa Powell lowering the mark to 9.76 then with Usain Bolt further lowering the mark to 9.58. Technology has made it possible for a global circuit of athletes to constantly compete with one another, to constantly challenge one another and make record-breaking a constant, thereby raising the level of sports.

Advancements in science and technology have also aided recovery and to make an athlete’s career as injury-free as possible. At 18, Vladimir Yashchenko was at the top of the world, holding the world record for the men’s high jump event. He was the future prospect of the event, the champion to bring the world’s standards even higher. At 20, however, he suffered from a knee injury that effectively ended his career. Today’s development in sports science and technology has allowed for the creation of new machines and new methods of training. For instance, Singapore national sprinter, Calvin Kang injured his Achilles tendon, and was likely to be pulled out of training for a few months, effectively ending his dreams for the 2015 Southeast Asian Games. However, he was able to utilise an anti-gravity treadmill at the Singapore Sports Institute, one that allowed him to continue working on his speed and endurance without putting pressure on his injury, and because of that, he was able to return to his peak form at the Southeast Asian Games, to break his personal best and anchor Singapore to a national record in the 4x100 metre relay. These developments in sports science and technology ensure that an athlete receives the right attention and treatment when he or she is injured and trains effectively to achieve his or her goals, thereby benefitting the sport.

Beyond that, new media has also made it easier for an athlete to gain the right sort of encouragement and support. With the advent of the Internet, the audience can now watch live telecasts of a competition of their favourite athletes elsewhere in the world. In being able to generate viewership across the world, the meet organisers and the sports councils are able to gain sufficient revenue to support the development of their athletes and their sports. But more than that, an athlete is now able to receive the support and encouragement from their fans across the globe, via social networking platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. For instance, Qatari high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim, once only competing for those at home, now competes for his fans in Asia, and across the world, with their hopes pinned on him. For many athletes such as Barshim, the support from their fans, the words of encouragement can provide them with the right motivation to pick themselves up when they are down and continue their pursuit of their goals. Technology advancements in the media have thus allowed for athletes to fight harder and fight stronger, advancing the development of the sport.

Science and technology encompass a wide range of developments and achievements. While the misuse of medical advancements may have ruined sports and sportsmanship, efforts have been put in place to clamp down on drug abuse, to fight off ‘cheats’ and to keep sports clean. Today, the advancements of science and technology have raised the level of sports, the level of performance and show potential in making sports great, again.


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