By Ross Weir
Technology doping is the practice of gaining a competitive advantage using equipment (including apparel). The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) considers prohibiting technologies if they are “performance-enhancing” or “against the spirit of the sport“.
As Sports Technologists it is our role to consider how we can improve the performance of modern athletes and enthusiasts alike within their chosen sporting activity. Going faster, higher and stronger all add to the enjoyment of physical activity,boosting the chances of an athlete producing a world class performance.
In recent years I spent time living and working in Vancouver, Canada. At the time, I was not particularly fit. Living half way up the local mountain gave me pause for thought regarding my chosen method of commuting to and from the city. The traffic around Vancouver is much like any other city at rush hour, so a cycle commute would be by far the quickest over the 15k distance. The ride in would no doubt be a joy, the ride home would be something else.
I decided there might be another way. Back in 2013, electric bicycles were just starting to make sense. The costs were reasonable and the distance on one charge met my commute criteria. I purchased a fold up city bike with a rear hub motor. Under full power, plus me pedalling hard, the bike would sit at a good pace on the flats, climbing up the hills it was awesome.
At my initial level of fitness, the journey would have taken at least twice as long. What I found interesting was the powerful sense of being a ‘cheat’ that I experienced! I became very British as I overtook far fitter cyclists, “Sorry,…sorry, electric cheat coming through.” How could this be cheating?
On reflection, I believe it felt like cheating because I knew my bike looked just like any other non-electric city bike. It was covert. I was aware, that as I eased by my commuter brethren they would experience a flash of emotion. From the comments I received on a weekly basis, I can be sure it was negative emotion! Even they saw it as cheating when they realised it must be electric.
I rode the cheat bike for about 3 months. Not only was I enjoying the commute in wind, rain and snow, I was getting fitter by the day. But at some point I decided it was time to stop cheating and ride a real bike. I actually made the switch because the technology had its limits. A standard road bike was far faster on the flat and downhill, lighter to control and once I had a certain level of fitness, the electric bike was standing in the way of further physical improvements and faster commute times. Now I was getting passed by the electric cheats on the hills. Even knowing what I know, it sucked.
My insight from this was how crushing it must be as an athlete to be beaten by a cheat, a dope, a fraud. It must also be somewhat galling as a retired athlete watching records being taken by a new generation who may simply not be as good once all the advancements in technology are stripped away.
At the extremes, Everyone knows that hiding an electric motor in your bike frame, or doping with EPO, and entering a cycling competition is simply fraud (Femke Van den Driessche, Lance Armstrong), but what about using other technological advantages. Lighter wheels, aerodynamic fabrics and helmets etc., all add important marginal gains whilst seeming to be acceptable within the rules of sport.
The conversation quickly becomes philosophical. Ultimately it is the duty of each sport’s governing body to define the technical limitations for equipment used in the training and competing of athletes, along with a robust and active anti-doping operation. For sports technologists it is our role to pursue performance right up to these limits, building meaningful and marginal gains in athlete performance, stimulating interest in new products and releases.
Future areas of technological doping could blur the lines between biochemistry and technology making regulation almost impossible. I read with interest that specific transcranial stimulation prior to exercise can significantly increase tolerance to pain during exercise. ‘Stiming’ will unlock new potential in an athlete and be completely undetectable. Is this cheating, or just smart training and preparation?
I look back on my covert cheat bike, now sold to another cheater. I have a lot to thank it for, it got me back on the road, it got me fit and opened up the opportunity to return to a healthier life. Without it, I would probably be riding the bus instead.
For a good overview of current aspects of technological doping see – Sports and tech: How athletes make use of the latest inventions http://www.technologist.eu/the-sports-revolution/