Later this summer, Glasgow will become the focal point for elite sport, as the Commonwealth Games roll into town for ten days. Athletes from all over the Commonwealth will converge to compete to achieve the athletic ideal of being “faster, higher, stronger”.

One of the key aims of the Commonwealth Games Federation, the organisation responsible for the direction and control of the Commonwealth Games, is the need “to ensure a level playing field, where athletes compete in the spirit of fair play.” The concept of ‘fair play’ provided interesting fodder for a panel discussion that recently took place a little over an hour’s drive away from Glasgow, at the National Museum of Scotland.

The panel discussion was organised by the Church of Scotland as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival, and was pitched as an opportunity to give the floor to some of the recommendations made by the Church in its recent report Striving together: celebrating competitiveness in sport, including its recommendation to encourage “all involved in competitive sport to play fairly, ethically, within the rules, and within the spirit of the rules.”

The event also provided an opportunity to discuss how technologies that purport to enable, sustain or enhance an athlete’s performance affect what is seen as ‘sporting success’. Such technologies could range from equipment that facilitates an athlete’s ability to compete (for example, wheelchairs suitable for racing), to well-designed sportswear (for example, the use of super-buoyant plastic swimsuits has been the subject of much debate in recent years), and hypoxic training devices that claim to improve circulation and increase the production of red blood cells.

One of the key questions on enhancing technologies discussed by the panel – which included former rugby player Scott Hastings, Paralympian Anne Wafula-Strike, and Professor Grant Jarvie – focused on whether enhancing technologies such as these now usurp the importance of athletes’ natural ability when they compete. One suggestion was that it’s not just the athlete who has to perform; the equipment every athlete needs to use – to a greater or lesser extent – to compete is equally important in his or her quest for a winning performance. This observation led to a suggestion that ‘performance’ should be seen as the sum of the athlete’s own abilities plus the equipment available to them. This recognises that technologies can significantly supplement the athlete’s natural aptitude for his or her sport; the better the standard of equipment made available to athletes, the more likely they are to ‘do their best’.

The reality of how technologies can enhance performance was highlighted by Anne Wafula-Strike, a Paralympic athlete and British record holder for the 200 metres. Wafula-Strike recounted how her world ranking moved from fifteenth to fourth after she began to compete in a wheelchair that was of a higher design specification and fitted to her body exactly. However, one audience member suggested that, in other events (for example, long distance running), there may be more of a reliance on “pure talent” rather than on the use of high-specification technologies. Like athletes’ Lycra shorts, it seems that one size definitely doesn’t fit all where arguments surrounding the acceptability and use of performance-enhancing technologies are concerned.

The panellists also took on the question of whether the availability of technologies and high-specification equipment has a negative impact on the fairness of sport. Wafula-Strike highlighted the difference in attitude to Paralympic sports in the UK in comparison to other countries; she recounted how, once she was an established Paralympic athlete, she travelled to Kenya to try to encourage the Government sports department to provide financial support to disabled athletes. The reaction of the Government’s representatives was: ‘why should we pay for a disabled person to compete?’ This raised a question as to how such discrepancies in opportunity – or rather trying to ‘level the playing field – might be addressed.

Levelling the playing field continued as a theme throughout the discussion, and two arguments were drawn from the audience. The first stated that all countries should be encouraged to invest in performance technologies. The second suggested that there’s no point in supporting the first because competitors are never equal. The impossibility of the ‘best’ person winning was summarised by an audience member who stated that, as everyone hails from different backgrounds and people are accorded various natural and acquired advantages and disadvantages, playing fields can never be truly level.

Observations such as this highlight the potential social stratification that sits at the heart of debates around the role of technologies in sports; quite simply, technologies that enhance or enable performance are not available to each athlete equally. Is this in the “spirit of fair play” that is so entrenched in the ideals of the Commonwealth Games Federation?

Similar questions will be considered next week at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ annual ‘Forward Look’ meeting. This meeting will include presentations that focus on the role of enhancement in sport more generally, as well as the role of medical professionals in supporting athletes.

Once the Forward Look meeting ends, the Council will consider whether we can usefully undertake further work on this subject. Even if the answer is ‘no’, questions around how to approach technological enhancement in sport will continue to be the subject of much debate.

For me, the message that refuses to stop bouncing around my brain following my trip to Edinburgh focuses on the observation of an audience member: “you’ll do anything if someone tells you ‘this will make you win.’”

Comments (1)

  • Nogi Bjj   

    Hello, Technology has always been evident in sportswear in these days. Recent years have seen a growing popularity in 'wearables' where both clothes and accessories feature various forms of technology. The majority of these wearables provide data to help athletes improve their performance.

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