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Doping, bungs and bribery have sports fans of the world up in arms, but what of the technology that gives the wealthiest sportsmen and women an edge? Isn’t that cheating too? Sports professor Jim Parry asks what happened to real sport?



Since the US ‘moonbikes’ made medallists out of inferior cyclists in the 1984 Olympics, the question of technological advantage has been as challenging as the question of doping advantage. However, they are quite different questions. Doping is illegal, technology is not. Doping requires secrecy, fraud and deception, whilst sports technology is a necessary part of each sport, and is (at least theoretically) under the transparent control of the federations.

But which new technologies should be accepted, and which should be banned? I wish to propose a criterion to help decide whether or not (and why) to welcome new technologies into sport. It acknowledges that a necessary condition of a sport is that it has rules; that the most important rules are the constitutive rules, which define the sport and its internal goods. The idea is that the internal goods of sport (which are what we all seek) are created by the constitutive rules; and so proposed new technologies, and associated rule changes, should be assessed according to their ability to promote the relevant internal goods.


It would be very strange if sport just stayed the same throughout history, whilst everything around it, in society and technology, were constantly evolving and developing. However, we do have traditionalists who try to maintain their sports in a fixed, long-established form.

David Ashdown/The Independent/REX/Shutterstock

For example, as an extreme form of traditionalism, we might cite the continuing popularity of ‘archaic’ sports, such as Real Tennis, a form of tennis played in England (and France, the US and Australia) unchanged since Tudor times (the court Henry VIII built is still used regularly in Hampton Court Palace). Real Tennis uses old-fashioned racquets, heavy balls, a slack net and an irregular indoor court. We might think that adherents would want to ‘improve’ the equipment and the courts, but they don’t; quite the reverse. They want to keep the game the way that it is, without the interference and intrusion of new technologies. Why would they need a ‘better’ ball, or a more ‘rational’ court? They enjoy the challenges and internal goods that the old-fashioned technologies present, and they are happy to preserve their sport just as it is, and just as it has been for many centuries.

Alternatively, we have the modernisers, who welcome the development of new technologies as enhancements to their sports. Imagine the pole vault without a carbon fibre pole, or field hockey without an artificial pitch surface, or the high jump without a soft landing area. Well, there is no need to imagine because we know what those sports were like only a few years ago, and we have watched as they have all been massively transformed by new technologies, which have necessitated the development not only of new equipment but also of new techniques and tactics in the sport. Modernisers see such developments as improvements.

So our question is not, ‘should there be technology in sport?’ because we already have it, and we could not do without it. Technology is part of the preconditions of sport, and it often inevitably follows ordinary social and technological progress. In football, the ball is a piece of technology, and so is the cultivated (or maybe ‘artificial’) grass that forms the surface on which we play. The football of today is not what it was when I was a lad, when the leather skin would soak up moisture throughout the game, until it became what we called a ‘pudding’! New technology made the performance of the ball more lasting and more consistent, and it enhanced the game of football.

So why is it that sometimes the development of new technology is to be welcomed, and sometimes not? Why were artificial surfaces accepted in hockey, but not in football? Why were better javelins rejected, but not better vault poles? Why do we permit improvements in running shoes, but not in swimsuits? Are such decisions simply a matter of personal preference, or is there more to it than that?


Let’s start at the beginning: ‘What is sport?’ There is no need for me to offer a comprehensive definition. I just want to insist on one logically necessary condition: rules. You can’t have sport without the rules that constitute it; the rules that make the sport what it is.

In 1863, Association Football was ‘invented’, was called into being, by the setting up of new rules for a new game by a group that called itself The Football Association. They constituted a new kind of football that could be played by all of the public schools, whose differing rules (generating different codes) had prevented them from playing against each other. And, of course, there has been continuing development of the rules, to reflect the direction in which the gamewrights wanted the game to develop.

Second question: What is the value of sport? People often think of external goods of football: that someone might earn a lot of money; or that it entertains a lot of people. However, this is only at the elite level, the top one percent of football. Think instead of all those people playing football in parks and open spaces across the country, with no one earning any money, and with not many spectators. Is it still football? Of course it is. Then why are all these people doing it, if they are not getting those extrinsic goods? Because they love football for its internal goods; they love all those things that only football can offer because of the kind of activity it is. It is not entertainment, or business, or income-generation. It is just sport. The same, of course, applies to all other sports.

So the constitutive rules define practices that provide the context within which can flourish the internal goods of the practice, which are defined as those that can be pursued only by following the rules of that practice. In this case, a sport.


So far I have said that a necessary condition of sport is that it has constitutive rules, which define the sport and its internal goods. The final step is to notice that the internal goods of a sport yield a criterion for or against the introduction of new technologies. Remember, we are asking, ‘what do you want for your sport?’ You need to specify its internal goods, identify rules or practices that detract from the sport, and then suggest changes to its constitutive rules that you think will enhance it.



Better javelins, no, but better vault poles, yes? Why? The rule used to be that you could take your own javelin. So there was a secretive competition between scientists/technologists to produce the best javelin, so that their athletes would get an advantage and have the best chance to win. But the javelins became so good that the athletes were throwing them out of the arena onto the track, and even threatened the spectators’ seating area.

So we needed fresh criteria for javelin design, and fresh rules for javelin throwing. First design criterion: it must be impossible to throw out of the arena. First rule of the event: you cannot bring a javelin of your own design. Several javelins will be provided, and all athletes must use one (any one) of them; or criteria will be set for javelin design. The point of such rules is that they will give me the internal goods that I am looking for: equality of contest. I do not want to see the best javelin thrown by someone; I want to see the best javelin thrower win.


No such considerations apply to pole vaulting, which has made huge and beneficial advantages in design technology, because we have not yet reached heights that present practical difficulties. Although, if and when we do, we will need new rules to condition pole design. However, there is an issue of inequality regarding pole design and development. Along with other highly technologised sports, we don’t see them being practised in poorer countries.


In Formula 1 car racing, there are two separate but simultaneous competitions, one for the drivers and one for the manufacturers. Here, car design differences are permitted, within specified limits, and so it becomes difficult to tell who is the better driver, or which is the better car, although we may be able to see which is the best combination of the two. Formula Ford racing, however, gives ‘the same’ car to each driver, which makes it easier to determine who is the best driver, if that’s what you want to see.


Improved running shoes are ok, but improved swimsuits are not allowed. Why?

Whilst pole vault does not want to go back to bamboo or metal poles, because carbon fibre poles enable greater heights and a more gymnastic and spectacular event, swimming does not want flippers even though they make swimmers go faster, which would make for world records and exciting races. Swimming does not want the monofin, either, which is even faster. But why not? Maybe the answer here is that it does not even count as swimming (it changes what swimming is). If flippers and fins were outlawed as not really swimming, it would still be open to others to create another sport, ‘finswimming’, within which we could propose different disciplines, such as monofin butterfly, flipper crawl, depth events as well as speed events, etc.


Similarly, until race walking was invented, there was no need to define walking, but if you want race walking, your constitutive rules must say what walking is, to distinguish it from running, otherwise you do not have an event.


This also explains why, in running, new technology such as spikes, or other kinds of running shoe, are acceptable, whereas blades, wheels and wings would be unacceptable. Better shoes enhance running but bladers and wheelers face a different kind of test in a different kind of event.


The same kind of point applies to the case of Oscar Pistorius and the Paralympics: should he be allowed to compete with blades? Yes, in the Paralympics, where the rules clearly state what kind of disability and what kind of blade are acceptable. But not in the Olympics, because what Pistorius does is not running, but rather blading. This is why arguments about relative advantage are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether your particular blade (or wheels) makes you faster or slower, because you’re in a wheelchair race or a blade race, not a foot race.


Why does swimming not accept the go-faster swimsuits, such as the LZR suit, which propelled inferior swimmers to world records, before it was banned? The answer would seem to be in the name of one such suit: the Hydrofoil. The LZR-type swimsuit uses materials that trap air inside the costume (which can take 40 minutes to put on), so as to perform a similar hydroplaning function. Swimmers report that they feel as if they are gliding, and we can see that gliding technology changes the event into something that might be thought not to be swimming at all; whereas no shoes have yet been invented that change running into something different.


Artificial surfaces: good for hockey, bad for football? If so, why? The short answer is that a completely flat and predictable surface is a great asset to a small-ball-and-stick game like field hockey, and it allows for the optimal exercise of the internal goods of the sport, such as small-ball control, fine stick work, accurate passing, etc. (We can compare this to a small puck on slick ice; or to the airball in floorball.) Grass is an inferior surface for field hockey because it is less predictable, more easily damaged, and more subject to the vagaries of weather conditions.


Football, however, as a large-ball game, does not require such a fine-grained surface, and in fact requires something like grass in order for the ball to bounce satisfactorily (ie not too much and not too high), for the ball to take spin and swerve, and for it to sit up a little for a strike. Of course, it may be true that, in the future, there will be technological developments that mimic the virtues of grass, and have none of its disadvantages. But, for now, attempts to replace grass with artificial surfaces have been resisted. And the reason is because those pitches have been unable to allow for the exercise of the internal goods of football.


It is within our power to define the kind of sport that we want by adjusting the constitutive rules. It is our responsibility to seek to identify the internal goods that we think make our sport challenging, exciting and worthwhile; and to seek rule changes to promote those internal goods. Technology is a part of the picture. We should use the power of the constitutive rules, and our specification of the internal goods of our sports, to control it. Technology should serve sport, not dominate it.

My test for the acceptability of a proposed technological innovation is: will it enhance or detract from the internal goods of my sport?


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