Photo via Al King/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Can your shoes help you cheat at the Olympics?

The future of sports is in your sole.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Published Mar 23, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 6:15 am CDT

Even Ralph Lauren is getting in on the wearable action with a tasteful and snazzy smart shirt that will hit the court at the U.S. Open. Athletes wearing the shirt will be able to measure their heart and breath rate, feeding this information to a branded app that will provide information about their performance and progress toward specific goals. Smart clothing for athletes is cutting edge, poised to be the next major leap in sports technology, and like other advances in athletic gear, it raises inevitable questions about whether it might create unfair advantages for competitive athletes.

For people like everyday runners, shoes that push you forward when you’re falling behind your target, shirts that track your breathing while exercising, or wristbands that monitor how many steps you take in a day are becoming a reality. The same tools could be critical for competitive athletes in training, providing real-time feedback that helps them monitor progress toward goals. It’s likely that we’ll see wearables become de rigueur for teams training for events like the Olympics. Without them, athletes will be at a disadvantage.

Therein lies the crux of the problem: Something that creates an advantage in training or performance could also be something that offers an unfair disadvantage. Small teams from poor countries, for example, might not be able to afford wearables for training, let alone competition. In particular, The issue of the boundaries of wearables in competition has long been a problem for athletes, and the introduction of advanced technology is likely to make it worse.

At the Olympics, swimsuits dominated the scene in 2008, with Speedo’s LZR Racer series making a prominent appearance at the pool—and helping athletes set records. Critics argued that the suits, streamlined and developed with extremely advanced tech, created an unfair playing ground, shaving seconds off swim times with their sleek profiles. Firms like Speedo and Tyr were forced to go back to the drawing board to develop suits that would squeak by the weather eyes of Olympic officials while still offering competitive advantages.

An excerpt from Mathletics printed in the Daily Beast explained the problem: “Not all swimmers were wearing these suits at championships, though, and races were becoming manifestly unfair. Those who wore them were entering a technological arms race as different sponsoring companies tried to produce superior suits for their swimmers.”

In 2012, double amputee Oscar Pistorius and his famous Cheetah Legs riveted the world as he competed against nondisabled athletes at the London Olympics. Some critics claimed the unusual-looking running legs provided a competitive advantage: In a strange twist on disablist social attitudes, they argued that a disabled athlete could outperform his nondisabled counterparts thanks to his adaptive technology. Others felt that he was actually running at a disadvantage, prosthetics aside. The debate over whether he should be allowed to run highlighted the brave new frontier of tech in sport and the fact that no one is sure how much benefit technology even offers.

Some of the new tech for athletes is incredible. Smart shoes, for instance, were originally developed to help blind runners navigate. However, they also help all athletes track time and performance, and they work push runners who aren’t running fast enough. Shirts may use GPS to track speed and location, offering live feedback to runners while also collecting heart rate and breathing data for future review. Other products use metrics to identify stress so they can tell athletes to back down to avoid injury.

Even socks are getting in on the game; they can measure pressure distribution to provide information about running form and help athletes avoid injury. For the neurofeedback inclined, Sony is developing a smart wig.

Information from all of this technology can be downloaded and reviewed in apps, in addition to being shared with friends and coaches. It provides athletes with the ability to get personalized feedback from coaches and trainers even when they’re not present, which certainly expands opportunities for training. In fact, that was the goal behind a fascinating project from two electrical engineers who use EMG (measurements of muscle movements) to feed data to ordinary athletes who want feedback on their performance but can’t afford trainers.

Wired‘s Kyle VanHemert reports, “Like many college students, [the developers] found themselves eager to bulk up; also like many college students, neither could afford a personal trainer. As electrical engineers, the predicament posed a compelling challenge: Was it possible to replace that human touch with technology?” Wearables make sports and athletic safety much more accessible—for athletes who can afford it—but in competition, it’s another matter.

Pacing shoes offer a clear advantage to athletes driving themselves to win a race, even as technology that warns athletes about potential injuries could help people adjust their performance to prevent a severe sports injury in competition. The balance between these needs could be difficult to manage. It gets even more complicated when it comes to Paralympic competition, where adaptive tech is necessary for many athletes to compete, and controversies about advanced tech (like Pistorius’ legs) have become a growing issue because the technology is advancing faster than governing bodies can handle.

Sports officials may be facing an extremely difficult battle in the tech race as they review technology to learn more about its function and determine whether it offers an unfair advantage to athletes, helps them improve their performance, or even protects them. Soon, those making decisions about what’s allowed on the field and elsewhere may need to be engineers and developers in addition to sports experts. Governing bodies need to consider bringing on more diverse teams of experts to address diversification in the field.

The issue isn’t about swimsuits that add buoyancy and streamline an athlete’s figure anymore—and even these suits required months and sometimes years of research and dispute before they were ultimately banned. With sports firms coming out with new wearables on a steady basis and competing with each other to develop superior products, the intensity of these discussions is bound to increase.

Ultimately, competitive sports should be about athletic merit, not who can afford the best tech. This has always been an issue, since the early days of the Olympics when restrictions on the style running shoes illustrated that Olympians were already utilizing technology for every possible advantage they could get. While the use of wearables isn’t exactly cheating, it could create situations where some athletes outperform others on the basis of what they’re wearing rather than on the basis of what they’re doing, because in high-level sport, a difference of a few fractions of a second is the distinction between winning and losing.

Unlike the Greeks, we can’t have our athletes compete naked, but maybe we should, just to level the playing field.

Photo via Al King/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Mar 23, 2015, 11:00 am CDT