Technology and the quest for sporting records

Game Changer: The Technoscientific Revolution in Sports. By Rayvon Fouché. Johns Hopkins University Press; 264 pages; $29.95.ATHLETES have always sought an edge. Ancient Greeks at the original Olympics wrote jinxes against their rivals on lead strips and ate raw testicles before events. Cyclists in the Victorian era dabbled with cocaine. The Boston Red Sox, a baseball team, are under investigation for illegally relaying signals to players using an Apple Watch. The great fallacy of sport, according to Rayvon Fouché, a professor at Purdue University and a former competitive cyclist, is that people treat it as “the last bastion of meritocracy”. In fact, as his new book “Game Changer” demonstrates, “it is really about how to garner and exploit the largest legal or illegal competitive advantage possible.”

Hiring a psychologist is an increasingly popular option (see article). But for those willing to cheat, the obvious source is performance-enhancing drugs. Mr Fouché claims that traditional anti-doping tests, which examine urine samples for banned substances, are obsolete. Just 0.5% of the competitors at the Athletics World Championships in 2011 failed tests; an anonymised survey published in August found that more than 30% of them admitted to having used illegal drugs in the year before the competition.

In the past decade sporting authorities have widely adopted “athlete biological passports”, which look for sudden changes in the blood or urine but rarely provide incontrovertible proof. Evidence of how easy it is to hoodwink them has come from Bryan Fogel, another cyclist-turned-commentator, whose documentary “Icarus” was released by Netflix last month. The film follows the doctor who masterminded Russia’s state-sponsored steroids programme, which was eventually busted in 2015, and shows the World Anti-Doping Agency’s incredulity as each layer of the deceit is gradually revealed.

Yet Mr Fouché contests the “perception that the most prominent technoscientific changes within sport have been pharmaceutical”. Much of the gain in performance can be explained by vastly improved equipment. Pole-vaulters are propelled by carbon-fibre rods; golf balls by titanium clubs. The author devotes a chapter to the body-length polyurethane suit manufactured by Speedo, a swimwear company. More than 130 world records were toppled in the 18 months after it was launched in February 2008.

“Game Changer” argues that the physical differences between competitors “may become so infinitesimal that athletic performance may cease to determine the outcomes”, and thus that technological advances are gradually eroding sport’s authenticity. The common solution has been to prohibit them. FINA, swimming’s governing body, banned full-length suits in July 2009. Anti-doping, too, has been a check on scientific enhancement. But doping is regulated with good reason. Erythropoietin (commonly known as EPO), a blood-thickening drug, was linked to the deaths of 18 cyclists in the five years after its initial clinical trials in 1986.

Sporting administrators have to draw lines somewhere. They are often blurred, temporary and unpopular. Mr Fouché considers the examples of Oscar Pistorius, an amputee runner whose prosthetic legs might have given him an advantage at the Olympics, and Caster Semenya, a female runner who was accused of being a man. The IAAF, athletics’ governing body, allowed both to compete after extensive testing but left no definitive precedent for future cases. Authorities are hasty to ban innovations that change the balance of a sport, and prone to dithering, as has happened with the constantly changing specifications in college baseball for aluminium bats, which give hitters more distance. Doping policy is equally erratic. Russian hackers have leaked hundreds of “therapeutic-use exemptions” (TUEs): certificates that allow athletes to take steroids for medical purposes.

With his “sporting publics” and “dominant narratives”, Mr Fouché is clearly writing for academics. Casual fans will be far more entertained by Mr Fogel’s Orwellian tale of doping doublethink. Nonetheless, Mr Fouché makes important points about sport’s growing grey areas. Athletes strive for the Olympic motto: citius, altius, fortius, or “faster, higher, stronger”. They ought to compete ceteris paribus—another Latin phrase, beloved of economists, which means “with all else being equal”. But that, as any wily Ancient Greek wrestler could have told you, is a fantasy.