Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Should technology be allowed to tumble records?

Spectators at Beijing's Olympic swimming pool have witnessed some outlandish goings-on over the last couple of weeks: 25 world records have fallen, compared with eight at the Athens Olympics four years ago. Seven of them were broken by one swimmer, Michael Phelps of the US, while the UK's Rebecca Adlington improved on the 800 metres freestyle record - unchallenged for 19 years - by more than two seconds.

Records have been tumbling in other sports too, but none at this rate. What's going on? Have the swimmers found some new technique to propel them more efficiently through the water? Are they training more intensively? Or is it down to sheer competitiveness? The answer is more prosaic.

The Beijing pool is 3 metres deep, a metre deeper than standard competitive pools. As explained in this week's issue of New Scientist magazine, the extra depth helps dissipate the turbulence caused by the swimmer's movement, causing less resistance. In other words, they are being helped by the architecture.

You could argue that technological "fixes" like this diminish the value of modern sporting records, making it unfair to compare the performances of this year's athletes with those through history. Some critics have suggested, for example, that since the reduced friction suits used by runners and swimmers give them an undeniable advantage over previous competitors, their race times should be adjusted downwards to reflect this.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that there is no end to it. Technology - science too - has always been part of sport, from the design of runners' shoes and aerodynamic bikes to the development of improved training regimes and performance-enhancing diets.

What matters is not whether today's athletes have an unfair advantage, but how they use what's available to them - so long as it's within the rules. Michael Phelps is the fastest swimmer ever over seven disciplines: the fact that he did it wearing a streamlined suit rather than a pair of baggy trunks is surely irrelevant. If he'd done it taking high-performance steroids, now that would be a different matter.

Michael Bond, New Scientist consultantLabels: architecture, entertainment, sport

Posted by Tom at 4:10 PM

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