Does Canada’s “Top Secret” sports technology program undermine the Olympic spirit?
· Illustration by Joel Castillo
Vancouver-Whistler will mark the first time Canadian athletes will benefit from the single-minded, government-funded pursuit of the technological upper hand. The vehicle for this drive is Own the Podium’s Top Secret wing, which has funnelled $7.5 million toward applied research into air, snow, and ice friction, as well as sophisticated physiological testing and performance monitoring. Partners including Bell Canada, the National Research Council, and universities across the country have chipped in by loaning scientists and research facilities. In keeping with its cloak-and-dagger moniker, Top Secret’s officials and researchers have stayed mum amid rumours of wired ski helmets and ultra-sleek speed skating suits. Own the Podium head Roger Jackson told me last fall that fans (and competing teams) will see the new technologies in action “either in the last World Cup events or in the opening rounds of the Olympics.”
The decision to create a program specifically devoted to technology has its roots in the bitter experiences reported by Canadian Olympians in debriefings after the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. “They were being beaten by athletes who had better suits, or better runners on their bobsleds, or better skis, because the manufacturers were giving the best ones to other countries,” Jackson says. In some cases, the technologies in question were demonstrably superior — but even if they weren’t, perception led to reality.
“Canadian speed skaters were sitting in the grandstand, watching the American speed skaters in their fancy new suits and saying, wow,” Jackson recalls. The Americans gained confidence from the suits, while the Canadians lost their nerve before the races began. Australian researchers sought a similar edge in a series of “precooling” techniques designed to condition their endurance athletes for hot weather, starting with ice vests at the 1996 Atlanta Games, then advancing to ice baths in 2004 and slushies in 2008. Whether drinking slushies is actually better than dunking in an ice bath is debatable, Australian researcher Louise Burke admitted at a post-Olympic conference in 2008. “In Beijing, we wanted something new,” she said. “You always have to have something new for athletes, for that placebo effect.”
Jackson cites (without divulging any details) several potential innovations with genuinely quantifiable benefits. Among them is a more aerodynamic bobsled cowl — the technical term for a sled’s fibreglass-on-steel body — designed in a wind tunnel, then tested on the track. The measurable success of such advances has changed how athletes view science: “It seems to take a long time for people to really appreciate how good some of these improvements are,” he says. “But once they see it, everybody jumps on the bandwagon.”
Soon after the 2010 Games, Canada will have to decide whether to extend the Top Secret mission for another four years. Jackson hopes we’ll build a centralized sports technology institute like those in Australia and Germany, with staff scientists to lead the country’s research program. Such a move would undoubtedly boost medal counts. But it also conjures visions of an athletic arms race, dominated by a nouveau-Soviet approach in which duelling sports institutes pit scientist against scientist. The implications of such a shift would reach well beyond the lofty realm of elite sport.
Under the bright sun of an antipodal spring day, Sharni Layton guides a few dozen school kids and their parents to the large windows overlooking the new swimming pool at the Australian Institute of Sport, near Canberra. She begins to rhyme off its high-tech amenities. Around the entire pool, underwater windows allow coaches to track their athletes from different angles. Force plates built into the starting blocks and walls measure reaction times with infinitesimal precision. Cameras zip along tracks on the pool bottom to follow the swimmers during their laps. And when the athletes pop their heads out of the water, their training efforts are instantly replayed on plasma screens at the edge of the pool, alongside graphs and vectors analyzing their performance.
Layton is a promising twenty-one-year-old netball player, one of some 150 funded athletes living at the institute. She trains twice a day with the ais team for a total of about four hours, which leaves time to pick up extra cash leading tours of the sprawling sixty-five-hectare campus. The new pool, which opened in 2007 at a cost of $17 million, is the site’s current crown jewel, though Layton points out that the old fifty-metre pool, just a few buildings away, is still pretty good. Once, when six-time Olympic medallist Michael Klim was struggling with his turns, they drained it and installed mirrors on the bottom so he could adjust his technique as he swam. “The better the sport does, the more money you get,” she says a bit wistfully. “And swimming wins the most medals.”
Set in the rather nondescript Canberra suburb of Bruce, the ais was born of Australia’s failure to win a single gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. It is funded out of the $164 million the country dedicated to elite athlete development in its most recent annual budget. The results of this level of investment have been fairly clear: since the institute was created in 1981, the athletes receiving its direct support have brought home 142 Olympic medals. Naturally, other countries have taken note. A week after my visit in October, a delegation headed by Alex Baumann, the former champion swimmer who now heads Canada’s Summer Olympics medal initiative, toured the ais and other Australian sports facilities.
One distinguishing feature of the ais is its sports science and sports medicine unit, which employs about 100 full-time staff, ranging from doctors and physiotherapists to physiologists and biomechanics experts. Among that group is a core of a dozen people who, as ais director Peter Fricker puts it, “drive the sharp end of our performance research focus.” He continues: “As much as we’d like to think we’ve got really talented athletes and really good coaches, how does a country like ours succeed internationally against big populations with lots of money? I think it’s by being clever.” Relative to its population, Australia earned four times as many medals in Beijing as Canada, and six times as many as the United States.
That dominance was made possible by innovations like the techno-pool — “the ultimate wet lab,” Fricker says with evident pride — and their spinoffs. It was from the ais’s wet labs that Speedo’s super-buoyant, corsetlike polyurethane lzr swimsuit emerged in 2008, triggering an avalanche of new world records. Working with ais scientists, the company’s Aqualab development team had tested streamlining with a motorized pulley that hauled swimmers along lane one of the old pool at greater-than-world-record speeds. (They also carried out drag tests in an open-water flume in New Zealand, and air resistance trials of more than 100 fabrics at a nasa facility.)
A display on the wall of the ais visitor centre touts the lzr as “the most successful suit ever,” but it ultimately became a victim of its own success when companies like Jaked and Arena developed imitations that outdid the original. Heading into last summer’s world championships in Rome, more than 130 world records had been broken in the year since the lzr’s introduction. The Canadian team, preparing for the worlds at a holding camp in Italy, decided almost en masse to forsake the free suits provided by team sponsor Speedo and order the latest Jaked suits at around 500 euros each, though they could be worn just two or three times before becoming stretched beyond usefulness. “It was the first time we’d had to pay for suits ourselves,” says breaststroker Martha McCabe. But the differences in performance were too great to ignore.
On the eve of the championships, fina, swimming’s international governing body, announced that the new super-buoyant suits would be banned in 2010. This set the stage for a final orgy of polyurethane-fuelled speed, as forty-three world records fell during the world championships, leaving the 1,500-metre freestyle marks as the only ones predating 2008. American phenom Michael Phelps suffered a rare loss after sticking to the slower Speedo suit out of loyalty to his sponsor; other members of the well-funded US team were reportedly running around the hallways between races begging for better gear. With the new restrictions, says McCabe, “we’re taking a step back. But we’re all on the same playing field, and that’s all that matters.”
A finalist in her first world championship appearance at just nineteen years of age, McCabe now faces a career in which — barring a decision by fina to wipe the slate of polyurethane-aided times — she may never swim another personal best time, let alone approach a world record. Yet it’s difficult to pinpoint the moment when swimming officials should have stepped in. Should they have banned the first skimpy nylon-spandex suits, donned by the likes of Mark Spitz in the ’70s? Or the full-body suits that first appeared in 2000? The aim in each case was to reduce drag resistance; the only difference is that the newest suits are so much better at it. “It seems to me that what they did is the worst option, because they allowed them for a year and now all these records are broken,” McCabe says. “If they were going to allow them in the first place, they might as well just accept that technology is going to continue enhancing sport forever.”
That technology enhances sport for everyone is undeniable. “Look at what’s happened in the fitness industry,” says Roger Jackson. “Twenty-five years ago, no one was cycling. Now you can’t get on the roads on a weekend without seeing bands of people on really lovely, efficient bikes with good gear systems and tires.” Regardless of skill level, consumers benefit from high-performance gear developed for elite athletes, whether it’s lightweight kayaks, faster skis, or warm, dry clothing. And of course the companies whose sponsorship dollars are the lifeblood of sport benefit as well. The challenge is managing innovation in a way that doesn’t compromise fairness.
Problems arise most obviously during times of transition, when some competitors have new technology and others don’t. Jackson, a three-time Olympic rower who earned gold in the coxless pairs event at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, experienced this first-hand. “The rowing shells we used in my first Olympic Games were quite heavy and clumsy and not very adjustable,” he recalls. But in the ’60s and ’70s, some countries began developing lighter, stronger, more manoeuvrable boats. “If a shell was 250 pounds, the Germans were building them at 200 pounds,” he says. “They used new materials like Kevlar and carbon fibre well before others did.” The international rowing federation decided to allow the boats, reasoning that such advances would be widely available to anyone who could pay.