Does Canada’s “Top Secret” sports technology program undermine the Olympic spirit?
· Illustration by Joel Castillo
The point of programs like Top Secret, by contrast, is to produce technology that isn’t available to everybody, thereby tilting the playing field, however slightly. And that raises some thorny questions. We would encourage a neurosurgeon to take a pill that steadies his hands before surgery, notes ethicist Thomas Murray of the Hastings Center in Garrison, New York, but would condemn an archer who popped the same pill before an event. The difference, Murray argues, is that in sports we value the “virtuous perfection of natural talent” — the ideal of contestants competing on the basis of the genetic cards they were dealt, supplemented only by perseverance, sacrifice, dedication to training, tactical acumen, and other routes to improvement we deem “virtuous.” If a new technology is to be introduced into a sport, he writes, it should satisfy two criteria: continuity and equal opportunity. The advent of fibreglass poles for pole vaulters in track and field, for example, met that threshold: “Continuity was assured because the poles still required the same skills from pole-vaulters, such as speed down the runway, strength, and agility. Equal opportunity meant that all athletes had to have access to fibreglass poles.”
Super-buoyant swimsuits seem to meet the basic criteria of continuity and access, but their virtue is more difficult to judge. Technologies used in training rather than directly in competition present an even stickier dilemma. The hyper-instrumented $17-million ais swimming pool, for instance, tilts the playing field for Australian swimmers no matter what they wear during the race.
Elsewhere on the ais site is an altitude house with adjustable oxygen levels, which allows athletes to live and sleep in conditions simulating elevations favourable to the production of red blood cells. This kind of altitude training has created controversy in recent years, leading to accusations of “technological doping.” The proliferation of portable altitude tents, worth between $5,000 and $10,000, in the run-up to the 2002 Winter Games led the International Olympic Committee to ban them from the Olympic Village in Salt Lake City. It was a token gesture, since the benefits obtained from the tents are achieved long before the actual competition. In 2006, the World Anti-Doping Agency ruled that the practice violated “the spirit of the sport,” but a proposed ban was dropped after a backlash from athletes and scientists. It’s hard to see how such a prohibition could have held up anyway. Would they also ban moving to Banff?
The University of Calgary’s Human Performance Lab occupies a cavernous, gymnasium-sized space in the Roger Jackson Centre for Health and Wellness Research. Along one wall, a researcher encourages a cyclist pedalling furiously on a stationary bike plugged into at least five different machines. In a corner, nine motion capture cameras focus on a patch of artificial green next to a large black curtain, creating a virtual golf swing analysis system. A runner outfitted with reflective markers at each joint prepares to run back and forth across the force-sensing floor. In a smaller room next door, a glass-walled altitude chamber sits next to an enormous treadmill built into the floor. The buzz of activity and the assortment of bizarre machines recall James Bond’s visits to the R&D wing of MI6.
The lab’s gear guy — its Q, if you will — is a young kinesiology professor named Darren Stefanyshyn. In the wake of the Canadian team’s disheartening experience in Salt Lake City, he helped develop the new speed suit — an ultra-tight superhero outfit criss-crossed by stretchy silver bands — worn by Nordic skiers and others at the 2006 Turin Olympics. He is also one of the world’s leading footwear researchers, and he proudly shows off an enormous pneumatic shoe-testing robot that accurately simulates what happens when a foot makes contact with the ground under various conditions. The machine also performs three-point bend tests on skis, and break-point tests on composite hockey sticks.
The projects Stefanyshyn is working on for Own the Podium are, needless to say, top secret. His research for speed skaters encompasses everything from apparel to footwear, he says, and he’s also working with the sledge hockey and luge teams. Once again, speed suits will be a crucial theme. “People are now using their apparel as a piece of equipment,” he says. He expects other countries to be developing similar ideas, which is why, even though the suits rely on the same technologies swimming just banned, he doesn’t feel they confer an unfair advantage.
Down the hall from the Human Performance Lab is another hub of Top Secret guile, the Sports Technology Research Lab run by kinesiology professor Larry Katz. He and his colleagues are developing a database to help monitor the performance of Canada’s Winter Olympic athletes, and they’ve also done research into virtual reality training simulators for sports like bobsledding. To demonstrate the analytical tools they’ve created, biomechanics consultant Pro Stergiou pulls up training footage of the national luge team. Video tracking measures every aspect of the force exerted and acceleration produced in each push-off. And as with the Australian pool, the data can be accessed in real time, allowing for rapid analysis and adjustment.
Even the most hidebound traditionalist would be hard pressed to find anything unethical or contrary to the spirit of sport in Katz’s efforts to help athletes monitor their training. This suggests that we have no fundamental objection to pouring cash into the pursuit of an edge that the luge team from, say, Slovakia can only envy from afar. Perhaps we draw the line only at having our athletes wear something so advanced that the unevenness of the field is too obvious — or so advanced that we wonder how many batteries it takes.
The first skates, as far as we know, were fashioned about 4,000 years ago by Finnish hunters who strapped horse ankle bones to their feet in order to traverse their frozen, lake-dotted landscape. By pushing themselves forward with a stick, hardy Finns could reach speeds of about five kilometres an hour (“quite good fun,” reported one of the British researchers who figured this out in 2008). It wasn’t until the thirteenth century that wooden skates with iron blades appeared, likely in the Netherlands, enabling a more conventional skating motion. The pace of innovation quickened thereafter, with longer steel blades in the eighteenth century and one-piece boot-and-blade combinations in the nineteenth.
Dutch biomechanics researchers built the first prototypes of what are now known as “clap skates” in 1985. They feature a hinge near the toe, allowing the skater to twist his or her foot and push off while the blade continues to glide along the ice. Elite speed skaters were initially hesitant to try the new contraptions, but in 1996 three women on the Dutch national team agreed to test them out. When one, Tonny de Jong, won gold at the European championships in 1997, word that the skates delivered a 3 to 5 percent performance boost spread quickly. Just one year later, every single competitor at the Nagano Olympics used clap skates, leading to the evisceration of every world record in the books.
The newest frontier in skate technology also traces its origins to 1985. That’s when Calgary inventor Tory Weber, then a college student, pulled on a pair of sneakers left to warm on a heating vent, headed outside, and slipped on his icy front walk. Twenty-two years and $17 million in venture capital later, he unveiled the Thermablade at a press conference at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. None other than Wayne Gretzky touted the skate’s heated runner as “the most significant advance in skate blade design in at least thirty years.” Tests showed that the blades reduced sliding friction by more than 50 percent, upping speed and reducing fatigue. And yet, after making some encouraging noises, the National Hockey League hesitated, eventually demoting Thermablades to the minors for an additional year of testing.
As of October, Weber was in discussions with two “non-English-speaking” teams about the possibility of outfitting them with heated blades for the 2010 Winter Games. (Canada, to his great dismay, had yet to call.) But it’s the nhl that sets the standard for hockey players in most of the world, and Weber’s strategy is geared primarily toward getting the league on board. He has a few gambits in mind, notably a simpler recharging process and studies on whether heated blades reduce injuries. He’s also hoping to contain costs. With sales of the $400 skates stalled and credit scarce, his company filed for bankruptcy in July — a sign, perhaps, that people believe battery power, and its attendant expense, would be taking things one step too far. Millionaire pro hockey players might not balk at the extra few hundred dollars, but as any hockey parent will attest, the cost of gear is already high, with younger and younger players shelling out for such high-tech equipment as composite sticks to remain competitive. And it’s here that the collateral damage from the sports technology arms race becomes clear.
In the early ’80s, sociologist Roger Barnsley was attending a Lethbridge Broncos game when his wife, perusing the program, noticed that nearly all the players were born in the first few months of the year. The observation led to the first study of the “relative age effect,” which revealed that nhl players were four times as likely to have been born in the first three months of the year as in the last. The phenomenon, which has subsequently been identified in a wide range of other sports and activities, stems from the differences in physical maturity among children in a given cohort. At an early age, an extra six months of growth confers a slight size and speed advantage, making it more likely that kids with birthdays in January will be selected for elite teams than those with birthdays in July. As a consequence, January children are better coached and more motivated to succeed. By adolescence, when the size deficit has been erased, coaches’ early assessments of which kids would make the best players have become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Barnsley’s work demonstrates how seemingly trifling barriers can limit later success. This isn’t just a question of fairness. It’s also in Canada’s interest, if we want to win medals, to maximize the talent pool we’re drawing from, and not to thin it unwittingly on the basis of birth month — or access to the latest equipment. Limiting the effects of the latter barrier will require a shift in the way we think about sports technology.
In 1997, the winner of the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s top athlete was Jacques Villeneuve. The young race car driver, himself the son of a famous driver, was honoured that year for capturing the Formula 1 world championship for the Williams-Renault team. The next season, though, Villeneuve failed to win any races and slipped to fifth overall in the standings. He then changed to a new team, then another and another, never once taking the checkered flag before he bounced out of F1 entirely in 2006. It was a strange fate for a man who’d won seven times in 1997 alone. At least, it was strange if you didn’t understand F1 racing. To followers of the sport, who knew it to be a battle among engineers as much as between drivers, Villeneuve’s decline made perfect sense: after the 1997 season, Renault had stopped making engines for the Williams team.