Monday, 9 November 2009

Not so disabled athletes

Sports engineers never seem to be that far away from a controversy. Just as one ‘issue’ is put to rest, one can be sure that a new hot potato is already on the horizon. I’d argue that this is no bad thing; it is really just a symptom of people’s natural resistance to change, and as long as our sport continues to evolve, it’s probably in good health. Of far greater concern is the highly non-controversial status of stagnation when nothing new is happening and your sport slowly but surely fades away into obscurity. The list of sports that were once in the Olympics but now only reside in amusing archive footage is surprisingly large. I am sure that in its day, underwater swimming was a highly competitive and exciting event, but can you really see it making a comeback anytime soon?

Perhaps the hottest of all sporting potatoes at the moment concerns the tricky case of athletes with a below the knee amputation and their use of Cheetah running blades. The very name ‘Cheetah’ is quite unfortunate here as over the past year or so, the prosthetic has been unfairly linked to that most unsporting of notions, cheating. As controversies go, they don’t get much bigger than this. Prosthetics have the potential to challenge the accepted norms in sport, and this makes people feel anxious. It is therefore perhaps a little surprising that given my pre-amble and belief that change is generally a good thing, I too have my concerns about the future use of this particular piece of technology.

I have been fascinated by the use of running specific prosthetics ever since seeing Oscar Pistorius run on a rain drenched track in Sheffield in 2007. Even though this particular race was a bit of a disaster for Pistorius, he showed the world that disabled and non-disabled athletes are able to run together in the same race. A year later, I was very fortunate to be able to spend a week at the amazing Paralympics in Beijing. There is something very remarkable about seeing a disabled athlete compete at the highest levels, and the majority view is that governing bodies should not create any barriers to stop disabled athletes competing against non-disabled athletes if they so desire. The exploits of these stellar individuals embodies the very best virtues of sport, and to suggest that there could be a problem seems very unsporting to say the least. However, our desire to see disabled and non-disabled athletes competing together is primarily an emotive response, and when one digs a little deeper the issue becomes far less clear.

Last week, researchers from MIT published findings from their study on the use of running specific prostheses (Cheetah et al). As was reported in the Guardian and commented on by our very own Dr Simon Choppin,, this study adds further support to the view that the current use of prosthetics does not give disabled athletes an unfair advantage and that they should therefore be able to compete against their non-disabled counterparts. There have been two other studies that have considered this same question, and broadly speaking, the score now sits at two nil in favour of athletes like Pistorius. What are we all so worried about then?

At the moment the technology that disabled athletes use is unable to match the performance of conventional bones and muscle. Disabled athletes are not yet enhanced, but there is no reason why prosthetic technology should stop where it is. Powered ankle joints have already been prototyped and it is only a matter of time before far more capable prosthetics are used in sport. I think that this is an incredibly exciting time for disability sport. If we allow technological development to continue we will soon see disabled athletes out performing able-bodied athletes and the whole notion of disability will be challenged.

Strange as it may seem, perhaps the greatest threat to this enhanced future is the integration of disability sport with non-disability sport. Sports’ governing bodies will only ever allow disabled athletes to complete alongside non-disabled athletes if their abilities are limited to what is deemed to be ‘normal’. It is inevitable that new rules and regulations will be introduced to limit the abilities of prosthetics at the point where the playing field has been levelled, and this will curb the huge potential of these devices. If prosthetics are allowed to develop within the context of disability sport there is no reason why their potential should be limited. Genuine enhancements could be made and aside from challenging perceptions of disability, this sporting future would create new technologies of huge benefit to the wider population. It would be profoundly wrong to not allow this development to take place, and contrary to our instincts, keeping the disabled and the non-disabled apart in competition may be the best way to realise this future.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Normality and the engineer

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak at a festival of new cinema and digital culture in Liverpool called Abandon Normal Devices ( Abandon Normal Devices forms part of the North West’s Cultural Olympiad and alongside the extensive artistic programme, the festival hosted a series of salon debates on a range of topics. The leading sports ethicist Professor Andy Miah chaired the sessions, and I was on the stage with a very ‘interesting’ transhuman philosopher, Natasha Vita-More. Now, as an engineer it’s not very often that I get invited to speak at a major arts festival, let alone share the stage with a transhuman… this Fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering is certainly broadening my horizons!

After doing a quick Wikipedia search on transhumanism to reassure myself that I wasn’t completely out of my depth I set off for Liverpool, my computer brimming full of fabulous engineering animations and images. As a Public Engagement Fellow I knew that I should avoid blinding my predominantly artistic audience with science, but at the same time I was quite happy for them to feel a little dazed as I feared some very tricky questions! The session was called ‘Compete’ and was all about how emerging technologies may affect the nature of competition in both sport and society as a whole.

In my presentation I focused on how engineering continuously changes perceptions of what a ‘normal’ athletic performance is. We always think that what is happening today is ‘normal’ but turn the clock back 50 years, or move 50 years into the future and things would seem very different indeed. Back in 1964 Jiri Daler from Czechoslovakia won the Olympic gold medal in the men’s 4000 metre individual pursuit in a time of 5:04.75. In 2008, Bradley Wiggins won the gold medal in the same event with a time of 4:15:03. In both cases the finishing times represented a phenomenal individual performance, and yet in both cases the feats were considered to be relatively ‘normal’ in the sense that they were readily accepted by the public. Now consider what would happen if a 2008 Bradley Wiggins were to race against Jiri Daler in 1964? I think that we can assume that the public would perceive the Wiggins performance to be wholly unnatural and abnormal. Although many factors have led to the increase in human athletic performance over the decades; in track cycling, technology has been the key driver.

Quite simply, engineering changes what we perceive as being normal. In sport, we, the public, rarely have any concern with athletic performances that we consider to be natural; it seems that problems arise when our notions of normality are challenged. In the short term we resist changes to the status quo, and yet when we take the long view we perceive ‘old’ versions of normality as somewhat ridiculous. Old television footage of athletes landing into sandpits after jumping with a bamboo pole vault rarely fails to cause a childish snigger! It is my belief that whenever we feel like putting on the brakes with sports technology we should step back for moment and try to picture the long view. What we currently perceive as ‘normal’ is only ‘normal’ for us in today’s world. In the future, swimming without a high-tech swimsuit may seem as absurd to us as playing football with a water logged leather ball.

Anyway, back to Liverpool and the AND festival…

Being the consummate show off I enjoyed delivering my talk, it seemed to go down well and Natasha Vita-More (our transhumanist) followed through with some very intriguing perspectives on the ethics of human enhancement. However, when it came to answering questions from our audience of seemingly highly intellectual artists, I was moved significantly beyond my comfort zone! I speak at a lot of events and if I’m brutally honest I rarely get asked a question that I have not encountered before. Over the years I have developed a safely net of various lines of argument that I can draw upon whenever they’re needed. At this event my safety net was wildly out of position; I was challenged with question after question that were well constructed, valid and most of all, totally new to me. I think that I just about held it together, but I was forced to really think on my feet. This was perhaps the best thing about the whole event; I was challenged to really think about my work from a different perspective just as my audience were challenged to move outside of their norms.

Just to give you an idea of what I mean let me give you this example… I normally get questions about things like; “what’s the difference between engineering athletic performance and using illegal drugs”, or, “why doesn’t everybody just use exactly the same equipment”? However, at this event I was being probed with questions such as “how will enhancement technologies be reconciled with the notion that beauty comes out of frailty”? Yikes! I feel a cold sweat coming over me just remembering that sense of needing to find something semi-intelligent to say whilst wishing that someone would throw me a lifeline with a nice technical question about the aerodynamics of cricket ball swing!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

In defence of sports engineering

In my previous post (Some thoughts on the fairness of sports engineering), I highlighted some of the intrinsic difficulties of trying to reconcile the ideals of ‘fairness’ and the work of sports engineers. In a nutshell, I argued that the overriding reason why this research takes place is to provide a performance enhancement to certain athletes at the expenses of others. From this viewpoint it is logical to conclude that sports engineering promotes unfair play and therefore damages the ‘spirit of sport’. It will come as no surprise that, as a sports engineer, I am not overly happy with this line of argument and I see things somewhat differently…
There are many arguments for, and against, the use of athletic enhancement technologies. I will endeavour to explore all of these arguments on this site, but in this post I will reflect on some recent personal experience.

Last weekend I competed in the Helvellyn Triathlon. It’s recognised as perhaps the hardest triathlon in the UK and it certainly caused me a few aches and pains as I hauled myself round the course. Almost everybody who competes in this sort of event has a plethora of specialist equipment; from wetsuits that provide buoyancy during the swim to aerodynamic bikes that reduce drag on the ride, getting your kit right is seen as an important part of the event. Technology is part of the fabric of sports like triathlon; it makes it possible, enjoyable and acts as a catalyst for performance development.

As I was swimming in the water in my relatively basic wetsuit I wasn’t overly concerned that the guys that were moving past me were probably wearing suits that cost more than twice the price and incorporated special features that reduce hydrodynamic drag. I knew full well that they were better swimmers than I and that the principal reason why they were moving faster was due to their individual ability. On the bike things were a little different, rather than dropping down through the field I was moving up and pushing hard on my fancy carbon fibre bike. Did my competitors think that this was unfair as I overtook them? I don’t think so. Once again, the main reason why I was moving faster was because I am a moderately good cyclist, something that I’ve only been able to achieve after 20+ years of training!

For a great many sports like triathlon, technology is eagerly endorsed by its participants and audiences. In these ‘technical’ sports, people generally believe that although equipment can be used to enhance performance, individual results are still predominantly dominated by the individual’s athletic ability. Technology is seen as a means to move things forward, to stop the sport from stagnating, to maintain public interest and to stay relevant. Sports engineering is generally accepted to be a good thing as long as it does not corrupt the nature of the sporting test. If the sporting test is to swim a mile in a freezing cold lake as fast as possible it’s OK to use a high tech wetsuit that’s been specifically designed for this task. Conversely, it’s not OK to wear a pair of flippers and webbed gloves as this would give an individual an unfair advantage over the sport. It is my belief that performance enhancing technologies should be allowed as long as they don’t fundamentally change the nature of the sporting test. The real challenge is to know when the sporting test is being changed.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Some thoughts on the fairness of sports engineering

Well, I’m now three months into my fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering and although I have to confess to feeling a little apprehensive, the time has come for me to share my new understanding on the ethics of engineering athletic performance! I’ve been busy reading lots of books, reports and academic papers on the subjects of human enhancement technologies, fairness, cheating, equality, and not least of all, those level playing fields… it’s been a fascinating journey into a new academic realm and I’ve been struck at the immense volume of literature and divergence of opinion that’s out there. However, with a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of this literature has focused on the various technologies that athletes can use to enhance their physiological prowess; through nutritional, chemical and even genetic means. To be fair, this focus on what’s been happening to the inside of our athletes is hardly surprising since it deals with that ever so thorny issue of doping. However, it does seem that the ethicists and philosophers have, as of yet, paid relatively little attention to the work of sports engineers. Whilst this is probably because of the dominant concerns about drugs in sport, it is also perhaps due to a lack of knowledge about the capabilities of advanced engineering and its impact in the sporting arena.

I’m not philosopher and my understanding of ethics is definitely still ‘in-development’, but I am a pretty good sports engineer with lots of experience in many different sports and I hope that this background will allow me to bring some valuable insights to the table. So, where to start? Well, how about an interesting paradox that goes right to the heart of our industry…

As sports engineers we are concerned with enhancing athletic performance through developing fundamental understanding, creating new technologies or refining existing pieces of equipment. We may be looking at the designs of next season’s tennis rackets, developing a track bike for the next Olympics, or developing a new wireless measurement system to record every movement of a swimmer. Now this will not come as a big shock, but we don’t do this out of the goodness of our hearts, we do it because people pay us to do it. Our paymasters are fundamentally interested in one thing, gaining a technical advantage over their competitors. Manufacturers sell products on the basis of some performance advantage over their fellow competitors in the market place and likewise, sports governing bodies invest in research in order to boost the chances of national success. It is important to note that in the world of sport, stakeholders fund research so that they alone will be able to benefit from the resulting technical advantages; their opponents are not invited to reap the rewards. If the full results and innovations arising from sports engineering research were automatically available to all, it is really quite difficult to see who would be willing to invest in the research in the first instance?

So, as we have seen, sports engineering research is funded by people who want to see an advantage bequeathed to their specific athletes, does this therefore mean that sports engineering is intrinsically unfair? This is a big topic and one that ultimately comes down to an interpretation of what fairness really means. One may argue that sports engineering should not be allowed if it gives some competitors an unfair advantage over others. I would suggest that if this argument were widely accepted then it would be the death nail for almost all sports engineering and hence the progress of sports equipment technologies. The argument may seem like a fairly straight forward proposition, but for many reasons that I will delve into in future posts, it is actually quite incoherent. My current belief is that a much better argument is that sports engineering should not be allowed if it gives a competitor an advantage over the sport. This may sound a little obscure at first, but what it really means is that sports engineering should only be banned if it makes a mockery of the sporting test in question. For instance, we don’t let marathon wheelchair athletes compete in the same event as marathon runners since they are clearly undertaking a very different type of activity. I will try my best to expand on these different ideas of fairness in future posts, but for the moment, let’s get back to my great sports engineering paradox…

Sports engineering exists to give certain athletes specific types of advantage over their competitors. If having these specific advantages is deemed to be ‘unfair’, it follows that these techniques should be banned. One can easily see a situation where all athletes are required to use identical equipment to ensure that they are all equally advantaged (they won’t be, but more about that later) and this will give rise to the situation whereby the principal motivation for investing in sports engineering research and development is lost. In a world full of new materials and technologies, the idea of seeing no development in sporting equipment seems alien at best, and yet on this premise, the engineering of sport appears to be intrinsically linked to promoting unfair play. Hummmm…..

Over the coming weeks and months I will build on these ideas and try to highlight them through past and current sporting controversies. Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Welcome to my new blog...


My name is David James and I am a sports engineer from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. For the past nine years I have been working in a world leading research centre that has been developing new knowledge, new technologies and new products for the sports industry. Like many organisation's in our field, our aim is to engineer athletic performance. Essentially, we use what ever 'legal' technologies we have at our disposal to try to make our athletes perform better in whatever they're trying to do. We are one of only a couple of universities in the UK to be designated as a UK Sport Innovation Partner. This means that we are actively working across many sports in the build up to London 2012, using the latest engineering techniques in the quest for gold medals!

I am fascinated by some of the complex moral and ethical questions that our work raises. Is sports engineering as force for good or does it inherently promote unfair play? Does our work allow sports to stay relevant in a rapidly changing technological world or does it corrupt the traditions of incredible human endeavors? I have recently been awarded a prestigious fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering to allow me to explore some of these questions. This fellowship is also concerned with public engagement and developing a better understanding of what direction we 'the public' would like to see our sport take.

This blog is my personal reflection on my fellowship with the Royal Academy of Engineering. I will endeavor to respond to all current sporting controversies where science is at play and will keep you all up to date on my thoughts and findings from my research and public dialog events.

I hope you enjoy reading my posts and I look forward to receiving your comments!