The ancient Greeks, it's worth remembering at moments like this, competed naked.
Once upon a time, it was possible to talk about the purity of sport with a straight face and an unburdened mind. In those far-off days before swimsuit companies ruled the record books and technology took credit for every astonishing athletic performance, words like faster, higher and stronger could seem wholly admirable - the idealists of the Olympic Games even managed to combine them into a motto meant to transcend conflict and unite humanity in global play.
And now? Look to Rome, where swimming's records are being broken hourly and the sports world is in an uproar. The shocking debuts of the Arena X-Glide and Jaked body-suits have completely upended our understanding of what it means to be the best - is Michael Phelps now a lesser being because he stayed loyal to the marginally slower Speedo LZR Racer that won him eight medals in Beijing, or is he a fool for not upgrading his wardrobe to the gold-medal standard?
Sports idealism in the age of polyurethane swimwear seems so yesterday, as outmoded as Johnny Weissmuller's waterlogged cotton trunks. Instead, we're getting a stream of high-tech trash talk like this haute-couture dig from Milorad Cavic, Phelps's archrival in the butterfly.
"If Michael wants an Arena, he just has to say it," Cavic commented yesterday. "If he wants a Jaked and they don't want to give it to him free, I'll buy it for him. He has options."
But what does it really mean to have options when technology takes control of a sport? No tennis player in his right mind lugs a wooden racquet onto the court to defend against Andy Roddick's serve of 250 kilometres an hour.
Distance runners don't demand the right to compete on antiquated cinder tracks because that's the only way to make a fair comparison with Roger Bannister's first sub-four-minute mile - they know they gain six seconds or so just by running on the faster rubberized Mondo surface, and who would argue that they're taking a shortcut to glory? Tom Watson didn't trade in his oversized titanium driver for throwback persimmon woods in order to contend at the British Open - he might as well have renounced his titanium hip. So when it comes to poolside decision-making at the world aquatics championships in Rome, how do you balance innate athleticism and good old-fashioned corporate loyalty against the lure of performance-enhancing technology?
Pretty well all sports now occupy an unlevel playing field in the conflict between the technological haves and have-nots.
In most other areas of human activity, that notion of scientific innovation and superiority is a given - who wouldn't want the best medical equipment, if they could afford it, or the most up-to-date automotive safety features?
But sport is different. While in some ways the most Darwinian of human pursuits - if you're not the best, get lost - it comes with a built-in need to resist the forces of evolution, at least when it comes to technology's quick-fix improvements. Why, otherwise, do we keep talking about the purity of sport, long after steroids and other designer drugs should have made us complete and utter cynics? Why was there such resistance in golf, for example, to the square-grooved wedges that created the "bomb-and-gouge" approach to the hallowed game - bomb the drive into the rough, then gouge it out and onto the green with the touch-control that the grooved edge provides.
"It's a technology that takes the skill out of competition," says University of Toronto philosopher and golfer Thomas Hurka. "If you're watching a competitive game, you want to see skill rewarded. Once technological advancements remove the need for skill, then a sport becomes uninteresting."
This is one understanding of purity in sport - that engineered excellence is boring, that individual ability should be left alone to earn its just reward. And yet as the debacle in Rome is proving yet again, the definition of purity is a highly fluid thing when athletic achievement is measured by shattered records, corporate profits, spikes in TV ratings and multimillion-dollar payoffs for athletes who can gain an edge at any cost.
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