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Combination picture of Frederick Bousquet of France taking off his swimsuit as he leaves after competing in the men's 50m freestyle swimming heats at the World Championships in Rome July 31, 2009. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay (ITALY SPORT SWIMMING)
Combination picture of Frederick Bousquet of France taking off his swimsuit as he leaves after competing in the men's 50m freestyle swimming heats at the World Championships in Rome July 31, 2009. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay (ITALY SPORT SWIMMING)

John Allemang

High-Tech and Mighty Add to ...

But access has a broader meaning in the world of sport than mere availability. If swimming's world championships are, in effect, a product launch for a highly fragile, hard-to-fit, quickly obsolescent $500 swimsuit, can this really be a good thing for the sport at large? "If young people don't have access to these technologies, they will see elite athletes as different," says sociologist Jay Coakley, author of Sports in Society. "They'll be less likely to work hard at the developmental level and the sports will begin to languish."

Put another way, if money can buy greater success, then the talent pool shrinks to those able and willing to fork out for high-tech equipment that is expensive by definition and design. If there's a perception that you need to buy cutting-edge carbon-fibre hockey sticks and sub-700-gram skates made with silver texalium composite material to gain an edge on the ice, then a lot of talented athletes become too poor to play the game.

There's a good reason why soccer, basketball and track are such popular sports worldwide - they don't demand high entry fees and aren't at the mercy of the high-end equipment suppliers. "Running is one of the most pure sports you'll find," says marathoner Reid Coolsaet, who is representing Canada at this month's world championships in Berlin. "It's so accessible to everybody - the best distance runners in the world come from places like Kenya and Ethiopia."

Shoe companies may do their best to make a case for their record-breaking designs, and absurd bodysuits still find their way to Olympic finals, but on the track, it's still the athletes who win the race, not the clothing.

As a business model, the high-tech sports-equipment arms race seems to have a limiting disadvantage: "Equipment companies are cutting their own throats by limiting accessibility," says Prof. Simon.

In some high-end sports such as golf, tennis and cycling, where the target market consists of free-spending adults who might be more susceptible to the instant uplift high-tech equipment promises, this sales technique isn't such a problem.

"These days," says Greg Mathieu, CEO of the Canadian Cycling Association, "you can't really race a bike professionally that isn't available in the shop. Just make sure you've got $6,000."

The technological advantage in cycling is less about the equipment now than it is about an intensive scientific approach to technique - aerodynamic studies of the best position for a rider to hold on a long ride, or wind-resistance research that determines how riders should shape their ever-changing line on a team trial.

For all the advantages, both fair and unfair, that science and technology are able to supply, one disadvantage sometimes eludes sports' decision-makers. "At what point, asks Jay Coakley, "do ordinary spectators cease to identify with athletes as people with the same feelings, the same weaknesses, the same challenges as we have?"

It's a question that touches on the very nature of being a fan, of being the person for whom all these achievements are ultimately accomplished. Do we want Tiger Woods or Sidney Crosby or Lance Armstrong to be such supersized heroes, or is part of their appeal that they cut through all the technology and make direct contact with the rest of us?

"Take a lesson from Lance Armstrong," Coakley says. "We used to see him as a high-tech cyborg - technology interfered with our ability to connect with him. But the moment that we saw him suffer, it became easier to identify with him as a human being."

That's probably not a lesson that Michael Phelps will take to heart, not yet. In the pool, what you wear comes first.

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