London 2012: Nicholas Tan about the role and meaning of technology in professional cycling.

Nicholas Tan is a fourth year psychology student at the National University of Singapore. He recently completed the summer school in Medical Humanities offered by the Centre for the Humanities & Health, King’s College, London.

For the past one week, the London 2012 Olympic Games has been the hype of the world. From the opening ceremony to the games itself, the involvement of technology is well apparent. What we are witnessing is how technology has woven itself into the realm of sports – from the sporting equipments used by athletes, to fairplay technology which aids officials in making judgments. Technology then, defined as “human-made means to reach human interests and goals” (Loland, 2009), has become inextricable to sports as it helps athletes vie for sporting glory. However, what exactly are the roles of technology in sports and their meanings? Here I attempt to address these questions by looking into one Olympic sport, cycling.
First of all, technology plays a constitutive role in a sport like cycling. “Cycling sports arise with the technological development of the bike” (Loland, 2009). Given this premise, technology is a necessary condition for the sport.
Secondly, safety in cycling has improved greatly following technological advancement. As a high-speed racing sport, technology plays a crucial role in protecting the cyclist and prevents injuries. The helmet, for example, was made mandatory after a several tragedies that took place. Also, careful research and engineering work has led to the development of hydraulic hydraulic disc brake system that functions better than the traditional rim brake system in face of adverse weather and road conditions. Therefore, technology contributes to the survival of the cyclist, which is essentially the first step to reaching the ultimate goal in the sport.
Thirdly, technology enhances cycling performance. This is probably intuitive, considering how much race bikes and other cycling equipments have improved over the years thanks to complex innovation of engineering, and product and material design, and linking all these to its functionality. Indeed, studies have shown how world record times have decreased with aerodynamics improvements. For example, the development of the lighter and stiffer carbon fibre bikes in the 1980s led to the increase in average speed attained. This is a major milestone, as carbon fibre became the preferred material for bikes, and cyclists are racing faster than ever. Apart from bikes, helmets have been created to reduce aerodynamic resistance as well. However, I feel the real technological involvements in cycling, comes in the form of research work that gave rise to these creative innovations. The development of the wind tunnel testing was crucial in the study of aerodynamics. Thanks to it, many changes have been made to the sport, which makes it very different from what it was before. These changes are not haphazard, but are grounded in the most rigorous of scientific research. Some examples would be the aforementioned equipments, as well as the textile worn by cyclists and even the body position of the cyclists. Technology thus gave rise to the optimal cycling conditions in helping the cyclist reach their fastest possible speeds.
Having examined the roles of technology in cycling, and establishing the fact that it is inseparable from the sport, what then are the implications and the meanings of that? The beneficial roles of technology in cycling are not without its flipsides. The use of these expensive technologies in enhancing cycling performances means that teams with limited access to these technology will be unfairly penalized. To echo American cyclist Craig Lewis, “It (cycling) was first named the race of truth for a reason. Now it’s just a race between the biggest budgets” (Austen, 2009). Indeed, it is almost impossible to level the playing field now. It results in a vicious cycle whereby the affluent teams getting richer from competition prize money, and poorer teams always losing out and stagnating in their level of performance. It brings us to the question of whether winning teams win by their athletic abilities, or technical abilities.
Another implication would be the introduction of external parties into the sport, on top of cycling teams and an overseeing organization such as the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). Profit-driven bike manufacturers enter the arena, constantly developing high-tech equipments that challenge the boundaries accepted by UCI. The sudden, and often unaffordable rule changes made by UCI in response to new technological innovations may ultimately destabilize the sport (Editors, 2009).
As we can see, technology plays a beneficial role in cycling. It is necessary, and enhances safety and performance. However, more importantly and less apparently, it changes the nature of the sport, blurring the line between athletic and technical contribution to the success in the sport. I feel that in the pursuit of success, cyclists have to constantly aim to keep the sport in its purest form, utilizing technology but prevent it from tainting the spirit of the sport.
It will continue to be a struggle to strike a balance.

Further readings

Austen, I. (2009). Equipment Crackdown Brings More Turmoil to
Cycling’s Time Trails. Retrieved 2012 йил 14-July from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/06/sports/othersports/06cycling.html?_r=2
Editors, T. (2009, May 8). Is it the Athlete or the Equipment? Retrieved July 14,
2012, from The New York Times – The Opinion Pages: http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/is-it-the-athlete-or-the-equipment/
Haake, S. (2009). The impact of technology on sporting performance in Olympic
sports. Journal of Sports Sciences , 1421-1431.
Loland, S. (2009). The Ethics of Performance-Enhancing Technology in Sport.
Journal of the Philosophy of Sport , 36, 152-161.

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