The Line Between Legal and Illegal in Elite Sport is Only Going to Get Fuzzier

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

Team GB’s handsome haul of shiny stuff at the Rio Olympics may have brought smiles to our faces and a sense of pride to our hearts, but 2016 has been anything but a fantastic year in the fiercely competitive world of sport.

The build-up to the Games was plagued by news of doping, Liverpool player Mamadou Sakho became caught up in a spot of drugs test bother and, most crucially, something known as ‘mechanical doping’ was brought very much into the public eye. Drug use amongst athletes has been covered in depth by seemingly everyone, but it's the role of technology in sport that could prove particularly problematic in the future.

Back in January, cyclist Femke Van den Driessche was caught using an illegally enhanced bicycle in the Cyclocross World Championships. A motor had been cleverly concealed inside the frame of the Belgian rider’s bike, helping her along, and it was only discovered when a specialised radio-frequency-detecting tablet was used to scan it.

Van den Driessche’s excuse? The bike belonged to a friend.

Though mechanical doping isn’t a new phenomenon, the power of rapidly improving technology looks likely to become increasingly problematic in elite sport. We got in touch with Dr Ben Halkon, a lecturer in sports technology at Loughborough University to see if he could shed more light on the situation.

“Sports performance enhancement is a significant focus for us here,” he told us. “Certainly it’s a fine, fuzzy at times, line between what is acceptable and what is not.

“Many thousands of people are giving their lives to enhancing human/sports performance in a legitimate way, while similar numbers are looking for loopholes in the rules and laws to gain that all-important competitive advantage or, indeed, simply helping or encouraging athletes to cheat.”

Victory is Everything

As prizes and status grow increasingly attractive, sporting success is becoming more and more important and, behind the scenes, the teams behind the athletes are doing all they can to provide a competitive advantage. Equipment and training methods have improved massively over the years, with cryotherapy now a common practice, football boots lighter than ever (with sock attachments too) and golf clubs and balls designed to enable players to drive further than ever before.

“Within the sports engineering domain, we are focused on pushing the boundaries of technology to unlock the potential of the human/equipment system,” said Halkon. “Coming from a high-performance motorsport background -- with (McLaren) Mercedes-Ilmor -- I am highly motivated by winning!

“I, and many thousands like me, will continue to do everything I can within the constraints under which I operate, to give our teams and Olympians every possible opportunity to win.”

Looking ahead, it seems that cycling could prove a particularly complex sport to police. In terms of bike frame design alone, which Halkon describes as a BIG (capital letters) topic, he said, “Each nation has a subtly different design badged by a different manufacturer. These subtleties could be down to differences in the engineering approach taken by the design team(s) involved or to subtleties in the different means by which the finite element codes are working.

“Clearly there are geometrical setup variations (bar widths, saddle positions, crank arm lengths and gearing, for instance) that are tuned over many hours of practice to each individual athlete. There are different bikes for different events.

“Ultimately we could see specific frames being built to suit specific individuals with different structural characteristics, including dynamic performance, dependent upon the mechanics of the individual in terms of how they put the power into the frame, which needs to be as effectively transferred to the track as possible. This is a no-brainer from a technical standpoint but would come at a huge cost.” Even shoe stiffness could prove the difference between winning and finishing second.

Unsurprisingly, Halkon wasn’t keen to reveal too much when I asked him whether he’d ever been involved in projects deemed to have pushed the legal limits too far or how technological breakthroughs could breach and eventually shape the rules further down the line, but the latter seems inevitable.

“Anti-doping agencies are surely doing their best to try to set a level playing field within and across sports but the cheats will probably always be better funded and able, therefore, to stay one step ahead.”