Information Trust Institute block of abstract images
Information Trust Institute block of abstract images

Technology and Trust in the World of Sports

When most people watch the London Olympic Games this summer, they will focus on the excitement of the unfolding competitions, or on the success of their country’s team. ITI researcher Rayvon Fouché will be focusing on something else: the role technology is playing on the field, and the extent to which technology is determining the outcome of the game-- and even reshaping the very nature of athletics.

Prof. Rayvon Fouché
Prof. Rayvon Fouché

Fouché, who is an associate professor in the Department of History at Illinois, has been studying the impact of technology on sports culture. He’s been considering everything from the practical problems faced by governing bodies that must rule on which equipment is permissible, to the deeper questions raised by technologies that influence outcomes to the point that they threaten sports’ inherent appeal.  If sports are compelling because they reveal the supposed truth about competitors’ relative athletic merits, what does it mean when winners and losers are determined in part by who has access to the best techno-scientific support?

“75 years ago, a small group of dedicated craftsmen or even the competitors themselves designed and constructed athletic equipment,” Fouché observes. “In the early 20th century, athletics was seen as a leisurely activity, and having a coach often was seen as problematic; even training itself was seen as ungentlemanly. You were supposed to win, but not try too hard to win.” Times have certainly changed, especially over the last thirty years, which have seen the transformation of sports into a high-stakes, large-scale corporate enterprise. “It’s impossible to compete in contemporary sport without the support of modern advances in science and technology.”

Technologies now exist that are powerful enough to dramatically influence the outcomes of sporting events, creating practical dilemmas and arguably compromising the future legitimacy of some sports. For example, where does the sports world draw the line between performance-enhancing substances and legitimate medications that athletes might need in order to treat medical conditions? What does it mean for a competition if a crucial technology is available only to a subset of the competitors?

The problem is far from hypothetical, as disputes over sporting technology have frequently erupted. Fouché notes the example of the polyurethane Speedo LZR swimsuits, which marked the culmination of over 10 years of research on “fastskin” suits. “Eventually they hit on a technology that made a precipitous leap at a crucial historical moment,” he observes-- and that specific moment happened to be just weeks before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Three world records were broken in the new suit within a week of its launch, and the Olympic results spoke volumes: swimmers wearing LZR suits won over 98% of the medals at Beijing.

The problem? Most of the Olympic competitors didn’t have the suits, which were given only to swimmers sponsored by Speedo. “Some countries had contractual obligations, so their suits had to come from other manufacturers,” Fouché explains. “Some athletes were actually borrowing swimsuits from other competitors to compete.” Fans and athletes were both left with the troubling sense that the competition had been unfairly stacked in favor of those who were lucky enough to have the LZRs.

Fouché says that there’s really just one area in which fans feel comfortable with the rising influence of technology on sport: instant replay. “They love technologies that will ‘set the game right.’ When a bad call is made, where it can override a human failing and set it right-- the fans love that.”

People are far more uneasy with thinking about how high-tech equipment, or even modification of the human body, is affecting performance. “I think that elite-level sport is about fans living vicariously through the sporting heroes,” says Fouché. “We like our sporting heroes pure and unadulterated. And the moment you think that there might be some other technology assisting them in their performance, it undermines everything you’ve been trained to believe and desire.”

He says that governing bodies are responsible for maintaining the collective trust and belief in sport.  They have a vested interest in ensuring that their sports do not migrate from being competitions among athletes to being competitions among engineers. “You don’t want to cheer for the pharmaceutical company, and have the body just be a mediator of this other competition. You want to cheer for the individual,” he says.

Fouché is writing a book that will explore the impact of technology on sporting cultures, projected for publication in the summer of 2013.