* Written by Nayan Prakash
In today's era of ever-developing technological advancement, it is clear to behold that technology has permeated every facet of life, including sports. This has led to the interesting question of whether technical advancement in sports equipment should be considered under the purview of unfair competitive advantage to athletes or simply an acceptable evolution for the world of sports equipment. As a result, sports law has found itself face-to-face with the conundrum of regulation by permitting/restricting certain equipment which athletes can use.
Carbon-Fibre Plated Running Shoes – An Unequitable Gateway To Faster Times?
Recently, Nike faced global criticism against their latest range of running shoes (the Vaporfly and Alphafly road-running shoes, and the Dragonfly spiked track event shoes) because they allegedly provide an unfair advantage to Nike-sponsored athletes due to the inbuilt carbon-fibre plating, which results in a spring-like momentum generation. This technical advancement in Nike's shoes has led to record-breaking faster times in track and field history. Many of these star-studded performances by athletes wearing Nike shoes have caused a furore of negativity about the fairness aspect. Many believe that the shoes offer an unfair, unnatural advantage to athletes wearing them; and have termed the debacle as an instance of "technological doping". A notable example of the same is Eliud Kipchoge's sub-2 hour marathon in Vienna, and how its credibility was cast into doubt because Kipchoge was wearing the 'Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next%', also known as the 'performance-enhancing shoes'. In fact, the debate around these shoes escalated to such an extent that Nike offered free Alphafly shoes to all the competitors running at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trails so that it could avoid accusations of having provided an unfair advantage to its athletes.
All of this is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit, which the FINA outlawed in the wake of 130 swimming records being broken in just 17 months. The new swimming records were considered to be a direct consequence of the body compression, increased buoyancy, low drag and additional assistance capabilities of the swimsuit. Similarly, many other sports have also tussled with the problem of arriving at a balance between innovation and a level playing field. In golf, the clubs have to conform to strict standards, such as shape and method of application, e.g. the anchoring ban. Cricket, baseball, cycling, motorsports, para-sports (the case of Oscar Pistorius and whether he was eligible to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games), etc., all heavily rely on technology, and thus it becomes important to regulate technical advancement in sports equipment; so that the line can be drawn between what counts as an acceptable technical evolution and what robs the athletic spirit of the sport and thus constitutes cheating.
The Underlying Reason Behind The Dilemma
At first glance, one may wonder why technical advancement in sports equipment has imploded upon the manufacturers to such an extent. As citizens of the 21st century, technology's importance is undeniable; and even more so in sport, wherein it has facilitated a safer sporting environment. However, due to the involvement of multiple stakeholders, particularly in the professional sporting world, it is important that equipment is accessible. The reason why the Nike shoes or the Speedo swimsuits were criticized stems from the fact that only those athletes which those companies sponsor can access them. For athletes sponsored by other companies, say Saucony, Hoke One One, etc., which might not have access to the same cutting-edge technology due to patent holdings, the competition becomes unfair and one-sided. This causes sports enthusiasts and fans to doubt the integrity of sports performances and takes away the spontaneity of the game as it accords a predetermined factor to sports. Meanwhile, manufacturers suffer if their equipment is considered obsolete because athletes would prefer to sign with the most technologically advanced brand. This leads to a monopolization of the market by the big players, as was seen in the case of Speedo owning all of the only six machines in the world capable of manufacturing the compression fabric for Fastskin-3.
The way technically advanced sports equipment is regulated upon various factors which are unique to each sport. In Nike's case, World Athletics banned prototype shoes in competition as they were not freely available in the retail market. Further rules specified a maximum sole thickness, a limit on the number of carbon plates, and availability of any new designs of running shoes in the market four months before use in competition. Likewise, when it comes to cricket, the Marylebone Cricket Club's Law 6 holds that carbon-fibre or glass-fibre bats cannot be used because wooden bats are essential to the sport of cricket. Thus, law and policy try to regulate the equipment so as to protect the integrity of sporting competitions.
Devising A Solution
In order to come up with what constitutes as permissible sports equipment, the four fundamental principles laid down in the International Paralympic Committee's Rules and Regulations provide an important benchmark for all sports. These four principles are safety, fairness, universality and physical prowess. It follows that sports equipment must be safe, steer clear of giving an unfair advantage to the athletes, be reasonably commercially available, and must not take away the critical factor of human performance by replacing it with a technological advantage. By conforming to these principles, the sporting world can attain the best of both worlds by utilizing technology for safety standards while dissuading cheating. Certain tweaks and modifications can be made depending on the specific and distinctive nature of each sport, but it is observed that the issue pertaining to technical advancement in sports equipment broadly revolves around these principles.
Therefore, whether or not technical advancement leads to fair competition is a question that is decided by the regulatory athletic bodies and organizations after an observation of the impact of the equipment on the sport and the subsequent results.
*The author is a Law Scholar from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.
(The image used here is for representational purposes only)
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