Splitting Hairs

Like a lot of Americans over the past week, I have been following the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. I have been watching the speed skaters and the downhill skiers and those must-be-insane Luge guys, and through all of that, a recurring theme has begun to emerge in my mind. In fact one of the commentators I say actually touched on this very thought, so I would like to share it with you here.

Is it possible that we, as human beings, have simply reached the maximum performance our frail bodies can produce? Have we taken our sports to the point that there is simply no more a mere mortal can do to shave any more significant time from our efforts. Is it possible (as this commentator suggested) that the only way we will see any more significant advances in speed in these sports, is through the implementation of technology?

There is a growing body of evidence to support this theory of course. Just take the fact that some of these events are now being timed down to the thousandths of a second. Yes, thousandths. Consider that there have been new breakthroughs for this Olympics in the timing mechanisms themselves – not just dividing the seconds into ever smaller and smaller slices, but actually improving the accuracy of the starting and stopping of the timers – using lasers and other tricks to get every more accurate times readings. We have to do this, because the margin between first and second place can sometimes be less than 1/10th of a second.

There is an entire industry dedicated to improving the actual steel used in the blades of Luge sleds and speed skaters and the like. New alloys, and revolutionary smelting and forging techniques are being employed – always striving to shave that next 1/10th of a second off. At the last summer Olympics, there was a great deal of hoopla surrounding the fact that the U.S. swim team were all using a new swim suit (called a Laser Suit) that claims to allow them to cut through the water with less resistance, perhaps shaving precious 1/100ths of a second off their times. There was no rule against using this suit, and every other country could have used it too, but they chose not to. As a result the U.S. swim team dominated most of the events, and the other countries all cried foul. Was the U.S. team cheating? No, they were utilizing technology.

Back to the current Winter Olympics, and the U.S. Luge Team. The runner blades of the sleds used by the U.S. Luge team are made of a top-secret, patent-pending alloy. They cost in excess of $20,000 each, and no other team is using them. Again, perfectly legal, and probably a wise use of technology. The point however is that it is only through the implementation of such technology that the Luge world will see any significant advances in speed or performance.

And so the moral issue becomes, is this a good thing? If technology is the ticket to winning gold medals, if the country with the deepest wallet (who can therefore afford the latest technology) is guaranteed the fastest times, where then is the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat? What happens to the ‘human drama of athletic competition’ if the winner is determined months in advance, in some secret laboratory?

I say there are some instances where technology gets out of hand. I say every Luge sled should be using the same basic, steel runners. That every speed skater should be wearing the same blades on their skates. Sometimes – just sometimes – it is better to just let the competitors compete, and not rely on who has the neatest wiz-bang gizmo to make them go faster. Somewhere along the way we lost sight of what the ancient Greeks intended with their Olympics. Sure, the geek in me likes all that technology, but the high-school athlete in me yearns for a simpler time.

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