Tuesday, March 30, 2010

UCI says it is cracking down on track cycling technology

Here is a link to the article from CyclingNews.com...

The UCI say that they are cracking down on track cycling technology, in particular the top 3 track cycling nations Australia, Great Britain and Germany. According to UCI president Pat McQuaid, technology in track cycling "has got a little bit out of control." He asserts that nations such as the UK are not playing in the spirit of the rules, and cites the high cost that  are willing to spend on prototype bikes ($100 000s).

I think that the motivation behind what he is saying is fair enough - the idea that athletes have the potential to compete on an equal basis is an important aspect of all sport. But I think that the UCI, like many other sports governing bodies, is ineffective in their management of such issues.

The UCI has plenty of rules governing allowable cycling technology. They regulate the position that the cyclist is allowed to ride in (the "superman" position was banned for being too aerodynamic). They regulate the shape of the bike, the weight of the bike, what clothing the cyclist is allowed to wear. But they don't have a very clear definition about what constitutes the "spirit of fair play," which I believe is a crucial step if they wish to require athletes and athletic programmes to adhere to it.

Athletes are always going to push the boundaries of their sport to gain the maximum possible advantage over their competitiors. There is nothing wrong with that, it is in fact the entire point of sport. If no one was able to gain an advantage over their opponents then everyone would finish together. Of course, on the other hand there need to be restrictions on athletes. With no boundaries most sports would quickly become technology wars rather than skilled competition. So the trick is to create a set of rules that reach the right balance. As I have mentioned before, many sports governing bodies (e.g. swimming and cycling) struggle to get this balance right.

In the case of track cycling, the problem is not that athletes and countries are breaking the rules. If they are, then it is a simple operation to catch and disqualify cheaters. If some of the regulations are difficult to enforce, then they need to be reformulated so that they can be. The UCI's problems are, in general, not due to a lack of reguilations either. I believe that over regulation, as well as imprecise regulations are the real problem.

By "imprecise regulations," I mean that the wording of some regulations doesn't categorically rule out the practice that they are trying to eliminate. For example, the "superman" position, invented by Graeme Obree, was banned by the UCI because it is "too aerodynamic." But the wording of the rule eliminating this position is in terms of the distance that the handlebar extensions can reach past the front axle. This has the unintended consequence of allowing very short riders to ride the "banned" position whilst still technically staying within the regulations. Now obviously this could be interpreted to be against the spirit of the rules, and most short riders do not take advantage of the loophole. But wouldn't it be better to formulate the regulation unambiguously, e.g. in terms of the relative position of the cyclist's body (e.g. regulate a maximum angle that the fore and upper arm can make, and thereby eliminate the straight arm "flying" posture that is charcteristic of the position)? Or simpler yet, ban time trial bars altogether. The aerodynamic gains made by the addition of time trial bars was greater than the extra gain made by flattening out to the superman position, so why draw the arbitrary line there? In my opinion, it seems like the banning of the superman position was more to do with a personal grudge against Obree than a legitimate regulation to curb the role that technology plays in cycling. In fact, in some ways, banning the superman position has increased the technological impact. Flattening out to the superman position was a very low-tech, low-cost way to make significant aerodynamic gains. These days most serious time trialists will spend time in wind tunnels, trialling different positions to find the most aerodynamic. This is extremely expensive, and the advantages gained from this are almost certainly larger than they would be if the more efficient superman position was allowed. In my opinion, the UCI has made a bad call on the issue of allowable riding positions. They should either ban time trial bars altogether, and have all track events subject to the same equipment rules (which would also decrease the cost of the sport at the lower levels) or allow the supeman positions, and any variation that may arise in the future.

Another rule that is problematic for the UCI is limiting bicycle weight. This rule exists austensibly to ensure rider safety and to reduce bicycle costs. But the weight is the same for all bicycles, regardless of size. In this case, shorter cyclists are at a relative disadvantage, as a 50kg cyclist's bike must weigh the same as a 100kg cyclist. obviously the smaller bikes are going to be relatively over-built, and will contribute a proportionally larger amount to the total rider+bike weight. I have heard of cases where smaller cyclists have resorted to filling their frames with balast to bring them up to weight, even though the larger sizes of the same bike, (and actually less strong because of the longer tubes, not to mention the higher forces that the larger riders exert on them) are considered acceptable. Adding cutlery to weigh down a bike hardly increases safety or decreases costs.

The UCI, like many other sports governing bodies, struggles to keep up with emerging technologies, and often reacts too late to ban equipment and practices that they believe to be detrimental to their sport. Most of these governing bodies, as well as the IOC, require that new technologies are submitted for approval before they may be used in competition, but they seem to have difficulty in regulating this requirement. The Cycling News article mentions "developments in nanotechnology" that they are worried will soon be applied to cycling clothing as an example of this. Surely dealing with this is a simple matter of maintaining a list of fabrics that are allowable for use in competitive cycling? New nanotech fabrics would have to be submitted to the UCI to request inclusion on the list before any were allowed in competition. The same strategy could work for most new technologies, which rarely arrive without any forwarning.

So in conclusion, I believe that the UCI is going the wrong way about decreasing the role of technology in cycling. It is not really possible to curb countries' enthusiasm to win these events, and the reality is that even in very low-tech sports, results are strongly dictated by the resources available to athletes. The cost of the bicycle itself is a small part of the total cost to support a potential medal winner in terms of providing them with sufficient means to devote enough time to training and recovering. The best athletes are certainly not working 40 hour weeks to support their cycling careers, and this is always going to give cyclists from countries with strong cycling programmes an advantage. So the UCI should work on forming a consistent and fair set of rules, rather than trying to get countries to try less hard.
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Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Great Swimsuit Debate


Image from Speedo

I have written before about the role that technology plays in different sports. Some sports, such as running, have a low potential for technological performance increases, and on the other end of the spectrum sports like Formula 1 have a  high potential for technological performance increases. Until a few years ago, the sport of swimming was probably in the former category. Given that flippers were banned, there was only so much improvement that could be gained through goggle selection, etc... or so it seemed to me. But it turns out I was wrong, as controversy has surrounded every recent major swimming event due to the use of high tech swim suits.

The journey towards the high-tech swimsuits that we see today began in the 1990s, when Speedo released the S2000 (claiming 15% less drag than conventional fabrics) and the Aquablade (claiming 8% lower surface resistance than the S2000). Several iterations followed, and the designs  moved away from "traditional" style swimwear to suits covering as much of the body as possible, taking inspiration from nature (e.g. skark skin) to increase swimmers' hydrodynamic efficiency.

The real controversy began shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when Speedo released a new swimsuit, designed in collaboration with NASA and the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport). The new fabric mimicked shark skin to reduce drag, and the suit also acted to squash the swimmer's  body into a more hydrodynamic shape, and possibly also increasing boyancy by trapping air. The compression of the suit also allowed similar efects to compression garments, apparently allowing greater oxygen flow to muscles and decreasing fatigue.

Since the introduction of the first "high-tech" swimsuit, the Speedo LZR, 19 out of the 20 men's world records and 19 out of the 20 women's world records have been broken. Obviously not all of these records can simply be attirubuted to the new suits, world records do eventually get broken even without major new technologies, and there are other relevant technological factors such as improved swimming pool technology and improved training, recovery and nutrition practices.
    But the rate at which records have fallen recently is unusual (e.g. 5 times more records fell during the 2008 Beijing Olympics year compared to the 2004 Athens Olympics year), and potentially undesirable. Scientific studies have indicated that the best swimsuits can yield a X% drag reduction, corresponding to a X% performance increase compared to "traditional" swimwear.

    The international governing body for swimming, FINA, approved the Speedo suits for use at the 2008 Olympics. The Olympics requires that all new technology be available ahead of the games for any athlete to use. In practice the high-tech swimsuits are not available to just anyone; manufacturing runs are limited to quantities sufficient only for a handful of the world's elite.

    So what should the rules regarding swimsuit technology be? Should FINA have acted differently ahead of the 2008 Games?

    The way I see it, this topic can be argued from two directions: first, that the sport of swimming be regulated so that the role that technology plays is kept to an absolute minimum, and second that any technology is acceptable, provided that it doesn't create an advantage for one athlete over another (i.e. it is truly available to all competitors).

    Arguments in defence of the first approach tend to relate to the desire to be able to compare athletes and records throughout history in a meaningful way. You might also say that it is a question of whether it is swimmers competing or swimsuit manufacturers. There is a valid point to all this, of course, and it is certainly desirable to maintain swimming's focus on human physical performance. But an extreme version of this stance that advocates banning all technology from swimming is naive. One reason for this is that the public seems to demand that records be broken. If sport technology remained exactly the same, then the rate at which records were broken would decrease over time. If this were to occur, then there is a risk that swimming would become less popular with the public, and everyone knows that popularity equals money. Another reason for rejecting an extreme anti-technology stance is the fact that it would be impossible to achieve this. Even if swimmers wore cotton bloomers instead of polyurethane streamlined suits, even if you went even further and banned any sort of swimming pool technological advances, there are always going to be improvements in training methods, in nutrition and recovery, and any number of other effects of a technologically advancing world.  I believe that swimming, as with every other sport, needs to focus not on eliminating technology, but rather on sensible regulation.

    So onto the second take on the argument, that so long as everyone has access to the new technology, there is nothing wrong with it. There is a certain truth in this argument as well. If everyone truly did have access to the technology, there wouldn't be anything inherently uncompetitive about the new suits. As swimmer Jessicah Schipper stated: "we were all there, doing the same job in the same suit" (from ABC) about the 2009 world championships in Rome. In fact many of the swimmers who disapprove of the use of the high-tech suits state the lengthy struggle to get into them as a main factor for their opposition. Some others seem more concerned about their sponsorship contracts with non-cutting-edge swimsuit manufacturers than about the effect of the suits on their sport's integrity. An example of this is Phelps. While some swimmers in recent competitions wore suits from rival companies to their sponsors with the logos covered (e.g. Mary De Scenza), an exception to this was Micahel Phelps, who continued to wear the supposedly sub-standard Speedo suit. He had what could be described as a little bit of a public hissy fit, however, following his defeat in the 200m Freestyle by German Paul Biederman who was wearing one of the cutting edge Arena X-Glide suits. His coach threatened that Phelps would boycott international competition until the offending swimsuits were banned. I doubt if I am the only one that this outburst seemed a little hypocritical to, given that Phelps was happy enough when his sponsor's (Speedo) swimsuit was state-of-the-art a year earlier. It seems to me that his problem is not an ideological one so much as a financial one... maybe he should have thought twice before signing up with a swimsuit manufacturer who couldn't guarantee him use of the best equipment.


    Jaked Swimsuit

    So, if we consider that technological advances are ok as long as they're available to everyone, does that mean that anything goes? As in other sports, the technology debate is a bit of a slippery slope. Ok, so shark-skin suits might be acceptable, but probably not flippers. Dietry supplements but not drugs. Etc, etc.

    To me, the surprising thing about the swimsuit controversy is that swimming has typically been a relatively strictly-regulated and low-tech sport. FINA have been pretty quick to regulate innovation in swimming style (e.g. limits to how long you can stay underwater, and butterfly was orginally invented as a faster alternative to breastroke, but then differentiated into a separate discipline). Currently, FINA regulates swimsuits according to "rules regarding shape, use of only one swimsuit and no taping" (FINA.) But the rules are set to change in early 2010 to ban air-tight fabrics that trap air (and increase boyancy), and also suits that don't "follow the body shape" (which I interpret to mean no compression garments). These advances seem to be pretty universally approved of by the swimming community. More controversial is the new regulation that men's suits can't go past the knee or navel, and women's past the knee or onto the neck or shoulders.

     I think that these new regulations are sensible, but I also wonder why they didn't exist before the sudden technological leaps of 21st century swimming. For example, wetsuits weren't ever allowed, because they increase boyancy, but suits that trap air to increase boyancy were? I haven't been able to locate the exact regulation that bans wetsuits (ok, I didn't try all that hard...), but it must have been badly worded if a different mecahnism that achieves the same outcome (increased boyancy) is allowed. This is an issue that I have with sports tech regulations across many sports: they are too often reactive in nature, to a very specific technology that is decided after implementation to be undesirable. As I've said before (and will definitely say again), what is needed by each sport is a type of "mission statement" of the sport's nature and pupose. From this could follow blanket statements regulating technology, including ones that haven't been invented yet. For example, swimming could have made a rule that no external device may increase the mechanical efficiency of the human body. This would mean no flippers, boyancy aids, inserts in suits that enhance streamlining, etc. Obviously at times there will be technological advances whose effects may not have been easily foreseeable, and regulations may have to be modified or added. But my point is, that this should not be a matter of banning a particular product, but of categorising which modes of technological advancement are desirable according to the "mission statement" and which are not.
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    Friday, September 25, 2009

    Skinsuits in Downhill Mountain Biking

    This topic is about a year old now, but I wanted to write about it anyway, because it is the best example I can think of where a governing body has inconsistent rulings on various technologies... in my opinion because they don't have a proper definition of the purpose of their sport.
    In this case, the sport is downhill mountain biking and the governing body is the UCI (International Cycling Union). A little bit of background on the issue of skinsuits in DH is probably appropriate.
    For years downhillers have been wearing skinsuits at world champs (where they were often required to by their national teams), but usually not at other races. See below if you don't know what a skinsuit is; the first rider is wearing "normal" (moto-style) clothing, the second a skinsuit. Indidentally they are both Tracey Moseley. Images from www.kona.com and BritishCycling.org.uk.


    To explain their decision not to wear skinsuits at non-championship events, riders tended to say things like that they knew skinsuits provided an aerodynamic advantage, but were not prepared to risk their personal image or pissing off their sponsors. At the 2008 world cup finale in Canberra, there was a bit of controversy when Tracey Moseley wore a skinsuit in her final run, and won by 4 seconds over second place getter (and baggy clothing wearer) Rachel Atherton. Rachel responded by writing the words "skinsuits suck" on her forearms on the podium:

    (photo and captions from Rotorburn forum)
    Rachel was widely quoted (e.g.) saying: "Fair enough to Tracy if she wants to do that to win, but for the sport and the longevity of the sport, to wear cool race kit and to make an image for yourself is more important than the odd win here and there"

    A few weeks after this, the UCI released a rule change, stating that "All lycra-elastaine based tight-fitting clothing is not permitted" in downhill mountain biking. [UCI Regulation 4.3.013]

    The change in rules was not necessarily the result of Rachel Atherton's whinge alone, but the timing of the rule change certainly ensured that many people linked the two occurences.

    I was unable to find any official document stating the UCI's reasoning behind the decision, which would be interesting to know, since in my mind it is completely illogical.

    There are really two separate issues that I can see:
    1. If image (whether of the individual athlete or the sport as a whole) is more important than performance.
    2. If performance enhancing technologies are unfair.
    The first point is clearly a matter of opinion, and although one that I personally disagree with, I won't get into that here.

    The second point has some legitimacy to it, and people might draw parallels to the current swimsuit saga, but with reference to the sport of downhill mountain biking it is incredibly inconsistent and illogical. There are many other performance enhancing technologies that are exploited in DH, without regulations blocking them. There are very few UCI rules regarding the bikes themselves for example (despite strict UCI rules for road and track bikes). Different tyres, suspension systems, etc all play a significant role. If the UCI's intention is to reduce/ eliminate technological differences between athletes, then they should make that known, and form a consistent set of rules that cover every technological aspect of the sport.

    As is the case with many of the UCI's rules (examples of which I am sure I will return to in future posts), the intention of the rule is unclear, and the wording vague, making its enforcement problematic.

    Tracey Moseley points out: "I think that it (the rule) is even more unfair than someone being able to wear a skinsuit. Before it was a case of wearing one or not. If you were stupid enough to not wear one that was your own choice. Now we are in the dangerous position of having to ask how tight is too tight?" [from an interview on the British Cycling website]

    Finally, I want to point out that the contribution skinsuits make to time savings is probably not as great as many people believe to be the case. In the afformentioned Moseley v. Atherton competition, Moseley won by 4 seconds on a 3:10 course (~2%).  She also had the fastest qualifying time which she achieved without "tight-fitting clothing." It is important to remember that DH is not all about aerodynamics, to the extent that a sport like skeleton or even skiing is. There is a lot of braking done in DH mountain bike, and so simple calculations involving average speeds and drag coefficients significantly overestimate the effect of drag reductions. One day in the near future I am planning on doing some detailed comparisons that include braking, so watch this space!
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    Tuesday, September 8, 2009

    Sport-as-Performance Website

    As I have mentioned a couple of times, I feel that there is a lack of academic writing on sports topics that is actually written by people who participate in sports themselves. I am pleased to see another addition to the small community!

    A friend of mine, Kath Bicknell, is currently writing a PhD on the performative aspects of sport, and she is also a high-level cyclist. She has a website at http://kathbicknell.wordpress.com/ which she describes as " an online record of action and reflection, held together with a mountain biking theme." She includes published writing, notes on racing, a record of academic work and news on related topics. Although Kath's website doesn't contain much of her academic work (possibly due to the small potential audience), she does tend to consider everything from a "performance" aspect, even when her intended audience is the general sports/ sports spectator community.

    Personally, I feel like Kath's work adds a great deal to the general discussion about the purpose of sport, which I consider to be an important philosophical topic.

    If anyone knows of any other athlete-academics or academic-athletes who write stuff, then please let me know, because I'm interested!
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    Tuesday, September 1, 2009

    Sports Ethics Section of an Engineering Design Thesis

    I have dug up my honours thesis (from 2005), and uploaded the chapter on the ethics of technology in sport to the Opinion section of my website - www.rosemarybarnes.com.au
    When reading, remember that it was written as part of a bicycle design thesis (so is a bit centred around cycling technology and the UCI's rules), and that it was written 4 years ago, so of course the latest work in the field is not considered.
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