As the last of the Olympians leave Rio de Janeiro, there will be continuing celebrations for the winners and a good amount of soul-searching among those countries and individual competitors who did not do as well as they expected. And one discussion that is guaranteed to linger is: what constitutes an unfair advantage in sport?
The Games began without most of the Russian team, who were banned because of state-sponsored doping. The rules were, rightly, enforced, as there can be no doubt that the use of certain drugs enhances performance. But what about other factors that can give athletes the winning edge?
Some athletes may gain an advantage through the use of certain equipment or clothing. For example, the US women’s pursuit cycling team at Rio moved the drive train on their machines to the left side, and that was credited with giving them a small advantage by minimising wind resistance caused by the standard design.
However, some sports are not open to technological advances. In 2009, swimming’s governing body, Fina, banned the use of certain full-body swimsuits that had been worn by record-breaking competitors. It noted: “Fina wishes to recall the main and core principle that swimming is a sport essentially based on the physical performance of the athlete.”
But it’s not only better equipment that can make a difference. What of those athletes who have a team of nutritionists monitoring their intake and experts helping them to examine and refine their technique? What about those who simply have a great coach who motivates them to give that little bit more? Is an even playing field actually possible when some countries have far more money to invest in their athletes and training programmes than others?
The thing about doping is that it undercuts effort, and offers a shortcut to success. The Olympics ought to be a celebration of human endeavour. The rules may need to be amended from time to time, as Fina did with swimsuits, so that the essence of fair and clean competition is maintained.