Use of High-Tech Tools Raise Ethical Concerns at Olympics

In August, national teams from more than 200 nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe will gather in Beijing for the summer Olympics. The games promotes themselves as more than just a sporting event.  The Olympic charter advocates ethics and fair play.  How to ensure fair play has been the topic of much debate.  There is unanimous opposition to the use of performance enhancing drugs mostly because they give athletes unfair advantage. The use of technology in training and competition is also being examined to see if it gives some athletes an unfair edge. VOA's Brian Padden has the story, with additional reporting by Dana Smillie in Cairo. (Part 3 of 5)

While in Cairo, Egyptian sprinter Amr Seoud says he trains without using any special technology. "There is no latest technology at all.  I am just training.  I have a track and some spiked shoes," says Seoud.

But coach Medhat Nabi points out that training methods and even the track are more modern than a generation ago.   "In the past, we used to run on a sand field. There was no 'tartan' synthetic track," he says, "and timing was done manually."

Technology has long been used in sports to improve athletic performance, even if it gives the winning edge to athletes and countries that are technologically advanced.

At the U.S. Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs, gymnast Todd Thornton uses a digital video system to improve his technique.

"For the majority of my career I have trained without this system.  I can tell you, our coaches can tell us all day long that we are doing something wrong, but if it feels right to us we are not going to know unless we see it," said Thornton.  "It gives us that advantage to be able to see what we are doing."

Peter Vint, a sports technologist with the U.S. Olympic Committee, says individual sports federations determine what is a fair application of technology in both training and competition.

"For example, not an Olympic sport but certainly the PGA [Professional Golfers' Association of America] has set specific regulations on how golf balls and how golf clubs can perform.   And they set very specific guidelines on what you can and cannot use in those competitions.  To that extent they are trying to preserve some fundamental aspect of the purity of the game," says Vint.

Decisions regarding technology in sports are sometimes complicated and controversial.  The International Sports Federation approved the use of a high-tech swimsuit called the LZR Racer made by Speedo.  Researcher Deb Yeomans explains how it works. 

"It reduces form drag when the swimmer is swimming. So form drag is making you as tubeless a shape as possible through the water, so it squashes things in. And two, it helps maintain the athlete's body position in the water," explained researcher Deb Yeomans.

Athletes wearing the suit have broken more than 20 world records since February.  Critics have called the swimsuits Techno-doping.

And South African double-amputee Oscar Pistorius won an arbitration, allowing him to compete as a sprinter using a prosthetic leg with a special racing blade as a foot.

"I think this day is going to go down in history for the equality of disabled people," he said.

He had been barred by the International Association of Athletics Federations. It claimed his carbon fiber prosthetics would allow him to run faster without working as hard as he would on two legs.   

While innovative technology can present new ethical dilemmas, sports technologist Peter Vint says sports federations are guided by enduring principles. 

"To preserve the integrity of the competition, not let it be dictated by one technology over another, then I think we've done justice to the sports and the athletes," he said.

Despite advances in technology, Olympic officials are confidant that in the end the competition will be decided by the ability and determination of the athletes.

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