‘Technological Doping’: A Threat To Equity In Sports

Athletes thrive on success and are often willing to go the extra mile to achieve on-field success. The influx of technological advancements in our daily lives has naturally found its way onto the sports field; this has resulted in a race to look for the best sports equipment/gears and technology hence shifting the focus from physiological ability. This article focuses on issues related to the usage of performance enhancement technology in sports and the negative effect that it has had on the integrity of sports.


A sport remains competitive and fair as long as there exists a level playing field in all aspects of the sport. Track & Field has by far maintained equity among athletes. Further, in association with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the World Athletics has kept a strict vigilance on the conventional doping and performance enhancement techniques to a great extent.

Most of the sports, which have preset measurements for the equipment and athletic gears used in the games, leave comparatively less or no room for any kind of experiment, however, certain sports which have no preset rules for the equipment/gears are prone to such kind of manipulation thereby gaining an advantage over others.

A major controversy broke out in late 2019 when a Kenyan Athlete, Eliud Kipchoge, completed a marathon in less than two hours. The records by Eliud Kipchoge in Vienna and Brigid Kosgei in Chicago highlighted how the (shoe) technology had enhanced the performance of athletes. The common factor between these two record-breaking athletes, other than being from the same country and training together, was that both athletes were wearing a prototype of the new Nike Vaporfly 4%. These shoes had been proven by Nike to enhance the efficiency of the runners by adding more to what the runners expended, thus, giving runners an edge over others.

The Playbook:

The World Athletics, in its guidelines on shoes (before amendment in January 2020), provided that shoes used by athletes must not be those that create an “unfair advantage” and must be “reasonably available” to all. The rules were silent as to what would amount to an “unfair advantage”. On the application of these rules, the Nike Vaporfly 4% could be considered unfair as it had been proven to increase the efficiency of a runner, thereby creating an unfair advantage. There would be no issue of unfairness if these shoes were available to all runners. However, the high cost and non-availability of the shoes in the open market prevented the access of such shoes to all athletes. This thus, results in an unfair and non-level playing field and is regarded as an unconventional method of doping in running dubbed as “technological doping”.

Amended Technical Rules:

The revised Technical Rules of the World athletics (post-amendment) have impliedly given a green signal to performance enhancement shoes. World Athletics has disallowed any prototype shoe to be used in any competition but has permitted athletes to use shoes that are in sale in the market for a period of 4 months or more. Furthermore, the amendment has prohibited athletes from using shoes that have a sole thickness greater than 40mm.

This has surely indirectly legalized the Nike Vaporfly 4%, which has a sole thickness of 39.5mm and has resulted in an arms race of sorts amongst athletes to procure the most advanced and specialized shoes. Had the Tokyo Olympics held in 2020, the disparity in sporting performances might have been evident with the number of past records being broken with relative ease.

Technological Advancement Vs. Technological doping:

There is a thin line between technological advancements and technological doping in sports. ‘Advancement’ is a natural phenomenon, but its utilization to gain an unfair advantage is what converts it into ‘doping’. In the absence of any defined Rules, there exists an opportunity for some to find ways to gain that advantage over others by technological means. Further, the price and availability of such hi-tech equipment and gears would for sure deprive many able but financially weak athletes. Another point to ponder is– whether such technology dilutes human effort and has a decisive effect on the performance or whether it would create some sort of unrealistic targets and records.

Hence, fairness in sports can only be achieved if such technology is banned, or if allowed, made available to all at a reasonable price. Technological advancements in sports are inevitable and necessary, but to avoid such technology from being used to gain an unfair advantage in the sport, equity is to be maintained by ensuring equal and reasonable access for all athletes.


Swimming in Beijing Olympics:

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, most of the swimmers used the Speedo LZR swimsuit, which was specifically designed to improve the speed of the swimmer. The suit covered the whole body from shoulder to calf and was designed to optimize body compression and hydrodynamics. The suit allowed better oxygen flow to muscles, however, it also trapped air to add buoyancy.

According to Speedo, the suit reduced drag or water resistance by 38% compared to an ordinary LYCRA suit. This reduction in drag translated into approximately a 4% increase in speed for swimmers.

The advantage of using such a suit was so extreme that one did not even stand a chance if they competed without such a suit. Japanese swimmers even broke away from their sponsorship deals to use the Speedo swimsuits in the Olympics! The swimsuit aided in about 23 out of the 25 world records that were broken in the Beijing Olympics.

A moralistic issue arose as to how would one compare the athletes of the present to yesteryear, considering that they were not equipped with such suits? An athletes’ greatness is often measured by their performances in the Olympics; however, can one call such athletes great in light of the current technologies in sports? On the regulatory side of things, a defense was provided by Speedo that suggested the suit only improved the management of existing forces rather than generating new ones. FINA, however, banned such suits after the Beijing Olympics and disallowed swimmers from using suits that extended above the waist and below the knees. Only textile suits with relatively minimal coverage were allowed – which meant that the full-coverage low-drag (even buoyant) polyurethane swimsuits were out.

The move by FINA was crucial and widely celebrated because a simple sport such as swimming had become an expensive and inaccessible sport where all the benefits were going to the well-funded athletes. However, the world records were still upheld, and since the technology has been banned for future athletes, it is going to be a tough task for them to beat the stats.

Case of Oscar Pistorius:

Oscar Pistorius’s dramatic life story has moved the world. An 11 month old South African boy whose both feet were amputated due to a congenital defect, goes on to compete in both, Olympic Games and Paralympic Games before being charged with murder. He had wished to compete against able-bodied athletes using two prosthetic legs in both the Beijing Olympic and Paralympic events. His prosthesis used an ESR (Energy storage and return) mechanism which comprised of carbon fiber blades that compressed and extended under load, therefore, worked like a spring.

The IAAF had commissioned a report in 2007 on the ESR mechanism and claimed that it was an unfair technology as it provided Pistorius an unfair mechanical advantage over able-bodied athletes of more than 30%, had a 25% reduced energy output for maintaining the same speed and possessed inertial benefits due to the reduced mass of the prosthesis. On the basis of this report, the IAAF banned Pistorius from taking part in able-bodied Olympic events. However, in a separate report commissioned by Oscar Pistorius, he proved before the CAS that while he was mechanically different, he remained physiologically similar to other athletes.

The CAS had to determine whether the use of such prosthesis was in contravention to rule 144.2 (e) of the IAAF technical rules which is read as– “Use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels, or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” Interestingly, the CAS analysed what constituted a spring and held that even the human leg was a spring. The CAS was not convinced that the ESR prosthesis provided Pistorius with an overall net advantage over the other athletes and hence over-turned the decision of the IAAF and subsequently allowed Pistorius to compete in able-bodied events.

Case of Markus Rehm:

It was a similar case to that of Pistorius. Markus is an amputee who wished to compete in the able-bodied sport in the long jump event in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The main issue, in this case, was that he was using his prosthetic leg to jump rather than his biological leg. The German Athletics Association considered his prosthetic limb an unfair advantage and did not allow him to participate. He did not appeal to the CAS and currently is a record holder in the Paralympic long jump event.

Case of Casey Martin:

Martin was a Pro-golfer but suffered from a circulatory disorder in his lower right leg, known as Klippel-Trenaunay-Webber syndrome. This made walking very hard for him and he was always at the risk of having his leg amputated if he happened to fall. Whilst attempting to qualify for the Professional Golf Association (PGA) tour, Martin played golf using a powered golf cart. He attempted to use this technology to support his transit between strokes but the PGA attempted to prevent this.

Golf carts were banned in professional golf at the time as it was felt that such technology would change the nature of the game by reducing the impact of the walk between each hole and provide players using them with an advantage over other golfers. Martin attempted to challenge the PGA decision using the American legal system by proposing that such technology was part of his professional occupation.

The Supreme Court ruled that the use of the cart would not be a fundamental alteration of the game and therefore would not disadvantage other players and organisers.

Regulations to Tackle Doping in Sports:

The WADA Anti-Doping code serves as the core regulatory framework to tackle conventional doping in sports. It harmonizes anti-doping policies, rules and regulations within sport organizations and among public authorities around the world. Almost every international sporting governing body is a signatory to the WADA anti-doping code, thus ensuring its universal application to tackling doping in sports.

The anti-doping code has defined what constitutes doping and maintains a list of prohibited substances and activities that would enable the WADA to take action against an athlete for doping.

Technological Doping & WADA:

WADA has recognised the threat posed by technological doping but has left it to the discretion of the independent sporting bodies to allow or ban a new technology in a sport. The general stance of the WADA on technological doping is that technology should be banned if they are “performance enhancing” or “against the spirit of the sport”.


Technology has started playing a vital role in sports by not only improving it but also enhancing the sports viewing experience and altering the dynamics of sports gear, thereby paving the way for performance improvement. Ideally, technology has been traditionally utilized for the betterment of the game, safety and efficiency of the athletes, however, when it becomes the decisive factor in achieving on-field success, it raises concerns. The main issue with technological doping is that it dilutes human athleticism and the element of fairness in a game.

Technology has started playing a vital role in sports by not only improving it but also enhancing the sports viewing experience and altering the dynamics of sports gear thereby paving the way for performance improvement. Ideally, technology has been traditionally utilized for the betterment of the game, safety and efficiency of the athletes, however, when it becomes the decisive factor in achieving on-field success, it raises concerns. The main issue with technological doping is that it dilutes the role of human athleticism and also the element of fairness in a game.


Image Credits: Photo by Hunter Johnson on Unsplash