Image: Under Armour
The Olympics may have a doping problem, and it doesn't have anything to do with getting hopped up on steroids or tinkering with genetics. “Technology doping” is a growing issue in competitive sports as every year breakthroughs in engineering and science lead to high-tech equipment and materials that can blur the line between enhancing athletic performance and cheating.
A lot of souped-up gear is making its debut this week as the Winter Olympic Games commence. The most hyped so far is the US team's new speed skating suit, which was manufactured with help from the aerospace engineers at Lockheed Martin. The company, Under Armour, boasts that it's the fastest suit ever made, though China and Russia have made similar claims.
Designing the Mach 39 suit was a top-secret, years-long project. Engineers used motion capture technology to track speed skaters as they sped across the ice, and used that meticulously detailed data to build fiberglass mannequins mimicking the precise body positions of the skaters as they move. From there, hundreds of variations of suits were designed, and put through 300 hours of testing in a wind tunnel to see their effect on airflow, and tweaked to get the optimal aerodynamic design.
Carefully engineered equipment has always played a role in Olympic sports, and especially with the proliferation of nanotech materials. Nanotechnology is used to improve everything from bobsleds and luges to figure skates and clothing. The alpine skiers at Sochi, for instance, are sporting skis that use carbon nanotubes to boost speed. The nanotubes dampen the vibrations caused when skiers go over bumps by spreading out the incoming energy.
But is it all above board? In some cases it only becomes clear that high-tech equipment gives an unfair advantage once the athletes sporting the gear start shattering records. Such was the case with Speedo’s infamous LZR Racer bodysuit worn by swimmers at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The suit was coated with nanoparticles that repel water and engineered to trap air to make the swimmer more buoyant. Swimmers wearing LZR Racers broke 168 world records this year—the technology was considered technology doping and banned at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
There's a fine line between providing athletes with the best gear to keep them comfortable, safe, and able to reach new athletic heights, and turning a competition of human strength and ability into a nanotech arms race. Especially when shaving off even thousandths of seconds can be the difference between standing on the podium and cursing in the locker room.
Each sport has a governing body that decides where to draw that line. But with some new innovations, it's not immediately clear which side they'll come down on.