The Ethics of Innovation

February 22, 2018 / By Peak & Valley

Published 

An article came out today in The Guardian that has me questioning the role of Innovation in Olympic and Paralympic sport. You can read the full article here (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/feb/12/gb-skeleton-pyeongchang-skin-suits-british-cycling), but I can summarize it by saying that British skeleton athletes are said to be using padding in the buttocks of their skinsuits (see those raised lines down the guy’s bum? Is that padding? Or just a very strategically placed large seam?) to gain a massive aerodynamic advantage. For an athlete to go from normally placing 12th to suddenly being the fastest at the Games by possibly breaking the clothing regulations of their sport is something that just doesn’t sit right with me. Which is a dilemma, right? Here I am, a Research & Innovation Manager, trying to figure out how to get our athletes on the best and fastest equipment and into the fastest clothing, so how do I wrap my head around this?

I’m so used to seeing this in the sport I work in that I almost don’t notice it anymore… it’s funny how seeing it in another sport reminds me of how uncomfortable I am with people pushing the ethical limits. “Is it safe, is it legal, is it ethical?” will remain my guiding question as we decide which innovations to implement. Is it actually a “fuzzy” line between what’s legal and what’s not? We’re starting to come down to the personal interpretation of certain words, which is fraught with danger as we all have different personal definitions. Even the International Federations want innovation, they like it when athletes beat World and Olympic records, but in the same breath they’re trying to restrict it. It can get very confusing.

My approach is to test every possibility, both within and outside of the rules. That way, we know everything we can about which benefits are available to us, and we can ensure that what we decide to implement fits within the rules and regulations. I want our athletes to be on a level playing field, so that all of the hard work they put in can get them the result that they’ve earned. In my mind, it’s the determination, strength, drive, and work ethic of the athletes that earn medals. It seems completely against the Olympic and Paralympic spirit to up-end the result by pushing the boundaries of equipment so close to the line. It’s their career and future at stake.

It’s not that some countries know about these potential innovations and others don’t. It’s not a battle of intelligence as it appears. It’s simply that most of the countries have chosen not to break the rules of their sport and are sticking to the intention as well as the wording of the rules.

What sits uncomfortably with me about this is that I don’t see the difference between this kind of breaking the rules and any other kind. If we’re so uncomfortable with athletes even using inhalers that it causes a media frenzy, why are we ok about this? Why is the Olympic Committee silent? Why has there been no pushback from any International Sports Organization? Why are there rules if no one is going to enforce them?

*** Please note: These are my personal thoughts only, and do not represent the thoughts or opinions of any other party. ***

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