Mechanical doping: Can it get any worse?

Whilst it is a quaint and quixotic feeling to hold a child-like belief in the integrity of sport and its ideals; the reality is intrinsically more disappointing and disheartening. We would all like to believe in the Corinthian spirit and hold true to its inherent nature. The “Corinthians,” for the uninitiated, were an old Football Association team in England and they believed that the essence of sport came from fair play and sportsmanship. They would, upon conceding a penalty kick, withdraw their goalkeeper, leave the goal open and allow the other team to score unimpeded. Yes! Those days did exist. The world we reside in now is much, much different. Friends have, over the years, expressed the view that this writer is an overly romantic dreamer who wistfully longs for a bygone age. This is true and long may it remain so.
In the murky world of sports cheating, and name any sport that has not come under close scrutiny in recent years, cycling has an unenviable reputation for being at the forefront of scurrilous practices. Just question Lance Armstrong, the 7 time winner of the Tour de France, about underhanded behaviour and he would display verbal evasive maneuvering that would give due diligence to any leading politician. After many years trying to rebuild a reputation savaged by the Lance Armstrong blood doping era, the threat now comes from a form of cheating that is perhaps even more brazen. And also, dare I say it, reaching new heights of cheating.

Credit: independent.sports.uk.com
Credit: independent.sports.uk.com

A new enemy is stalking the world of cycling. The practice is known as “mechanical doping” and after many years of rumours that it exists in the sport, cycling is finally admitting it has another problem. Already, you are asking yourself the question. What on earth is “mechanical doping? Is the mechanic maintaining the cycles for his team taking performance enhancing drugs? The answer is, we are afraid to say, a little more serious than that. To paraphrase Winston Churchill “the cycling world has just entered a new dark age.”
Simply explained, a small, battery powered motor is hidden within a standard racing bike frame. A hidden button in the handle bars allows the rider to activate the motor which in turn drives a cog system that is connected to the pedals. The battery for the motor is hidden in a water bottle, the bike frame or in the rider’s seat. It’s very simple, and during the more arduous periods of a race, very effective. The system is not sufficient to provide hidden power during the entire length of a race; however, short “bursts” can have a noticeable impact. The entire mechanism is hidden from the naked eye.

For all of you out there who yearn for the scientific aspect this type of device could, theoretically, produce more than 250 watts. This is approximately the amount of power that an elite, professional rider may generate on average during a four hour race. The smaller devices, because they need to be hidden, needed for a professional race are more expensive and may only produce 25 watts and will require the rider to sustain a high pedaling rate. This is the case for most Olympic-class riders. However, even a small 25 watt boost would be significant during a high class, professional race- for example the Tour de France- to give the rider an advantage.

Cyclocross racer Femke van den Driessche has become famous, and put bike racing in the news, for all the wrong reasons. The Belgian athlete has the dubious distinction of being the first rider accused of “technological fraud,” or mechanical doping, after a hidden motor was discovered in one of her spare bikes at the 2016 UCI Cyclocross World Championships. The 19- year-old Belgian was banned for 6 years following the Championships in January this year. Van den Driessche won the under-23 European championship in 2015 and looked to have a promising and lucrative career in front of her. She subsequently announced her retirement from professional cycling in March after being given her ban.

The case gained international attention in the cycling world and gave a renewed focus during the recent Tour de France. Apart from taking the bike apart, there are several different ways to detect mechanical doping. One is using infra-red technology which clearly shows any “hot spots” on a bike. Thermal cameras were used during “le tour” this year. When the motor heats up the camera can easily focus on a part of the bike which is emitting an abnormally high temperature. The camera can be used during a race, however, you need to be relatively close to the bike being tested, and that involves moving at some speed. Cameras were used to detect this new form of cheating. The cameras are small and portable and can be operated from the back of a motorcycle or the edge of the road. The equipment is easier to deploy when a race is coming to completion, but if the motor was used sparingly during the race, for example hill climbs, and it could well have cooled down before the post-race checks.

In a statement Union Cycliste Internationale (C.U.I), the world governing body for sports cycling, claimed to have tested and rejected thermal imaging. The U.C.I. favours magnetic resonance testing. The system utilizes a device attached to a tablet computer that sends out a magnetic field. Bikes that may create any unusual disruptions of that field are then given a physical inspection. It was a magnetic resonance device that proved to be the undoing of Femke van den Driessche. “The U.C.I. has been testing for technological fraud for many years, and with the objective of increasing the efficiency of these tests, we have been trailing new methods of detection over the last year,” the governing body confirmed in an interview with cycling world. “We have looked at thermal imaging, X-ray and ultrasonic testing, but by far the most cost-effective, reliable and accurate method has proved to be magnetic resonance testing using software we have created in partnership with a company of specialist developers.”

Cycling has barely dragged itself from its past murkiness into the light, the last thing it needs now is yet another cheating epidemic. Sports will always need to keep ahead of the cheats, dopers and liars and maintain a “level playing” field for all. Sports’ cheating has gone from the simple act of taking a pill or injecting a syringe, to the very cutting edge of technology. How long before a mechanical device is in a person’s clothing and not in a bicycle?

To further muddy the murky waters of cheating, Yoseph Bar-Cohen, a world renowned physicist from NASA’s jet propulsion lab (yes! it’s got that far), wrote in a recent article for the Smithsonian. “Embedded technologies, such as artificial muscles or hidden motors, could someday give athletes another way to cheat, assuming they could mask them in their bodies or equipment.” Well! The ship has already left the dock and sailed on one aspect of the article. Yoseph Bar-Cohen continued to state, “electroactive polymers (EAPs) bend and stretch like real muscle fiber in response to an electrical charge; clothing woven with EAPs might augment an athlete’s muscle power.”

We have, unfortunately, in recent years seen a rise in the quality of prosthetic limbs. The tragic rise in global conflicts has seen many young and well-conditioned people receive prosthetic limbs. This advancement has allowed them to lead quality and active lives. It should not be any other way. Many of these young men and women are exceptional athletes who deserve all their success in life and on the sports field. It is worth noting that the improvement in these limbs could allow advantages over athletes not having access to mechanical aids. However, that’s not cheating. The prosthetic limbs are there for all to see. The South African Paralympian runner Oscar Pistorius, before he “imploded” and ended the life of another human being, argued forcefully for inclusion in the Olympic Games on the basis that his times compared to all other athletes. That may be correct and it would not be cheating, however, it’s hardly a “level playing field” for all.

The next and most disconcerting question on this writer’s mind could be, how long before a mechanical motor is embedded in an athlete’s body? Is this the stuff of science fiction? No! In the world of science anything is possible. Hypothetically, an athlete could take a few months off from competition and claim recovery from knee or ankle injury; they could then come back faster and stronger. Does anybody monitor the athletes post-surgery? Will people look at the knee scar and accept it for what it appears to be? After all, who would do such a thing?

If sports and athletes do proceed down that dark path then we really have created Frankenstein’s monster. This writer believe that sport is fun, enjoyable and rewarding and his friends could well be right about his idealist and child-like view, however, he would not have it any other way. The old “Corinthian’s” approach may seem outdated and naive in today’s world..However, to lose the essence of the Corinthian spirit and its ideals would, in this writers view, be cheating.

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