Is Performance Enhancing Technology Pushing Athletes Higher, Faster, Farther?
Every year, elite athletes go higher, faster, farther.
But is it as a result of new technology that they set new world records and eclipse performances of the past?
A new sports documentary asks if today’s world record-holders really are better than the superstars of the past, or whether today’s competitor gets an added advantage from the high tech gear that’s now in use.
The new one-hour CBC special The Equalizer will air as part of The Nature of Things, and it is narrated by TNoT’s Dr. David Suzuki.
(In an update to this story, which was first posted in February, CBC has now scheduled a repeat airing of this program. It will air this Thursday, August 4 at 8 pm on CBC-TV.)
The program seeks to ‘equalize’ the playing field by exploring the impact of scientific advancements on personal bests in individual sports.
Incorporating interviews from today and footage from the past, as well as remarkable competitive video and SFX sequences, The Equalizer pits some of the greatest high-performance athletes – present and past – against each other.
(The show looks at top athletes in summer Olympic-type events; there are subsequent episodes planned, during which winter sports will be covered, and possibly even top pro sports. The show premieres Thursday, March 3 on CBC-TV. A second airing, closer to the Rio Olympics, will be announced at a later date, the CBC has confirmed.)
Each match-up in the first program has a surprising result as it looks at how much modern science and technology factors in to achieve new peaks of human athletic performance.
U.K.-based sports researcher Steve Haake checks performance timing with Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse on The Equalizer.
The Equalizer follows top sports scientist Steve Haake on his travels to Canada, the U.S. and Germany as he meets world-class athletes whose sport is impacted by the latest developments in technology. Top athletes such as Canadian sprinter and Olympic hopeful Andre de Grasse, U.S. Olympic silver medalist and seven-time world champion track cyclist Sarah Hammer, German world champion freestyle swimmer Paul Biedermann, German javelin thrower Christina Obergföll and Canadian kayaker and four-time Olympic medalist Adam van Koeverden.
Joining the U.K.-based Haake on the show is Dr. Greg Wells, a sports scientist, author, coach and athlete affiliated with University of Toronto and Sick Kids (Wells is also known as a broadcaster to Canadian audiences, based on his appearances on past CBC Sports shows and Olympic coverage).
Performance Enhancing Technology Questioned by Toronto TV Producer
Robert Lang is Executive Producer and Producer for Kensington Communications, a long-established documentary and feature film production company based in Toronto.
With titles that explore the international drug trade, the Canadian folk music scene and the secrets of modem museums, sports is somewhat of a new topic for Lang, as he acknowledged in conversation with Sportscaster Magazine.
“I have a long career, and I’ve done some eclectic programs and documentaries,” he agreed. “Life is interesting … as a fan myself, and as an athlete in younger days, I always wondered how much are athletes helped, or aided. How does sports technology fit in to all the records being set?”
In discussion with associates and other producers, Lang said the show’s concept was developed with an international angle that would ensure recognizable athletes from around the world would be featured.
Not all who were approached agreed to participate, but the group that did helped open several sets of eyes, as Lang described.
“My mind did change a bit, watching the real-world experiments” and competitive athletic recreations. “Going in, I thought ‘No way’ would the tech not have an impact. Technology gives them a real leg up, I thought.”
Maybe. Maybe not. The recreated athletic competition between stars of today and yesterday do show where advantage is gained (such as by using now-banned full body-length swimsuits) but also where the pure power of human athletic ability and desire are paramount factors in achievement, not necessarily the running shoe or the bicycle frame.
Athletic Competition Comes to Life with 4K, CGI, Historic Stock Footage
Human aspiration or performance enhancing technology: either way, the athletic recreations are truly the centrepiece of this new television program.
Just imagine seeing today’s hottest young sprinter, Canadian Andre De Grasse, running on the same track as American Olympic great Jesse Owens!
Lang and his production team allow viewers to do just that – and more!
Obtaining the historic footage that’s integrated into the program was one of the most difficult parts of the show’s development and production, Lang noted. “Our researcher told us ahead of time that sports rights would be one of the most complicated aspects of the show; that turned out to be the case.”
1940s-era Swedish legend, eight-time Olympic medalist Gert Fredriksson used a wooden kayak.
Media rights to great moments of sporting history can be held among many event participants, including host or pooled broadcasters, sports organizers or leagues, and/or event organizers.
Managing the rights issues only meant that, once successful, there were technical issues with the source material to manage. Different source media, including film and Betacam, different aspect ratios and different frame rates had to be seamlessly blended into new source material for the doc, mostly shot in HD but some in 4K.
“We shot the drone footage in 4K,” Lang acknowledged, noting that he could therefore “push into it a bit” to change composition, but also he was motivated by his own competition.
“With the way sports is covered nowadays, people expect there will be big bucks applied to the production, using trucks, dollies and drones. You have to satisfy the audience, and our production had to compete as a result.”
Not only is dynamic drone footage incorporated into the TV documentary, but also underwater sequences and some amazing image composites and CG animations.
(The water ripples in a pool used by world champion freestyle swimmer Paul Biedermann as he ‘competes’ with the legendary Mark Spitz are astounding; Lang said that while most post was performed in Canada, the CGI was done in Germany.)
In the program, interview clips with assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto Dr. Greg Wells help explain the relationship between technology, training, individual make-up and athletic achievement.
For each of the athletes competing in the new documentary, the variables that go into their competitive performance are evaluated – enhanced athletic gear, training, nutrition and psychology. Then, for the first time ever, the show equalizes the playing field and challenges the athletes to compete against a legendary athlete using equipment from a bygone era.
Performance Enhancing Technology versus Training, Desire, Dedication, Aspiration
Sprinter Andre De Grasse must attempt to beat the world record of the legendary Jesse Owens, a four-time gold medalist at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, while wearing replicas of Owens’ shoes and running on a 1930s-era track. Sarah Hammer rides a 1960s-era bike to compete against British champion Beryl Burton, a seven-time World Champion. Paul Biedermann eschews his full body suit to compete against nine-time Olympic Champion Mark Spitz in his 1970s-era Speedo. Javelin Thrower Christina Obergföll competes against 1980s world record holder Fatima Whitbread using a javelin from her era. And Canadian kayaker Adam van Koeverden trades his computer-designed carbon fibre kayak for a vintage wooden model to challenge 1940s-era Swedish legend, eight-time Olympic medalist Gert Fredriksson.
In a phone discussion with Sportscaster, Dr. Wells agreed that a certain cynicism about sporting achievement may have crept into people’s perceptions of athletic achievement as a result of doping.
But he holds the opposite view, saying the vast majority of athletes are succeeding for other reasons, particularly when competing with history:
For The Equalizer, Sarah Hammer rides a 1960s-era bike to compete against British champion Beryl Burton, a seven-time World Champion.
“These athletes are amazing, and inspiring. They are highly trained, highly motivated athletes with incredible abilities. I was there (during some of the shooting); these athletes were racing against history. They did not want to lose, and they all went hard.”
Dr. Wells is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes (HarperCollins, June 26, 2012) which explores how genetics and DNA, the brain, muscles, lungs, heart and blood work together in extreme conditions.
He also served as the sports medicine analyst for the Canadian Olympic Broadcast Consortium for the 2010 and 2012 Olympic Games.
The Equalizer is co-produced by Kensington Communications (Canada) and Berlin Producers (Germany) for broadcast on CBC-TV (Canada), SRC (Quebec), Ici Explora (Quebec), ZDF (Germany), Arte (Germany/France) and other international broadcasters. Robert Lang is Executive Producer and Producer for Kensington Communications. Kristian Kaehler is Executive Producer for Berlin Producers.
The Equalizer is directed by Rebecca Snow, written by Allen Booth and narrated by David Suzuki.
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Click on link for the trailer to The Equalizer .