Leading Article: Keep the technology, but change the game

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The Independent Online
FISA, the international body that oversees motor racing, faces a dilemma this week: whether to ban a handful of car technologies that have given one Formula One team a conspicuous advantage over the others. There are competing arguments: on the one hand, the fear that too many computers and gadgets will render racing drivers themselves redundant; and on the other, the apparent futility of standing in the way of science.

Technology bans are not unique to motor racing. Frictionless suits that help skiers to slip faster through the air have been outlawed. A new golf ball with go-faster dimples provoked a million-dollar lawsuit in the United States. Superfast javelins with corkscrew tails made a brief appearance, but were then discreetly withdrawn for fear that they might skewer spectators on the far side of the stadium. Australian swimmers were forbidden to wear costumes made of a material that made them more buoyant.

Elsewhere, new technologies have been allowed to wreak great changes. The carbon-fibre tennis racket is an obvious example. Chris Boardman's Lotus racing cycle, with its pounds 1,000 carbon-fibre wheels, helped him to lap a competitor on his way to an Olympic gold medal. Surfboards, once made only from wood, now come in a panoply of sizes, materials and shapes. Even the humble running shoe has become a source of advantage. What would Pheidippides, who ran 26 miles naked and barefoot with the news of the battle of Marathon, have made of it all?

In some sports, innovation seems irresistible. Motor racing's very origins were in the proving of new road cars; likewise, the America's Cup is a championship for boat designers as much as yachtsmen. In others, technology acts as a form of brain to accompany the athlete's brawn. Like the Fosbury flop (the jumping technique named after an American high-jumper), it may bring a temporary advantage to its inventors, but sooner or later it will be picked up by other competitors and spread to the wider sporting public.

Then there is the spin-off factor. Better rackets make tennis more fun for everyone. Countless ankle fractures have been prevented by more flexible ski bindings. The anti-lock brakes and active suspensions of today's Formula One racers will save lives in tomorrow's family saloons. Such benefits are put at risk by technology bans.

There are simpler ways to put the fun back into a game without imposing a ban. In motor racing, for instance, the authorities could impose a tight restriction on how much fuel each car must carry, thus forcing drivers to make more pit stops. In tennis, changing the size of the court or the ball might help to make the Wimbledon men's final more interesting. These are only ideas, but they might offer a way to keep both sponsors and engineers happy.