SEHS/TOK ideas: Mechanical doping or just plain old cheating?

1178782360Let’s be honest; putting a small motor on a bike to make it easier to cycle does not take a creative mind.  Bikes with small motors attached aimed at us ‘riders of bikes’ (and I differentiate here from cyclists) have been available for years.  However, when Femke
Van den Driessche, a Belgian cyclo-cross rider, aged just 19, was found to have a small motor within the frame of the bike she was riding in the World Championships in January 2016, a whole new and fascinating debate around the nature of cheating, or as it has been described ‘mechanical doping’ or ‘technological fraud’ amongst other things has emerged from already scandal hit cycling.  The purpose of this short post is to review some of the material that you may could use to inform a TOK based discussions about the nature of mechanical doping in cycling, and more broadly the use of ergogenic aids in sports performance.  While it is not intended to be exhaustive, it will highlight some good internet based articles and resources that could be used to stimulate and drive a discussion around this very relevant and live debate in sport.  

Sproule (2012) in one of the key IB SEHS texts defines an ergogenic aid as ‘any substance, phenomenon or device that improves an athlete’s performance’.  While I don’t want to get into the wider question of who makes the decisions about what is acceptable and allowed in  a sports performance and what isn’t (maybe that is another post at a later date), the an initial key knowledge question that can be addressed more generally within this area would be something like:

At what point is human performance no longer genuinely just human?

maxresdefaultCentral to the debate is the issue around what kind of modifications that are made to improve performance are acceptable and what are not.  This may initially seem quite clear, as the technological development is clearly impacting on the cyclists capacity to improve their performance.  However, if you as a teacher are facilitating a discussion about what technological developments are acceptable in cycling, introduce the idea of increasingly aerodynamic bike frames and helmets.  These are clearly developments that are made to make the cyclist quicker than they could be if they raced without them.  If you want to throw something a little more complex in, look at external pace setting, whether it is via watches, computer information on a bike, or from a support team helping a cyclist to keep pace and inform a breakaway cyclist their position in relation to the peloton.  These are certainly external devices or agents that are helping to improve the speed and awareness of the cyclist above what they may be able to do on their own.

However, I also feel that there are many other knowledge questions that can be developed out of this particular debate and there are some potentially fantastic transdisciplinary discussions that could be held with colleagues teaching other subjects.  Although I am not a language specialist, I think that there are potentially fantastic sessions based around the use of the term doping to discuss cheating in this way (apologies to my language teaching friends with this attempt at for a more linguistic route in).

Can people change the perception of an action just through the language used to describe it?

lance-armstrongCycling is a sport that has a long history of athletes using prohibited, often illegal substances to improve their level of performance that extends far before the exposure of its most recent fall guy, Lance Armstrong.  In part, it could be argued that this has developed because of the extreme physical nature of the sports blue ribbon events.  However, the Armstrong scandal extended far beyond cycling, and arguably sport itself.  The idea of the serial cheating, and doping of this one cyclist and his team, and added a new level of negative connotation to the word doping.  Traditionally, doping has referred to the taking of  performance enhancing drugs with the intention of improving performance levels.  So, based on this definition, it is easy to argue that adding a small motor to a cycle is not doping.  But why has it been christened mechanical doping?  This is a question that can certainly be addressed from a linguistic perspective.

There are probably hundreds of articles that would be useful when putting together a class discussion around this particular issue, and as the debate rages and the perpetrators of such illicit actions are pursued with greater purpose, there will only be more become available.  Considering this, I highlight five really good articles as a starting point.

Article 1: Cycling hit by mechanical doping claims (Source: BBC News 2010 – Read Article Here).  Initially, to add some historical context to the debate, before the Van den Driessche case became known, there have been accusations of mechanical doping in road racing.  In 2010, accusations of using motors within bike frames were made against the Saxo Bank cycling team and in particular the then Olympic time-trial champion, Fabian Cancellara.  Although refuted absolutely by the team and Cancellara, the idea that one could be fitted and used in a professional race had been sewn.

Article 2: Chris Froome says he warned UCI about mechanical doping (Source: BBC News 2016 – Read Article Here).  This is a short article that can be used in conjunction with article 1 to provide some context.  It was published just after the claims against Van den Driessche, and refers to claims made by Chris Froome, two time Tour de France winner, that he had warned the UCI over the use of mechanical doping, and it was something that they were actively aware of.  Froome had expressly suggested that the UCO should step up their checks on bikes, again based on the suspicion of competitors cheating.

Article 3: ‘Doped bikes’: Is this cycling’s next cheating scandal? (Source: BBC News 2016 – Read Article Here). This is an excellent piece that considers many of the key issues of the debate.  As well as quite extensively highlighting what mechanical doping is, including excellent video footage and diagrams of how it works, the question of how much mechanical doping may be going on is considered.  Of particular interest is the shirt section at the end that poses the question, is this worse than doping, something that most students will be aware of as a wider issue around this debate.  If your students are new to the idea of cycling, this is an excellent resource to use as the starting point for any class discussions.

Article 4: ‘Electromagnetic wheels are the new frontier of mechanical doping’ (Source: Cycling News 2016 – Read Article Here). Based on what has been uncovered as the next level of technological development in the evolution of mechanical doping, Cycling News highlight an article from the Gazetta dello Sport that while the UCI are catching up testing for motors in wheels, the next step is already possible.  Critical to the debate here is the idea that the ‘cheaters’, or as you could describe them ‘innovators’ (interesting to see how the class react), like in the doping scandals of the past, are always one or two steps ahead of the authorities.

Article 5: ‘Can we ever trust cycling again?’ (Source: The London Economic 2015 – Read Article Here).  In this excellent article, written by sports blogger and TLE sports editor David de Winter (before the recent exposures of mechanical doping), de Winter discusses whether cycling, as a sport can ever be trusted to be ‘clean’.  This is a great article for helping students who are not able to contextualise the position of cycling in society more broadly.  Could be good to close with, or even to use as a starting point before the issue of mechanical doping is even raised.

(c) Ian Gavin 2016.

Disclaimer: Links in this post are the intellectual property of the respective authors and publishers.  Images taken from the articles used for illustrative purposes.

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