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Programmed to win at all costs

14 September 2012

Are athletes being turned into winning machines, asks Trevor Barnes

YOUR starter for ten: when is a bicycle not a bicycle? Answer: when it is ridden by Bradley Wiggins or Victoria Pendleton.

I ride a bike occasionally, but my machine is rather different from the one on which Pendleton propelled herself to Olympic Gold at the Velo­drome this summer, and as dif­ferent as Wiggo's Tour de France numéro was from the penny farthing, or the velocipede, c. 1888.

Fitness, and all-round sporting excellence not­withstanding, it is incontrovertible that develop­ments in technology have also contributed to records that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago.

"It's not about the bike," wrote the sometime serial Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong (recently stripped of his seven titles on doping charges that he has now declined to contest). It's not about the bike? Well, up to a point.

Lighter alloys, low-friction gears, ergonomic positioning of the saddle, and handlebars have all been tested and refined to generate maximum efficiency - until the next refinements take performances up another notch, and shave a 100th of a second off a personal best.

It is called by Team GB's race-director "the aggregation of marginal gains" - the ruthless paring down of every wasteful element, from the drag of a helmet to the perceived emotional wastage occasioned by falling in love with your coach (a predicament movingly described by Pendleton in her newly published memoir).

Oscar Pistorius, the Olympian and Paralympian sprinter, is similarly a beneficiary of advanced know-how in the field of prosthetics technology. So, too, is Alan Oliveira, who pipped the South African to the post before being accused by Pistorius of benefiting too much by having longer blades.

Both athletes will be living test-beds on whom engineers and designers will be trying out the very latest carbon-fibre technology in the four years separating London from Rio. And, like other runners, riders, and rowers at the top of their game, they will be attended by sports scientists, diet­icians, nutritionists, psychologists, and bio­mechanics and performance analysts at the top of theirs - all attempting to transform  flesh and bone into precision apparatus programmed to win.

But the pursuit of sporting excellence at all costs comes with risks; not least that, in producing racing machines high on adrenaline and low on human frailty, we sacrifice some of the less quanti­fiable qualities that make humanity what it is. Few, for example, would want to return to the Cold War days when sporting supremacy was presented as a form of ideological and even spiritual triumph­alism.

When élite athletes talk of devoting four years of their lives to preparing for gold, they mean it. And while we must applaud their all-consuming focus on crossing the finishing line ahead of the competition, we must also ask whether it is at the expense of something more recognisably human and everyday, such as empathy, self-doubt, modesty, and so on.

The Paralympian goalball player Anna Sharkey, for instance, may not be alone in questioning whether élite competitive sport is an environment conducive to the humility required of a Christian. Let us hope that the current crop of sports scient­ists and motivators at least grasps that, and knows the difference between motivation and undue (po­tentially dehumanising) psychological pressure.

"Losing and dying", Lance Armstrong said, memorably, "- it's the same thing." It was a philo­sophy that served him well while he was a winner, but which seems rather hollow now.

Let us applaud, then, the interfaith team of Games Chaplains who have been on duty for a month and more, mingling with the performance directors and athletic coaches, and celebrating with the winners, but also reassuring the also-rans that there is more to life than coming first.

Trevor Barnes reports for the Sunday programme and other BBC Religion and Ethics broadcasts.

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