The essence of sport is competitiveness. This competitiveness against opponents or against oneself is the raison d’être of doping, which drives athletes to want to stand out from the crowd. Doping is the act of administering, encouraging the use of or facilitating the use, with a view to a sporting competition, of substances or procedures of such a nature as to artificially increase the physical capacities of a person or an animal or to mask their use with a view to a test (Larousse definition). The renewal of doping techniques and the contribution of technical innovation explain the constant presence of the subject in the media. But with all this technological momentum, could the emergence of enhancement medicine achieve the same effects as doping? Does the fact that these new practices are chemically undetectable while producing results similar to doping render the ban on doping obsolete?
Innovation in sport: from technical progress to a form of technical doping
Athletes strive for perfection in their movements and constantly strive to maximise their performance. The first technological advance to make this possible was the improvement of machines and equipment.
Indeed, the world of sport is particularly receptive to new technologies. Sports such as football and tennis have significant economic and technical resources, which means that the latest technical developments are always available.
Some of these machines focus on self-measurement, data analysis and movement and position tracking. Being able to measure physiological parameters is a real boon for athletes. The introduction of increasingly high-performance sensors, for example, enables high-precision heart tracking, making it easier to determine position, heart rate and activity levels. These advances are beneficial but are not comparable to doping. Nevertheless, certain technical improvements have been considered to be technological doping, as in the Nike case, “Wavelight is like doping” (Hellen Obiri). The Wavelight is fitted with a carbon plate, which embodies the difficult balance between technological innovation and technological doping. The launch of the Nike Vaporfly 4% q has sparked debate on this issue, with the insertion of the carbon plate providing a 4% improvement in running economy.
However, these advances do not allow us to talk precisely about mechanical doping, in that innovations are tending to be democratised and the performance gap is tending to narrow.
The contribution of neuroscience to sport: towards an undetectable form of doping
Understanding how the athlete’s brain works has become the key to, and the focus of, a great deal of scientific research. Indeed, many advances have been made in neuroscience in specialist sports laboratories. Optimising the cerebral capacities of athletes is at the root of the boom in the use of neuroscience in the world of sport. It is these recent advances that allow us to claim that cerebral stimulation technologies improve athletic performance. Both transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and contained current stimulation (tDCS) improve endurance and reduce fatigue.
This trend towards the use of neuroscience has given way to the issue of ‘Brain Doping’, which aims to highlight the use of brain stimulation techniques to improve athletes’ performance. Although the issue is based on the legitimacy of the use of electrostimulation and its equation with doping, the long-term effects have yet to be determined.
At the same time, perceptual-cognitive training has gained in popularity and is at the root of the best sporting performances. Tools such as 3-Dimensional Multiple Object Tracking (3D-MOT) track moving targets and stimulate users’ perceptual-cognitive abilities. In particular, it stimulates the active processing of dynamic visual information, selective, dynamic and sustained attention, and the capacity for working memory. A great deal of research has highlighted the plastic capacity of athletes’ brains, which facilitates perceptual-cognitive learning. Cerebral plasticity allows the brain’s connections to be modified and reorganised, adapting to the automatisms that come from repeating the same movements, enabling athletes to build a perfectly customised brain, capable of reproducing highly precise movements.
New machines have emerged in the field of neuroscience, such as the NeuroTracker and Neurofeedback. These technologies tend to raise questions about their possible assimilation to doping and their legitimacy. The use of these new technologies is gradually taking on the form of doping, although they can remain simple tools for healthy and productive improvement.