Who should have the best equipment?

A few things to think about when buying your next bit of gear

Two athletes toe the line. Both are equally prepared, equally fit, and have the same mastery of tactics and strategy. One of them has some kit that makes them 5 % better, or faster. Who will win?

The answer is of course: no one knows until the contest is over. But before the contest begins, the odds are seemingly rigged in favour of the one with the better equipment. This phenomenon usually arises because of one or more of the following reasons:

  • The athlete is better at preparing their equipment
  • The athlete has spent considerable time developing new, innovative equipment
  • The athlete has expert support in preparing their equipment
  • The athlete has greater access to financial resources, allowing them to buy better equipmment
  • The athlete has been given better equipment

Any one of these reasons could be considered fair, or unfair, depending on who you ask. There are, however, only two essential persons that should necessarily be posed such a question: the athlete with the better equipment, and the athlete with the poorer equipment. They are the ones contesting the event, and they are the ones that will determine the outcome.

Or will they?

According to the hypothetical situation, both athletes have done their homework when it comes to postulate 4: training, preparation, strategy and tactics within agreed upon rules and ideals are the only means in which to gain an advantage over one’s competitors. The equipment seems like it will play a role, too, though. Does that count as preparation?

In some cases, perhaps. Taking good care of equipment will ensure that it – and hopefully the user – performs optimally. Thus, an athlete that prepares his or her equipment well should fairly gain the benefits of that effort. This is a natural, and in some cases ritual, part of many sports.

What is less clear from a fairness standpoint is when two athletes’ equipment, equally well taken care of, still differ in terms of potential performance. This might be due better materials used, better ergonomics, lightness, aero- or hydrodynamics, or just overall quality. If both athletes have the same choices available, and choose differently for whatever personal reasons, then that also seems fair. When an athlete doesn’t get that choice, though, we are likely creating an uneven contest. That would be in direct conflict with postulate 3: the outcome of the contest is valid only when decided on an even playing field.

A head start for the Scandinavians?

Consider the situation mentioned in a previous post about the dominance of Scandinavian skiers. The conclusion was that athletes, at the top of their game, help our Society by performing at their best and thus challenging others to do the same. But what if the explanation for this dominance was (at least partially) equipment-related? The following is an accurate description of what is currently happening at the elite levels of several skiing sports:

  • Manufacturers produce equipment with variations in quality, even within their top-level range.
  • Athletes that are sponsored by a manufacturer are given equipment with better quality.
  • Sponsored athletes that perform particularly well are given equipment with exceptional quality, and first access to it.
  • Teams that support athletes provide expert preparation of equipment in terms of waxing and other gliding surface preparation.
  • The best teams have the best financial and technical support in terms of personnel, access to waxes and preparation equipment, and also conduct research and development into equipment optimization for their own benefit.
  • In some race formats the well-manned and -financed teams can actually re-prepare athletes’ skis during the actual competition so performance losses are minimized.

This is, of course, how it happens among the best skiiers in the world. Yet it has a clear purpose: to ensure that the best are rewarded by receiving the best equipment. Which then begs the question, if only the best get these advantages, how does anyone else get up there?

It is a stacked deck. Sponsors hold many of the cards, and support teams hold others. There are national teams that spend tenfold the amount of other countries on gliding surface preparation alone. Our Society’s members have little, or nothing, to do with any of this. We can perform to our absolute best, but may often be defeated by the efforts of our challengers’ sponsoring companies and waxing experts. It is a proxy race that is extraordinarily difficult to win, and it is in many cases controlled by forces – and ideals – that are foreign to our Society.

There are unfortunately other similar cases in recent sporting history. Unqeual access to swimsuits, running shoes, bicycles and speed skates have all had decisive roles in determining the winners of our contests. And we don’t have to be at the elite levels to see this at work. Parents of younger athletes may think they are doing their children a favour by providing them with the latest and greatest of materials and equipment. Well-funded schools may be able to provide better support teams to manage equipment than others. These athletes may not be aware of it, or perhaps even have been told that it is to be appreciated.

The engineers of sport

Formula 1 automobile racing and America’s Cup sailing regattas are all about equipment. Exorbitant amounts of money are spent by companies on finding the most technically innovative solutions to win races with the most advanced equipment. Yet these contests and companies are open about it, and the transparent goal of them is push the boundaries of engineering. That the athletes also are part of the challenge is somewhat secondary.

There are good examples in sport as well. The Japanese Kierin cycling circuit, for example, standardizes equipment for all competitors to remove any unfair advantages. One-design sailing classes standardize boat construction to eliminate performance advantages. Other sports draw lots to distribute equipment from a common pool prior to races. Modern pentathlon has a horse lottery for the riding discipline, so the inherent advantages of bringing one’s own (expensive, well-bred) horse is not an issue. And even when it comes to skiing, some countries like France have a mandatory, common waxing service at their national championships. These measures are designed to make sport about the athletes’ own performances, and not about the performance of what gear they are competing with.

In our Society, we need to carefully consider what we are doing when we think about “upgrading” our equipment. Yes, it may allow us to perform better by making things more comfortable or more enjoyable, but is it also influencing the outcome of the competition in a way that is not directly tied to our own efforts? If I buy that piece of gear, will I immediately gain 10 seconds compared to my current stuff? Will I use 5 % less energy due to reduced weight or drag? Will my competitors have the same? We need to ask ourselves: how would I feel if I knew I would win this race because I have better equipment? How would I feel if I lost for the same reason?

If you don’t feel comfortable with the answer, then it’s time to start talking with our other members, our clubs and federations and taking measures to alleviate the situation. We need to ensure we are all on a level playing field, everytime we strap on our gear.