"What the heck is that stuff? Baby oil? Ski wax?"
My golf buddy Jon put the question to me after I fired another long drive so straight it looked like, well, it looked like his ball. I had been beating him on every drive since we'd started to wager over distance off the tee. "Just some goop I rub on my driver," I told him. "Keeps me from hooking as much."
It wasn't losing a dollar a hole that bothered Jon. It was the fact that a 5-foot 6-inch amateur golfer notorious for hitting 200-yard hooks into tree lines was now firing longer drives straight down the fairway. Thanks to a tricked up, smaller-than-regulation golf ball and a special lubricant smeared on a Callaway titanium driver that is also considered illegal on the United States Golf Association circuit, technology had given me the edge. Until, of course, I was caught.
I gave Jon his money back, but I'll always have his pride.
Sport may idealize the level playing field, but athletes are always looking for an edge, and in technology they often find it. High tech, low tech, strange tech: It rarely matters. Pro bowlers used to soak their balls in acetone and other strong solvents to make them hook better, a technique Don McCune used to become bowler of the year in 1973. And the occasional baseball player has tried to slip a lighter-yet-still-powerful cork-lined bat onto the field, only to face red-handed guilt when a hard pitch broke it in two.
The postwar revolution in materials and design that transformed cars, airplanes, and office chairs had a field day with sports equipment as well. Natural materials such as wood, rubber, and catgut were left in the slow lane by stronger, lighter, stiffer, or more elastic alternatives: high-tech metal alloys, synthetic polymers, and composites. Surfboards evolved from wood to foam polyurethane and fiberglass. The large-head tennis racket, conceived in the 19th century, stormed the market once there were materials strong enough to withstand the string tension needed to make the design work. Carbon-fiber and titanium alloy bicycles weigh pounds less than earlier bikes yet possess remarkable strength. Meanwhile, computer-aided design offers new insight into the behavior of golf balls in air, swimsuits in water, rubber on the road. The resulting machines and equipment are not only performance-enhancing but marvels of form and function, as any Seven bicycle or K2 inline skates owner will attest.
While new tech supercharged athletes, it challenged sport. The signal moment may have been in 1977, when bad-boy-of-tennis Ilie Nastase walked onto a court with a spaghetti-strung tennis racket and broke the 50-match winning streak of Argentinean champ Guillermo Vilas. Designed with three planes of nonintersecting, plastic-coated strings, the racket "held" the ball longer and let even ordinary players apply extraordinary amounts of topspin. Was that exciting or unseemly? For organized sport, that's the question new technology raises: Does it improve the play, or taint the game?
For athletes, pro or weekend, the question seems almost quaint: If you build it, they will play with it. But for those charged with protecting the character of sport, new tech poses dilemmas. Technology can upset the balance of power-between pitcher and batter, for example-or favor brute strength over finesse. There's a sort of evolutionary inevitability here (why not play with a racket that holds the ball longer?) but it's problematic when the balance of power expresses the soul of the game.