At last year’s Olympics in Nagano, speed-skating records were shattered, attributable to a new device called a clap skate. The design helps keep the skate blade on the ice longer by means of a hinge that lets the skate lift up from the blade. As a result, skaters move more efficiently and clock faster times. The introduction of this kind of technology into the Olympic arena raises an interesting issue. Are these clap-clad skaters really better athletes than previous record holders? When does sports equipment provide too much assistance to the player?

New technology equals a new game. As long as everyone is competing with similar equipment, this evolution should be celebrated. But it’s important to regard role models as good athletes, not just elite owners of the hottest equipment.

Athletes go for speed records and finish lines while engineers toil in pursuit of the most efficient, best-performing design. The delicious challenge to make sports products that go further and faster prods creative minds. But engineers must look beyond adding dazzling bells and whistles so records are broken. They must look at the collective impact of this race for design excellence. I’d hate for future sports arenas to feature Nike android competitions in lieu of real people playing soccer or basketball.

That mental image may be a bit extreme, but scale it down to the pee-wee playing field. Have we gone too far with “confidence builders” such as oversized baseball bats? When sports technology becomes a crutch for young players, I think we’ve defeated the purpose. The switch to a “real” bat must come at the appropriate time so that young athletes believe in themselves, not just their instruments. The focus should be on bettering the person underneath all the equipment.

In sports product R&D, it is important to concentrate on safety and comfort. I applaud products such as the Schutt ponytail batter’s helmet which protects long-haired softball players with a properly fitting helmet. What concerns me is kids who don’t have a fancy bat and thus don’t enter a level playing field, as well as the ones who do have top-of-the-line performance products and get cheated out of developing accuracy, endurance, and strength.

In all, breaking a world record is more about having the right equipment than it used to be. Of course, it’s silly to expect athletes to use primitive equipment when something better is out there. But if everyone can hit it out of the park, who will be the hero? In the spirit of preserving the athletic challenge, maybe we should apply a larger portion of our know-how to developing more demanding equipment. Perhaps we should make the sweet spot smaller, narrow the goal, and raise the rim.

I commend sporting goods which inspire players to give 110%. Participants who excel should be admired for their own strength and character. In the midst of high-tech games, we have to ask ourselves what the goal is. Do we want the shoes, or the athlete wearing them, to jump higher? And, ultimately, when does sports equipment defeat athleticism? Players, parents, organized sports leagues, and design engineers must consider these questions.

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.