Are MP3 Players Performance Enhancing Tools? - Olympic Week


Written by Kory French

Take a walk along the West Side Highway path any weekday between 4 and 8 p.m. and you will undoubtedly see hundreds of runners, walkers, and cyclists. Do the same thing through Central Park at any given daylight moment and you will notice the same healthy behavior. Pay close attention to their fashion or equipment and you will notice numerous different styles, brands and accessories focused on aesthetics, performance, or both. There is one accessory however, above all others that will stand out indefinitely – iPods.

That earbud chord looks like a choking hazard

Do personal listening devices serve a purpose during exercise? Many would say they do—arguing that they help focus attention on the task at hand and assist in losing oneself into both music and fitness together. For a lot of us, earbuds become a vehicle of escape from the external environment and discomfort of muscle strain into a pleasant zone of focus and determination. Others use music as motivation, using it to help settle them into a long run or cycle via some trancing rhythm and beats that help set a constant pace; or maybe it’s to pick up speed, like pumping the energy out harder to the opening bass line of “Killing In The Name Of”.

Whether you are an amateur jogger running two miles twice a week, or a semi-professional athlete training for your next big race, to many runners, iPods have become a training tool as important as a stopwatch or distance measurer. So why has the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned them from competition? An even more debatable question is, “Should they?”

The official rule is that runners are not allowed to wear earphones due to safety concerns. According to one remark provided on Yahoo answers, “runners must be able to hear sirens, horns and directions” (although let it be noted, I was unable to confirm this source and I have trouble believing this to be true only because this would result in disallowing deaf participants in Olympic running events, something that the IOC does not prohibit). I could not find any direct listing of an Olympic rule that stated iPods were not allowed. I looked through the Olympic charter and I investigated banned items in the Olympics, of course that only led me to an epic list of performance-enhancing substances and said nothing about music. I guess this begs the only obvious follow-up question: Are iPods considered a “performance-enhancing” tool?

According the USA Track and Field (USATF), they are. In a marathon that took place in Milwaukee in 2009, women’s winner Jennifer Goebel was disqualified for listening to music during the event. “USA Track and Field rules state that elite runners competing for USATF championships or cash prizes aren’t allowed to use electronic devices.” Too bad for Goebel, who regardless of her admission of its served purpose (“If you’re bored, it pumps you up a little bit”), was left disqualified from the event and had to return her prize.

Blogger Clive Thompson reported in 2006 that, “[a]pparently, [the 2006] young Olympians love their iPods so much that many listen to them while they’re competing. The US snowboard team has even wired their uniforms to accommodate [sic] iPods, with iPod-sized pockets, speakers in their hoods, and control panels on their left sleeves. The music, says snowboarder Dustin Majewski, helps him stay in the zone: “It enables you to focus on what you’re doing without actually focusing, if that makes any sense,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “You’re not over-thinking, and that’s the best way to perform the harder tricks and maneuvers”. Here is another instance of young athletes, in this case “Winter Olympians”, admitting to the boost that music gives them during performance. Seeing as it was permitted on the hill in the Winter Games makes me wonder if it is an event-by-event decision; some permitting the use of iPods and others not.

One thing to remember is that Olympians are professionals. The amount of information they require about their sport while it’s happening and the knowledge and experience they have obtained over the years of training have taught them to pay attention to the most specific of details of their surface, their bodies, and their competition in a way that you and I can’t even conceive. Comparing my morning run to the Olympic Marathon event would be like comparing a game of pick-up touch football on Thanksgiving weekend to the Superbowl—it’s not even in the same universe. Marathon runners are trained to attend to and translate pace, breathing patterns, body language and landscape so they can perform at their ultimate ability. It is a possibility that having music playing during competition could greatly affect such focus and in a negative way. Just imagine how an increase of BPMs (“beats per minute”) when a song jumps from Mark Farina to Paul Van Dyk could unconsciously affect a runner’s pace or how missing out on the struggling breaths of an opponent could lead to a missed opportunity. While the zone of our aforementioned snowboarder may be enhanced in flow and movement through music, the zone of a marathon runner is the pack of the runners itself—an almost organic 26.2 mile song all of its own.

I think that if it can be proven that iPods are neither a safety concern nor a performance enhancing tool, runners should be permitted to wear them during Olympic events – though I doubt that many would. I can compare this to the swimming event “Freestyle”. It was only a couple of years ago that I learned swimmers were allowed to use any means or method possible to get from one end of the pool to the other. There were no restrictions on form in this event. The only reason we see all the competitors swimming in the same style is because it has proven to be the best method to get from point A to point B in water. If iPods were allowed in the marathon, I don’t know of many professional distance runners who would wear them. For, why use a perceived tool when it only turns out to be a disadvantage in the end?