Future Olympic Games might be seeing the participation of a human cyborg. Sport rules and materials are always subject to evolution. Golf clubs moved from wood, to steel, to metal-matrix composites, to metal glasses. Tennis rackets were originally made of wood with the strings made of cat gut, then moved to aluminum and carbon fiber. The running shoe itself has gone from leather, to rubber, and finally to an air-cushioned polyurethane foam with a breathable nylon upper. Sport is not a static stuff.
Is it so strange to add another category to men and women, then? The question can be basically boiled down to “Where do we draw the ethical line on performance enhancement?”. All sport federations around the world have a list of what are doping and the specifics of equipment that can be used during the competitions. In other words, instead of encouraging the use of performance-enhancing drugs for all the athletes and technologies to evolve competition, the majority of sporting authorities condemned everything that changes the status quo. We obviously like this approach, because it introduces and tries to guarantee a concept of fairness. The ideal is that an athlete has to compete, first of all to improve him/her self and then to beat the competitors. The result is that when you beat a world record, before fans can shake your hands, you need to deliver a sample of your blood.
The problem is this approach does not take into account the main difference between sportsmen: their genetic heritage. We are able to guarantee that everybody plays with the same rules, which is crucial, but inevitably the starting point is different for each individual. I expect that when genetic mapping and gene-editing will go mainstream, in the next 10 to 20 years, professional athletes will begin to correct their genes to perform better. We cannot even exclude that some sportsmen are already adopting such technologies. Experimentally and in secret. The human cyborg might already be here.
We can imagine how it will happen. Athletes will ask to use genetic enhancements for injury prevention and safety. Why not having bones that self-repair in days rather than in months? Why not reducing the perception of pain? Why not having tendons and ligaments that are difficult to damage? Progressively rules begin to allow athletes to use performance enhancers up to predetermined, safe levels. This is what you can extensively read in a superb paper dedicated to the Future of Sports, in the section dedicated to The Athlete. The goal is to make success determined more by character, teamwork, strategy, and the mental edge than by the genetic lottery. In this sense, the human cyborg athlete is not a traitor who uses illegal drugs to defeat opponents, but just a player of a third “league” separated from men and women.
The idea of having a competition based on the psychological strength rather than the genetic lottery, is something we capture every time we assist to disabled sportsmen competitions. The mind is more important than the body. A Research by the English Federation of Disability Sport found that seven in 10 disabled people want to do more sport, yet the main barrier to participation is psychological. But when they win this barrier, we have heroes like Alex Zanardi, Esther Vergeer, Patrick Anderson, Jessica Long and many others that make “us” proud to be humans, like “them”. I find somehow ironic that the best moments in sports come from the experimental behaviors and the new technologies adopted by the parathletes. The world better prepare itself for a human cyborg gold medalist.
And what we have here, I mean gene editing, is just a piece of the story. There’s more than strength and stamina. There are plenty of areas where technology can legally enhance the performance of an athlete. Ever thought about a team that communicates telepathically? And a basketball player with improved peripheral vision? Many would like to simply be ambidextrous. Others will improve their visual perceptions. Others will mix their natural human body with prosthetic equipment. So, there are many scenarios to rule: genetic modifications, cognitive enhancements, and cybernetic implants. That’s why there a long road to walk before we will the “human cyborg” category in any competition. The complexity goes hand in hand with the slowness.
In the meantime the first example of a cyborg competition is coming: the Cybathlon is the first ever cyborg Olympics, coming to a stadium in Zurich in October 2016. I quote a good article appeared on the IEEE org website: in these games, the competitors will use advanced technologies to compensate for disabilities like paralysis and limb amputation. In the cycling race, for example, paraplegic competitors will use electrical stimulation systems to jolt their paralyzed legs into action; electrodes and muscles will work in tandem to propel their trikes forward. The Paralympics bans motorized equipment, but the Cybathlon embraces it.
If the Paralympics represent a frontier of new technology in sport, the Cybathlon is there to emphasize the collaboration between humans and machines, trying to do another step towards the barrier. That makes me curious and I’ll keep you posted.
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