by Jonathan Lyons on October 25, 2012

I’ve been wondering quite a bit lately about the future of sports competitions. Specifically, as humankind merges ever more intimately with technology, I wonder whether such competitions as the Olympics can go on in their current forms. Today we have the Olympics (exclusively for competition by able-bodied athletes, until recently), the Paralympics (for competition by differently abled athletes), and the Special Olympics, which provides “year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.”

But Oscar Pistorius’s participation in the Olympics this year was monumental. Not only did Pistorius — a double amputee who has been dubbed “the fastest man on no legs” — compete with regularly abled athletes, but cries arose from some who claimed that Pistorius’s prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage.

In an era when records by Barry Bonds and other professional athletes are listed with an asterisk due to their use of performance-enhancing substances and practices, I wonder: Do we need to start keeping records for the organic athletes separate from records scored by the enhanced athletes?

Where, I wonder, do we draw the line? After all, we already live in the era of voluntary amputation and prosthetic replacement. Professional athletes frequently use performance-enhancing technologies. Take contact lenses that filter certain spectra of light, for example:

“The gray-green lenses allow golfers to better differentiate distance on a golf course. Golfer Justin Leonard has commented that with the gray-green lenses he is able to separate out every blade of grass. Baseball players benefit most from the amber lenses because amber blocks out blue light which is called ‘visual noise’ by vision experts while the red colors, such as a baseball’s seams, are accentuated. Mark McGwire was and Chipper Jones is a wearer of sport lenses.”

As a former Austinite, I’ve followed the performance-enhanced saga of Lance Armstrong throughout his seven Tour de France wins and the subsequent allegations of drugging. Armstrong announced earlier this year that he would no longer fight allegations that he used performance-enhancing substances; as a result, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has stripped Armstrong of his Tour de France titles and banned him from the sport of cycling for life.

At NPR, philosopher Alva Noë makes the point that, being as naturally inclined to use tools as we humans are, we are natural-born cyborgs; this prompted him to make the following observation: “[Lance Armstrong] is a trailblazer. One of the greats. He didn’t win races on his own. No, like each of us in our social embeddings, he created an organization, one drawing on other people, and the creative and effective use of technology, the mastery of biochemistry, to go places and do things that most of us never will, and that no one ever had, before him.”

Noë makes an interesting point: We are already cyborgs — it’s just that most of humankind doesn’t think of things that way. When I use my eyeglasses to see more clearly, I am, to an extent, a cyborg. When I use my smartphone as an outboard-memory module and store contact information there rather than memorizing it, I am even more so. My students are so integrated with their technology that they can hardly see that fact; I pass them texting avidly as they walk between classes every day.

Further, we are becoming an ever-more-networked species. Michio Kaku discusses this a bit in the Big Think video below:
Can We Have Brain-To-Brain Communication?

No less than Stephen Hawking points out that humankind is entering “a new phase, of what might be called self-designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA.” Showing impatience with biological evolution, he said, “There is no time to wait for Darwinian evolution to make us more intelligent and better-natured.”

And if technological upgrades become available to augment my intelligence, my memory, or my health, or to add to my longevity and quality of life, I would be interested in pursuing them. To me, that’s only human. In fact, instead of the conventional ink tattoos I have, I’d much prefer to get an LED tattoo system installed (provided it’s safe), such as the one below:
Philips Electronic Tattoo

So perhaps a more useful path forward would be to admit and accept our technologies, our advances and advantages. Perhaps the more productive path — rather than to destroy the careers of athletes who have taken advantage of our technological advances — would be to maintain separate sets of records for the augmented/enhanced and the organic/unenhanced.

An Enhanced Olympics could arise from this, just as the other aforementioned athletic competitions have arisen to serve specific communities: a set of competitions that embrace augmentation and technological advantages. I think that Pistorius, the fastest man on no legs, would be welcome in such a competition — and without the controversy.

* * * *

Jonathan Lyons lives and teaches and writes strange things in Central Pennsylvania. His latest novel, Signal to Noise: A Novel Infused With Music, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and cool indie bookstores everywhere. This piece is cross-published at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

John Idstrom October 25, 2012 at 4:52 am

This one is personal for me. My professional athletic career was essentially truncated by my unwillingness to subject my body to the well-known ill-effects of PED’s. My moral high-ground is low – I probably would have been willing to cheat if I was convinced that there would be no ill consequences physically and that all my competitors were on the take. My willingness to allow performance enhancing substances in any competitive endeavor (vs. a purely business endeavor) would be contingent on proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that such substances would have NO physical ill-effect (ask Florence Griffith-Joyner about this) AND that the substances would be sufficiently inexpensive as to be accessible to all (i.e. the cost of a multi-vitamin). Barring that, PED allowance creates an unlevel playing field that basically requires someone to be a juicer if they are to compete. Given that the public will only pay attention to the highest performing athletes, having separate leagues of juicers and non-juicers is fantasy. We are far, far better off putting all resources necessary, regulatory and culturally to elimating PED’s. Even if the cheaters will always be ahead of the testers.

At least in athletics. If all y’all want to juice to get a better job, or whatever, that’s outta my league.


Jønathan Lyons October 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm

From your response, John, and others, I can see that the PEDs are a magnet in this piece; my main reasons for considering an Enhanced Olympics and other competitions is because:
A) Pistorius heralds the arrival of cuborg athletes who will have an advantage over the mundanely-abled, and
B) As with the juiced athletes I mentioned, the PED-enhanced are already here, and on the books, but with an asterisk.
I’d like to state clearly that steroid use is damaging to one’s health, and that people should be smarter than to use them. I am not advocating steroid use – merely acknowledging that steroid use is already part of the equation. Perhaps if we have Enhanced competitions and organic/unenhanced competitions, other, better augmentations will at least move the juicers to a separate category, rather than continuing the current game, wherein they hide their PED abuse and try to pass for unaugmented.


Jønathan Lyons October 26, 2012 at 5:09 pm

In the words of security technologist and author Bruce Schneier :
“In the end, doping is all about economics. Athletes will continue to dope because the Prisoner’s Dilemma forces them to do so. Sports authorities will either improve their detection capabilities or continue to pretend to do so, because they depend on fans and associated revenues. And as technology continues to improve, professional athletes will become more like deliberately designed racing cars.”


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