Investigating the Cyborg Athlete

Have you ever invested so much time and energy into a topic? Understanding the ins and the outs, how it works and what it means? Well that’s me when analysing the influence technology has on sports.

For the purpose of this blog post, I want to take a particular focus on the research surrounding the topic of Cyborgs in Sport and the Olympics.

What are they? How do they work? Are they ethical? Does technology have to be obvious and mechanical or subtle and technical?

According to the Oxford Dictionary the term ‘cyborg’ is defined as “an integrated man-machine” and “a person whose physical tolerances or capabilities have been extended beyond normal human limitations by a machine or other external agency that modifies the body’s functioning”.

The application of technology in sport raises anxiety, analysis of different articles and journals shows a divide of opinions. Arguments surround the idea of whether using and/or allowing wearable technology can be classified as ‘cheating’ or deterring from the concept that sport relies on your own ability, rather than being used in order to enhance and help the performance of the athlete.

F. Lopez says, “The cyborg threatens deep-seated convictions about both sports and ourselves”. He aligns his theory with the example from bioethicist, Michael Sandel. Sandel uses the example of the bionic baseball player to argue his case against human enhancement technology. He argued cyborgised baseball players and the use of bionic arms eliminates the human element of sport, “the descent of sport into spectacle is not unique to the age of genetic engineering. But it illustrates how performance-enhancing technologies, genetic or otherwise, can erode the part of athletic and artistic performance that celebrates natural talents and gifts” (Sandel, 2009). I found that Lopez and Sandel emphasised that technological enhancement altars the crux of sport that is the human element.

For more on ‘The Case Against Perfection‘ check out an article by the Atlantic.

Where do we draw the line between artificial enhancements and enhancement that ultimately benefits the athlete and progressing with the technological revolution?

Andy Miah explains “sport is described as existing on a continuum of technological change, where technology becomes increasingly necessary as it becomes more apparent that the human body cannot sustain limitless, unaided enhancement”. We have now grown into such an advanced society where technology in all shapes and forms is improving our human abilities, as Miah says, sport is evolving with technology. Rather than relying on the progression and natural enhancement of human strength and performance (not relying on doping), can we now say we are relying on the latest technology of our swimsuits for our professional swimmers, or the latest flyknit technology for long distance runners.

Miah says that we must first consider the interest sport has in performance enhancement. “The concept of performance enhancement has had strong associations with elite competition, where the importance of competition and winning is paramount”. Sport places a great emphasis and importance on the ability to excel, in past years this emphasis on excelling has often seen athletes turning to drug enhancements and doping regimes prior to important events such as the Olympic Games. Therefore other methods of excelling have been evaluated in the contexts of fair play, paternalism, dehumanisation and social-contracts. Therefore, sport require performance enhancement to be achieved in a ‘legitimate’ respect.

I created an online survey, where 60 recipients answered questions and expressed their thoughts towards performance enhancement in sport and the concept of athletes as cyborgs. More than 50% of responders voted ‘No’ when answering whether or not wearable technology and performance enhancement was a valid means of excelling in sport. One responder explained, “Sports is a showcase of how well humans perform. A technology enhancement takes away the human factor in the game”.

For example, Miah refers to a case in 2000 were Speedo introduced a Fast-skin swimming costume which cause a deal of controversy in the swimming world. The suit was a full body suit; the material was modelled to resemble sharkskin, which can help enhance the performance of the athlete.

A study on this suit revealed that it provides a 3% advantage to the athlete, causing officials to question the legitimacy of the device in correlation to the rules. The governing body Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA), accepted the suit by evaluating whether the suit was deemed as a device. Rules set out by FINA stated “no swimmer is permitted to use or wear any device that may aid speed, buoyancy, or endurance during a competition”. Researchers such as Miah who have reviewed the rules and outcome explain that there is not enough evidence for justification of its acceptance. He explains that “the ability to distinguish legitimate technology from illegitimate technology is problematic; justification seem tenuous and poorly considered”. Moreover, Miah’s views reflect the evolution of society, if we become dependent on these technologies it seems impossible to stop them from continuing to enter.

Although on the other end of the spectrum, an article written by Eliza Strickland casts a different light on the topic. In this article, she reports on the world’s first Cybathlon – where “people with disabilities used robotic technology to turn themselves into cyborg athletes“. The games were held in Zurich, Switzerland The Cybathlon “[celebrated] pure human brawn… [rejoicing] the combined power of muscle and machine”. During this event spectators saw a paraplegic athlete get out of his wheelchair to compete in the exoskeleton race, did it show the evolution and use of Ekso Bionics but it showcased the athlete, Strickland breaks down each event and the use of technology.

During a conversation with a peer, they argued that the following arguments cover two different topics under the umbrella of Cyborg athletes. But my question is it really? Like the bionic arm or the Fast-skin or the exoskeleton these technologies are enhancing human performance, however to what degree should these governing associations permit the use of technology in sport. While Miah, Lopez and others argue that it deters from what sport is, Strickland places the topic in a different light.

There is more research to come, however through the analysis of several academic sources drawing a conclusion on the ethics behind Cyborg athletes still remains unanswered.

Here’s to the next several weeks of investigation!

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