The Cyborg Athlete

As previously stated, wearable technology is revolutionising the sporting industry. However, it seems the inclusion of technology is beginning to raise anxieties, questioning whether such applications are a viable resource in sports.

 

A 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”. With the rapid advancements and implantation of science and technology are changing the human species and our activities.

Sport can no longer remain the same, the integration of wearable technology such as tracking devices, prosthetic limbs, smart watches etc. are the key innovations that are leading sporting events to be called ‘transhumanist competition‘ – competition beyond human means.

The application of technology in sports has raised anxieties and concerns.

 

Where and why do we draw the line for artificial enhancements?

A survey of eighty people was conducted in order to gather public opinion on the matter of the ‘cyborg athlete’. When asked the “does the inclusion of technology in sport bother you”, 85% of responders voted yes with responses stating, “they are no longer human”, “it’s cheating if they don’t need the technology”. One response, in particular, suggested, “Sports is a showcase of how well humans perform. A technological enhancement takes away the human factor in the game”. Do you agree with this? Does technology remove the human factor in sports?

Researcher F. Lopez agrees to say, “The cyborg threatens deep-seated convictions about both sports and ourselves”. Lopez aligns his theory with Bioethicist, Michael Sandel, who suggests the example of the bionic baseball players. Sandel argues his case against the cyborgised baseball players, stating that the use of the bionic arm eliminates the human elements of sport, “the descent of sport into the 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 the athletic and artistic performance that celebrates natural talents and gifts” (Sandel, 2009). Despite reasoning behind the application of wearable technology, researchers pinpoint one of its ethical implications, “it is removing the human element”.

The following Youtube clip produced by Professor Steve Haake further explores this point.

Sport thrives on the application of human performance, take three athletes and examine their abilities. Would you be able to pinpoint the exact similarities across these individuals? Take a moment to reflect on what they are best known for.
Researcher 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”.

The gradual introduction of wearable technology has fastened the human performance factor, for many a simple flyknit technology and the application of are blades for runners can allow them to glide, the Fastskin swimsuit replicates similar functions. Miah continues to say; “the concept of performance enhancement has had strong associations with elite competition, where the importance of competition and winning is paramount”.

The importance of competition and winning will continue to be paramount is sports, however, much like previous doping scandals can the inclusion of wearable technology begin to replicate doping habits?

We can see that the application of technology may never fade as a result of the prevalent nature of cyberculture. Miah suggests, “sport will seek to legitimise performance-enhancing technologies that will allow the continued surpassing of human limits in sport and bring about a new kind of sport that has a different regard for distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate means of enhancement”.

Like Prof. Steve Haake suggests, has cheating now become unclear?

A prevalent example of this is Speedo’s 2000 invention of the Fastskin Swimsuit, that that the swimming world up in hands. The suit was a full body suit; the material was modelled to resemble sharkskin, which can help enhance the performance of the athlete and reduce drag. A study on the suit revealed that it provides a 3% advantage to the athlete, which caused officials to question the legitimacy of the device in correlation with the rules. The governing body FINA assessed the situation and interpreted their rules to accept the suit. Shortly after they introduced a new rule stating “no swimmer is permitted to use or wear any device that may aid speed, buoyancy, or endurance during a competition”.1-2.jpg

Eight years later, at the 2008 Summer Olympics, swimmers were seen wearing Speedo’s full-body polyurethane LZR Racer suits which shattered previous world records. The suit was developed in Aqualab in Nottingham England, designed to tighten the swimmer’s physique through compression. Suits were then designed to trap air and increase buoyancy followed and FINA banned them in correlation with their new instated rule as stated above.

Two similar situations, eight-years apart and two different outcomes. As Miah has stated sport will seek to bring about a ‘new kind of sport’ and seek to legitimise and illegitimate means of enhancement. The evaluations and outcomes of these situations show that governing bodies are altering regulations in order to become inclusive of such technologies. With the constant alteration of these regulations, will cheating and enhancement ever be clear? Or will brands like Speedo’s continue to alter their technologies to follow regulation and still enhance performance?

This is an evident example of the blur of cyborg athletes and artificial enhancement.

In another means of investigation, enhancements such as prosthetics have also come under investigation. Athletes who use prosthetics, skeletons etc. have also been grouped under the term of cyborgs. But from my own investigation, many are unaware of the two types of cyborg athletes.

In 2016, Zurich Switzerland, the world’s first cyborg Olympics showed the world a “new science-fiction version of sports”. The Cybathlon, people with disabilities used robotic technology to turn themselves into cyborg athletes. These Olympics celebrated the combined power of muscle and machine, those called ‘pilots’ were individuals missing limbs or some form of paralysis, and on their own, they could never have moved. With the combination of controlling technologies, these individual’s were able to navigate through races using powered prosthetics, while others raced in robotic exoskeletons.

The Cybathlon gave these people the opportunity to compete, however, it also demonstrated that technology is yet to fully evolve. In some cases the controlling of these technologies was so difficult, some exoskeletons were unable to reach the starting line.

Although, competition organises “felt [it was] a true complement to the traditional Olympics and the Paralympics, organiser Riener has said the next Cybathlon could occur in 2020”.

So, how is this any different to other wearable technologies?

Like the Paralympics, the Cybathlon is an event that unities athlete’s who are not fully able, and with the help of these technologies, it gives them the opportunity to walk and compete.

If we were to transcend into an in-depth study and evaluate the fully abled athletes who are using these wearable technologies for performance enhancement, should we link the Cybathlon to this issue? And would it help us establish the line between aided performance enhancement and artificial enhancement? In my opinion, no.

However, to find where to draw the line for artificial enhancement in the Olympics, there is a reliance placed upon governing bodies. Management should be intact, and analysis of what technologies these athletes are using in the games and in prior training should be examined. Any further prevention of technologies in sport is no longer an option. The infatuation with cybernetics and technology has clearly become a detriment throughout the sporting world.

Sport is a celebration of pure human performance. I feel that we should not forget or abandon this.

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