running for the gold at the olympics? don’t bother with legs…

Advanced prosthetics are making an appearance at the Olympics and showing how inhuman form can restore human function.
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Illustration from an Oakley ad

Apparently, so I hear at least, the summer Olympics are currently going on in London. Obviously, I haven’t been watching any of the events when not working, or had them on in the background while writing posts and switching up the template, or stay glued to them at the gym. No, not at all. Why, a public admission of a binge on Olympic sports would surely wreak havoc on my nerd cred. But I digress. Aside from the profiles of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team and tributes to Michael Phelps, which I’m told have been airing incessantly, another huge story at London 2012 is Oscar Pistorius’ historic attempt to use his Cheetah Blades in competition alongside athletes using their biological legs. After years of IOC’s suspicious glances at his artificial legs, he was finally cleared to compete, and despite coming in last in his final race, he did qualify for a semi-final, something that a good deal of perfectly able-bodied athletes couldn’t manage to do.

So all in all, he did quite well and managed to show that our technology is making life without seemingly crucial limbs quite manageable, so much so that Pistorius can professionally peruse track and field, a sport that generally requires its competitors to have a pair of working legs. So what about the future? As Bob Costas asked, will we see an Olympics in which athletes use technology to gain an advantage rather than overcome a physical limitation? I would say that we will and we won’t. Follow me on this train of logic. Today’s athletes train with technology, medicine, and under the tutelage of experts armed with knowledge that was considered science fiction just a generation or two ago. They all benefit from new medicine, better training methods, better nutrition, and sage advice, so in many ways, technology is already providing an advantage to modern athletes. We just assume it as a given.

But there are some limits involved as well. Recall the controversy that ended the super swim suit era, a time when arming a professional swimmer with a high tech suit would guarantee that world records would be shattered right and left. The problem was that the competition came down to who had the better suit to help eke out a small but decisive advantage, not who was the better athlete, and the sport’s authorities decided that enough was enough. So were some sort of new suit of implant give Olympians of the future a slight edge, it would most likely be swiftly banned since it would violate the spirit of fair play. On the flip side, implants that would make someone superhuman are going to remain more fiction than fact due the complex medical and ethical issues involved. If anything, future athletes will simply reap the benefits of overall better science and technology that will guide their training rather than try to become super powered cyborgs.

Simply put, if you want to make the competition fair and reward those who trained the best, had the most focus, and executed better, not those who had a nifty truck up their sleeve, you’ll have to make sure that none of the athletes are relying on a gimmick or a gadget to win gold. This is why the IOC was so wary of letting Pistorius race. It didn’t want to be seen as giving a competitor an unfair advantage or tipping the playing field in an athlete’s favor by not doing its due diligence. After all, it’s part of their job. Lucky for everyone, they did their homework well, and came to an evidence-backed, fair result. Pistorius got to race, the Cheetah Blades were shown to be excellent substitutes for parts of biological legs rather than techno-wizardry that could enable someone to cheat, and the door to wider acceptance of advanced prosthetics was cracked open. Maybe Pistorius didn’t capture a medal, but he’s certainly going to leave London with a big win.

# tech // cyborg / health / london 2012 / olympics

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