Some tech and drug enhancements are banned as unfair, but ironically they could end up leveling the playing field.
A mad scramble is afoot in Japan to save the already-once-postponed Olympics from a near-certain final cancellation. News reports suggest that officials are already looking to rebook Tokyo for 2032, while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne, Switzerland is still crossing its fingers, hoping for a broadcast event so it can cash in on billions of dollars in TV revenue.
But as sports enthusiasts, national teams, and individual athletes everywhere hold their collective breath, wishing for the show to go on, the rest of the world seems to be shrugging. Following a bizarre and historic year of pandemic lockdowns, widespread economic distress, and the loss of human life due to COVID-19, a canceled Olympics seems like a minor footnote.
Could the Olympics be a bit… played out?
Perhaps not. There are still thousands of athletes from around the world who are at the top of their game and champing at the bit to compete. Cameras will capture the pomp and ceremony as well as the action, and the world will watch. Perhaps still in lockdown—but we will watch. We love the Olympics, and the games must go on.
But with this year-long pause to ponder the games, it’s worth considering this provocation: Perhaps the one thing that could breathe new life into these ancient games and make them feel more relevant is the exact opposite of what amateur sports are supposed to be free of: technological, chemical, and biological enhancers of performance.
Humans have long aspired to push past our “species-typical” boundaries with the use of technological enhancements, be they cybernetic or biological. Throughout much of the 20th century, however, the Olympics embraced a different standard by allowing only amateur athletes (meaning those who are unpaid) to compete. As such bans have lifted in recent years, more and more winners who stand on podiums today are far from what we would once have considered “pure,” and yet we still insist they be non-augmented.
That’s not to say that these ultra-high-performance athletes themselves are not heroic. Their grueling schedules and punishing routines are accompanied by extraordinary sacrifice, discipline, and mental toughness. Many of them overcome a lifetime of obstacles just to have a chance to compete at that level, where the difference between winning and losing is often a matter of tenths of a second. They inspire millions of amateur athletes and strivers of all stripes all around the world, and when they climb the podium, we cry tears of joy along with them.
What is purity of sport, anyway?
At the same time, they have to abide by the perhaps unreasonable and definitely unrealistic expectation set by the IOC that athletes and their coaches won’t use every possible innovation to improve their performance. Sports regulators have a tough job sniffing out the latest enhancement technologies because coaches, trainers, and athletes are so adept at finding new ways to add a few centimeters of distance, shave a few tenths of a second off their time, or increase a judge’s score to bring that face-on-a-box-of-Wheaties win. So why not officially open the floodgates of techno-scientific enhancement, to make it a little more interesting?
With the potential cancellation of the Olympics barely making headlines, and with viewership already in significant decline, would allowing enhancement make the Olympics more relevant? Would opening the competition to anyone wearing a springy exoskeleton suit to propel them down the track 50 percent faster than human legs alone actually make the games even more compelling? What about altering their genetics to enhance a freakish amount of red blood cells to ferry more oxygen to their muscles? And importantly, would changes to the games still be able to capture what it is that we appreciate about competitive sports in the first place?
What is purity of sport, anyway?
Now is the time to have to have frank conversations about what we want our sports to look like in the future. And, we must consider that while our ideas about fairness in competition are changing, that might not be a bad thing.
Techno-enhancement and the purity of sports
Oscar Pistorius’s cheetah-inspired running blades allowed him to use 25 percent less energy than non-disabled athletes use when running at the same speed. Despite the fact that he also faced disadvantages other runners didn’t (such as slipping in a drizzle), Pistorious was initially banned from competition in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Pistorius’s blades were considered “techno-doping,” and agency officials at World Athletics (then known as IAAF) ruled that they undermined the fairness of the competition. Though he later won an appeal to overturn the ban, he failed to qualify. He did, however, qualify and compete in the 2012 Olympics.
That was the exception, however. In a similar case, German long jumper Markus Rehm, who had one leg amputated below the knee and uses a running blade, has competed with world-class track athletes in the past. But he has not been allowed to compete at the Olympics and was banned from the 2016 Rio Games. Had he been allowed to jump in either the 2012 or 2016 games, he would have stood a good chance of landing on the winner’s podium. Rehm holds the record for para-athletes for jumping 8.48 meters, which is farther than the jump by Greg Rutherford (U.K.), who won the gold at 8.31 meters in 2012, and farther than American Jeff Henderson, who won the gold in 2016 with 8.38 meters.
More recently, distance runner and double amputee Blake Leeper lost another appeal to compete in the 400 meter event with non-disabled Olympians, when officials determined that his running blades made him too tall.
The Olympics enable the masquerade of fair competition, and the international sporting agencies like the IAAF, IOC, and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), who are charged with overseeing and enforcing the rules and regulations, have created a complicated infrastructure of what’s allowed and what isn’t. The agencies rule on technologies and competitors who smudge the lines, determining whether or not their competing would impact this imaginary “fairness.”
In service of maintaining the illusion of fairness, these organizations sometimes make decisions that are bizarre, if not cruel. South African middle distance runner and Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya, an intersex woman who was born with a Y chromosome, was told by World Athletics that to be allowed to compete in another Olympics, she would need to endure hormone therapy to lower her natural levels of testosterone, essentially demanding she do doping in reverse. She has refused.
The Olympics are not fair. They never have been.
Wealthier countries have always had greater ability to find and groom elite athletes whose performances they can boost by sparing no expense to ensure the best training regimens, the best coaches, the latest science, top nutrition, and, of course, any and every new tool and technology known to sports. But beyond those disparities in resources, elite athletes aren’t genetically equal to begin with. Michael Phelps has a body better equipped for water than land. Because of her unusual Y chromosome, Caster Semenya has more testosterone in her body than the average human woman.
So the credibility of a level playing field in the Olympics is undermined by the simple fact that in genetics and training resources, the field is already far from level.
The long tail of sports doping
No scandal garners more attention and more cries of unfairness in sports than pharmacological doping. When bicyclist Lance Armstrong publicly admitted his long history of using hormones like erythropoietin (EPO) to enhance his racing performances around the turn of the century, he became the poster child for sports scandals. But his case was just the tip of the iceberg. When he won the Tour de France for the final time in 2005, he capped off a decade of increasing drug use wherein the vast majority of top competitive cyclists were doping to the point that it would be impossible to compete without “the juice.” Doping didn’t create an uneven playing field. It was the playing field.
Rayvon Fouché, a one-time competitive cyclist who raced in the 1992 Olympic trials, confirms the widespread use of enhancing drugs at the time. He’s now a professor of American Studies at Purdue University and the author of Game Changer, a book about techno-scientific enhancement in sports—and athletes.
“We’ve built this narrative that sporting competition is supposed to be all about the human body. And we are holding on to that so deeply,” says Fouché. But it’s a fallacy.
Now, as athletics evolves from blood doping to more visible techno-enhancements in the form of what we have so far considered assistive devices, people’s belief in sports is being challenged, he says.
Fouché offers the example of Eliud Kipchoge, who ran a marathon in under two hours, as the ultimate triumph of the human body. But, he says, if you take Nike’s word for it, “It is all about the shoe!”
In the case of wheelchair racers, the marathoner Ernst van Dyk used a custom-made aluminum chair that cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Isn’t it more honest, if athletes across the board are using techno-scientific doping, to just let them do it? The interwoven prevailing narratives of elite human ability and competitive fairness are falsehoods. To get to the heart of the true “spirit of sport,” we should refocus competitive events to highlight technologies over bodies.
Can you be enhanced and have a disability at the same time?
Some experts have raised concerns about classifying athletes with disabilities as enhanced when it’s not really the case, except for a handful of exceptional individuals who have had access to the best assistive devices and training that money can buy.
Ethicists in this area have argued that radical enhancements should not be allowed in sports, even and especially in the case of competitors who have a disability. The argument goes that justice is served when a person with a disability is brought up to the species-level “normal” functioning. Augmentations that push past the level of normal human ability are considered potentially unfair because they might give an advantage over non-disabled people and those people with disabilities who cannot afford to be enhanced, creating an even more tiered social system. There’s an additional concern that the normalization of doping at the highest levels carries health risks, and that the practice has trickled down to college and high school athletes.
Supporters of using enhancing technologies in sports counter that people with disabilities already rely on increasingly high-tech assistive devices in everyday life. They point out that enhancements would not worsen an already inherently unjust situation. On the contrary—more attention to assistive devices might have the fringe benefit of going a long way toward alleviating ableist supremacy and getting more technology to people who need it.
Joseph Stramondo, an assistant professor of philosophy at San Diego State University who played competitive wheelchair rugby, says that rather than dividing athletes by who has a disability and who doesn’t, we could make distinctions between who is using what kinds of technology to compete.
“A lot of the arguments against enhancement have to do with the ways in which it does or does not attach to someone’s identity and this idea that it’s not really an authentic victory if you use the juice,” says Stramondo.
Allowing open technological enhancements and doping and accepting them for their own sake could make the competition about the technology and pushing the limits of human achievement and could actually level the playing field. By allowing enhanced events, competitions would be inclusive and events would pit like technologies and equally enhanced technologies against each other, not same-abled people.
“Just create a race for the dopers,” says eight-time Paralympic medalist Allison Jones, who is supportive of the idea of creating such an event. “If you want to have technology-based enhancement, then have a race where it’s allowed. And have a race where it’s not allowed.”
Jones, a retired dual-sport athlete who was born without her right femur, has competed in both cycling and skiing at the highest levels with technological augmentations, including a bespoke bike that she built for herself and ski poles called “outriggers” that function as her “whiskers” on the slopes, assisting her balance. “Advancing technology is always fantastic,” she says.
She also suggests that the idea of a technology-based competition would have an indeterminate but undeniable value-add for spectators and sponsors, especially Americans. With Olympics viewership down in prime time, news organizations and corporations alike need a boost, and viewers need something new, exciting, and optimistic. Additionally, with the added attention on assistive and enhancing devices along with the gender parity an event like this could embrace, the value of visibility for historically marginalized groups in sport could be tremendous.
“The American point of view is the faster, the better, the bigger, the bolder,” says Jones.
Are cyborg athletes a harbinger of our sports future?
When an assistive technology showcase competition called the Cybathlon launched in 2016, the excitement was enormous from the media, disability activists, and bioethicists. Like the Olympics and Paralympics, the competition happens every four years. There are medals and an audience. International teams compete against each other in standardized tests of ability and endurance. But the teams are actually mostly researchers from the academic and startup worlds who are developing prosthetic arms and legs, robot wheelchairs with arms, exoskeletons, brain-computer interfaces, and other assistive devices. Most of these assistive devices, some of which are considered enhancing because they bring the user past species-normal function, are not allowed at the Paralympics.
The teams are led by “pilots,” athletes with disabilities who use the devices in competition, racing against each other in obstacle courses that include using a robot wheelchair to open a door while going up a ramp, or testing the agility of a prosthetic hand to pick up a set of keys and place them successfully onto a hook.
Founder Robert Riener, a researcher at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, says the Cybathlon thrives on the concept of using as much technology as possible. “Techno-doping is not a problem for us. We need techno-doping to let the athletes augment and perform.”
He says that by using emerging assistive technologies, the competition also has a big advantage over similar events and can be more inclusive.
“Paralyzed athletes are almost nonexistent at the Paralympics,” says Riener. “In our case, we use technology to compensate, allowing them to participate.”
The Cybathlon isn’t a competition of extreme athletic ability. There are no high-flying leaps or blurred racers going faster than a news camera can record. But watching the Cybathlon gives the same feeling of heart-thumping excitement, to see how far we really have come toward functional cybernetic augmentation. Is that guy going to spill the cup of tea he’s carrying with a prosthetic arm? Don’t spill it, don’t spill it, don’t spill it… When I watch the Cybathlon, I find myself cheering for the pilots the same way I sit on the edge of my seat when I watch Gabby Douglas on the uneven bars. It’s fun.
The Cybathlon is focused on integrating useful technology into everyday life and tasks. The Pistorius cheetah blades aren’t out there in the real world, and people with disabilities aren’t generally racing to the grocery store. We don’t see people getting on the bus wearing runner’s blades, or using their wheelchairs for fencing in the office.
“This isn’t a test of running 100 meters, because that doesn’t make sense, to be honest,” Riener says. “The goal is to promote these technologies, get them used and get accepted. By presenting them to the broader public and letting the teams compete, we bring high technologies from the lab to society faster.”
It’s a team effort to produce an elite competitor.
In addition to celebrating the scientists and trainers working alongside athletes, the Cybathlon and the Paralympics highlight emerging technology. This gives researchers greater opportunities for investment in their technologies, potentially lowering the barriers and costs of assistive devices on the market by proving functionality and comfort, and raising awareness.
Although University of Calgary disability scholar and bioethicist Gregor Wolbring points out that the trickle down effect from the Paralympics hasn’t happened widely yet—despite their rising popularity. After the Vancouver games, a report suggested that only 3 percent of Canadians with disabilities get any physical exercise. And during the Rio Games, the Paralympics faced disturbing financial difficulties, resulting in some teams being unable to finance their trips.
Importantly, the Cybathlon also allows entry from startups working in the prosthetic space, including those teams trying to bring the price of technology down. The winner of the Powered Arm Prosthesis Race at the 2020 Cybathlon this fall was Croatia’s Maker Hand team, led by industrial engineer Andrej Dukic, which developed a 3D-printed, open source device that cost less than $30.
“In such a niche field like prosthetics, it can be hard to gauge how functional the different devices truly are, especially for non-experts,” Dukic says. “Cybathlon reveals the true state of the industry by pitting the prosthetics against each other in realistic scenarios and it also drives progress by challenging the developers by adding new disciplines to the event.”
It takes an (Olympic) village… and a lot of science
A classic 2004 paper points out that we want to watch professional athletes for the same reason we want to see great art. “It’s not a game, it’s a recital.” The authors say of Michael Jordan, who is widely considered the best professional basketball player in history, “He’s not just a player, he’s a virtuoso.”
The example of the Cybathlon takes this to the next level, by giving us a more realistic view of how traditional athletics works behind the scenes. No elite athlete exists in a vacuum. They all have trainers, doctors, and engineers who build their personalized tools and equipment. It’s a team effort to produce an elite competitor.
Imagine taking this further. What if the scientific teams shared some of the glory for their country at the existing Olympics and Paralympics? The Russian and American teams would be competing not only with athleticism, but with science. Who can create the best and safest prosthetic? What about the safest genetic therapy?
“I think a lot of the scientists and engineers are really well-meaning,” says Fouché, recalling the team of doctors who came under fire for helping Lance Armstrong use the hormone EPO safely and the researchers whose swimsuit product was banned. “They are geeking out on the technology as well, trying to make cool stuff that helps athletes perform better.”
Allowing science into the picture raises the bar that already exists. To allow genetic and cybernetic enhancement would be to elevate our experience of the art of expressing what the human body is capable of when it merges with the technological prowess at our fingertips, and it also allows sports to evolve to mirror the human experience. If our lives are augmented, perhaps our sports entertainment should be as well.
Fouché’s “Sports, Technology, and Innovation” class in the American Studies program at Purdue, a Big 10 school, always includes accomplished athletes. Every semester he assigns a thought experiment wherein students must play the part of an athletic governing body that needs to manage an enhanced league, a “natural” league, or both. Every semester, the result is split down the middle. Not everyone wants enhanced sports—but a lot of people do.
“We’re already here. And we have been hiding from that reality for a long time. And why don’t we just acknowledge and embrace what’s going on?” says Fouché. “We can pull all of this stuff out of the shadows and into the public light. And honestly, a lot of the technology will really help a lot of people.”
So, what happens if we open the floodgates?
“If the Olympics doesn’t allow cyborgs to compete, then, in a few decades, the Paralympics or Cybathlon will be more impressive in comparison”
One event that allows enhancement could remove stigmas and increase funding for athletes with disabilities, says Stramondo. He also suggests that one competition could be a boon for intersex and nonbinary athletes because if the game is based on using technology, sex or gender makes little difference. “One competition, you’re either in or out. You’re either using technology or you’re not.”
Dukic suggests that the consideration to create an enhanced athletic competition is mostly an economic one, based on what audiences will want to watch. “If the Olympics doesn’t allow cyborgs to compete, then, in a few decades, the Paralympics or Cybathlon will be more impressive in comparison and the Olympics will take a back seat, much like drug-tested bodybuilding leagues do today.”
Sports officials would need to reckon with what the rules would be, where standardization and regulations should exist, and grapple with the new and challenging safety and ethical issues that will surely emerge from allowing the enhancement technology sector to flourish. We must also consider the ways a fully doped and enhanced Olympics will impact what we feel is the essential spirit of sport, a definition that is constantly changing its shape, and the impact it could have on the lives of athletes.
Ideally, techno-doping and bionic people could have specific events, while genetic doping and drug users could compete against similar technology, much like the current system, alleviating the concern about augmented people competing against “natural” athletes. For example, says Wolbring, pole vaulters have a specific event with a standardized pole, and aren’t expected to compete against long jumpers, enhanced or otherwise.
There is a distinct value of standardizing the technology instead of the people—a person doesn’t need to have a disability to sit in a wheelchair, or use an exoskeleton or non-invasive brain-computer interface. Anyone could compete.
Wolbring, however, says we must be clear about the reality. Unless we address larger societal concerns about the rights of people with disabilities, a doping Olympics would only be for the benefit of the audience. He is skeptical, and suggests that the scenario would reinforce dangerous ableist supremacy if organizers ignore issues of uneven privilege.
“I couldn’t care less if everyone is enhanced—it’s about, ‘Who does it benefit?’” he says. “The idea of enhanced sports comes with a nice premise, but whether enhancement is a way to achieve [benefits for the disability community] in the long term, I’m very doubtful.”
Freely allowing doping could also have serious health ramifications for athletes. There is a misconception that using performance-enhancing drugs is generally safe, but the opposite is true. In a recent task force statement, the Endocrine Society called performance-enhancing drug use an understudied and underappreciated problem. It found “an increased risk of death and a wide variety of cardiovascular, psychiatric, metabolic, endocrine, neurologic, infectious, hepatic, renal, and musculoskeletal disorders” among the three million U.S. users of these drugs, most of whom are nonathletes.
And while the use of enhancing drugs started off as a Western phenomenon, the emergence of doping in Russia, Israel, and Saudi Arabia points to a growing trend in wealthy countries, which would skew a doping Olympics the same way the current model is set up: The wealthiest countries will control the games through having the most access to the best resources—a doubling down on wealth advantages that could leave hardworking disadvantaged athletes in the dust and our nostalgia for a fair world-class competition unfulfilled.
Wolbring says that the difference between what a fully doped Olympics could be under perfect circumstances and what the reality is are Grand Canyon-lengths apart.
“The sales pitch is off,” he says. “I think about how fragile our social structures are. I don’t know whether the development of enhancements and performance is the solution. It’s a spectacle. A pure distraction strategy, like gladiator games.”
Currently, the debate around enhancement in sport revolves around old arguments about unfair advantage and concerns about safety, but to Wolbring, these are the least of our problems. As an audience and as a society, we must reckon with the looming, more challenging concern: Enhancement is coming. The body is the last frontier of consumerism and competition. But who does that privilege?