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Remaking the Athlete, Remaking the Culture

ESPNMag.jpgDiscussions of the implications of the augmentation of our biological bodies with prosthetic technologies can be found quite readily in the esoteric discourses of self-described transhumanists, social theorists, and bioethicists. One might be forgiven for imagining that it's less-common among sports fans, more concerned with the latest scores and statistics. But the cover story of the current ESPN Magazine, "Let 'Em Play," not only explores the bigger issues surrounding the integration of augmentation in our culture, but (as the article title suggests) adopts a clearly pro-prosthetic perspective. Given the sports panics around doping, this isn't just enlightened, it's brave.

This isn't just a story about Oscar Pistorius, although his aborted effort to reach the Olympics -- shut down not because he wasn't good enough, but because the International Association of Athletics Federations feared that he'd soon be too good -- is clearly a catalyst for the story. The story's author, Eric Adelson, looks at a cross-section of prosthetic enhancements, some allowable, some not, and notes that this wouldn't be the first time that international athletics shied away from an advance. In many cases, reality forced athletics culture to change:

Every organized sport begins the same way, with the creation of rules. We then establish technological limits, as with horsepower in auto racing, stick curvature in hockey, bike weight in cycling. As sports progress, those rules are sometimes altered. The USGA, for instance, responded to advances in club technology by legalizing metal heads in the early '80s. In Chariots of Fire, the hero comes under heavy scrutiny for using his era's version of steroids: a coach, at a time when the sport frowned upon outside assistance. So if we can adjust rules of sports to the time, why not for prosthetics?

This story has emerged at a crucial time for augmentative technologies. We have, simultaneously, passionate laments on television and in the halls of Congress about steroid scandals in baseball, and a rapid proliferation of cognitive enhancing drugs in schools and in the workplace. For a moment, it seemed like the Western reaction to enhancement technologies would mirror the US schizophrenia around recreational drugs: widespread use alongside widespread condemnation. With the Pistorius story, and the growing recognition of the diversity of prosthetic technologies, we may not be able to so easily categorize such enhancements as "good" and "bad," "acceptable" and "unacceptable."

That this is happening in the world of sport is even more important than its timing. As long as arguments about augmentation and prosthetics remained focused on emerging bioscience, abstract notions of "human dignity," and imagined scenarios of war between the enhanced and unenhanced, most people (to the extent they were even aware of the issues), would see them as pointless irrelevancies or, worse still, science fiction. But with the epicenter of the dilemma a cultural arena that cuts across social, geographic and political divisions, arguments about augmentation and prosthetics will be inescapable. ESPN isn't a niche sub-culture; it's a common language.

For those of us who have been talking about the emerging questions about the role of augmentation technologies, "Let 'Em Play" (along with its two companion pieces, "The Disadvantage Advantage" and "Anything You Can Do...," a photo gallery of augmented athletes), offers a useful, powerful, and above all meaningful framing of the issue for people who might not even be aware that there is an issue.

(Disclaimer: A producer for ESPN Magazine interviewed me several months ago on a related topic, and the conversation drifted into these particular issues. I'm not cited in the article, but I wouldn't be surprised if lots of people at the magazine are wrestling with this subject.)


I'm all for augumentation and agree that sports could be a good place to have a discussion about its implications. But I can't say I am happy about the future of sports being a competition between makers of various enhancements.

I think the problem is that while the official ideal of sports is a show of what any human being can do, in reality it is show of what a team of experts and bussinessmen can do with extraordinary gifted humans. In this sense, cyborg matches far beyond physical possibilities of human body are just one more step and people would probably keep watching them. But will they still be relevant to the sports efforts of the (much less enhanced) rest of us?

It seems to me that the problem of sports "arms races" and relevancy to unmodified people could be solved by having "modified" and "stock" leagues, somewhat like motor sports have.

I guess the question then would be whether the non-cyborg leagues would still be interesting to the general sports-watching public.

The motor sports comparison is a good one, as there the competitors are already half a man and half a machine. My knowledge of this field is very bad, yet it seems to me that the connection between race cars and commercial cars was very strong at the beginning of automobilism and gradually grew weaker and weaker.

Maybe that is what will happen: People discovering augumentation through top sports and adapting some less spectacular versions of the tech. After initial confusion, we could have people watching superhero-like athletes without paying any special attention to the augumentation, just as only the real fans know details about F1 cars. While this would probably make founders of the Olympics roll in their graves, it could actually be the best way to introduce augumentation technology to the public: Sportsmen sure are better PR for cybernetics than Terminators.

Oscar won his appeal!


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