Sunday, May 25, 2008

Blade Runner

Reason.com has an interesting article about the invasion of technology into competitive sports and the repercussions it will have as those technologies advance while we desperately hang on to the revered legends of old. An excerpt:

Tiger Woods is probably one of the greatest golfers of all time. But, his vision was so poor that he was almost legally blind without contact lenses or glasses. In 1999, he had laser surgery on his eyes and his vision improved to better than 20/20. He had another procedure performed last year leaving him not only with improved vision, but better vision than most humans. Does laser-eye surgery that improves vision past 20/20 confer an unfair advantage on Tiger? And what's the difference between superhuman legs and superhuman sight?

When a modern American Olympian benefits from training at high altitudes, counseling from a sports physiologist and psychologist, expert physical therapy and a finely tuned diet, these steps could just as easily be seen as conveying an unfair advantage.

I agree with the sentiment but not with the comparison: eyesight is an integral part of the golfing experience and being able to see where you're aiming is obviously a great advantage. On the flipside, Tiger's surgical enhancements don't do much more than his aforementioned glasses and contact lenses did, and every golfer has a caddy with whom they can confer on any shot. Moreover, those same golfers have the option (finances allowing) to have the same surgical procedures performed on themselves. While eyesight is integral, it is not paramount to the sport; there are a myriad of other factors involved in playing golf.

Within track and field competitions, the advantages of artificial carbon-fiber legs are much more apparent. Lets be honest: if your legs are substandard on a competitive level, no amount of surgical improvements are going to change that. The reasons I've heard to preclude double amputee Oscar Pistorius (pictured above) from competing with other Olympians focus almost exclusively on his "legs"; specifically, that they don't build up the same levels of lactic acid that other runners' legs do due to the fact the they lack the muscle tissues affected by acidosis. Put simply, his artificial legs don't start to burn and cramp the way human legs do, and the argument is that this confers an unfair advantage upon him.

Now one could make the counter argument that any other sprinter could have his legs amputated and enjoy the same advantages that Pistoius claims but I don't see that as a viable option; not knowing the guy from Adam, I would assume that he would give up most anything he owns to possess a pair of fully-functioning human legs. I just have to assume that human nature holds him within the same sway that it does us all. Hence, the comparisons are not equitable.

This line of thought does lead one to other avenues of speculation: how will competitive sports change in the next century and beyond? Will we as a society allow technological advancements within franchise sports to change the essential makeup of those games merely for entertainment value and monetary gain? Will we then hold the amateur status of the Olympic Games to a higher standard? The inclusion of professional basketball and hockey players, combined with the ever-present quest for ratings, would suggest "no" on that last count. Either way, the 21st century and all of the advancements it promises are sure to make for a brave new sporting world.


Anonymous said...

Two of my college roommates and I had the debate on this guy about 2 weeks ago. One was against it, one was for it and I'm square up on the fence. I forwarded your post to both of these guys, so hopefully they'll be willing to share their own opinions on the matter.

Personally, I don't think I'm the guy who needs to decide this guy's fate. I know next-to-nothing about the technology that now comprises his legs, and what advantages he gains. My vote is to let all the scientists who know about those blades come to a consensus of their own. Just let me know how it turns out.

That said, if I HAD to give you an answer one way or the other, here's what I'd say: dude, this guy is placing immeasurable faith in those creepy things. If he's willing to sprint at maximum velocity, and risk one of those blades completely snapping - sending him careening towards a very bloody end, then more let him race. You run, little man. Just know that when you leave half your face on the track that it's no doctor's fault for not properly engineering those things. You're the one who took it into your own hands, bro.

But I'd still send flowers, a letter and other words of consolation.

Matt said...

Sterling's buddy Matt here. I'd like to offer my 2 cents on this subject, as it absolutely fascinates me. This Pistorius fellow will be lucky to make the Olympics from everything I've heard, but the fact remains that we have to ask ourselves "What is an allowable amount of technological modification we can allow a person to make to ones body and still allow them to compete?" If this guy had one carbon fiber blade would we let him compete? What about a prosthetic big toe to help him maintain balance throughout the race? Or merely the tip of his big toe? The real question is "What's the cutoff for being human?"

We could also take this in a different direction as well. A Tour De France rider needs to remove all the weight possible from his body and bike in order to remain competitive. What if a rider had one of his kidney's removed during the offseason to save half a pound of weight? It's an extreme example, but does this exclude him from a field of riders who have both of their kidneys? Is he less human?

What if a competitive marathon runner begins to suffer heart irregularities and he is sent to the doctor for a diagnosis. The doctor concludes that this is a congenital heart defect and that an operation to replace one of his valves is necessary to save his life. Tests are performed on the runner and it is soon found out that his new valve improves blood flow in his heart by 15%. Should this runner be instantly banned from all future competition? Talk about a polarizing situation. With the valve, he's superhuman, without it, he dies. It's a tough call (of course this is merely a hypothetical situation, but certainly not beyond the realm of possibility).

I think this is a big deal because A) it's at the olympics and B) it's such a big, outward, obvious modification. I think that just about every athlete at that level is using technology to their advantage one way or the other, but they leave most of it off the playing surface and in the practice gym/pool/track. Terrell Owens uses a hyperbaric chamber to recover from injuries. Tiger Woods has lasik eye surgery to improve his vision. Football players of all kinds wear special casts and pads to allow them to play while injured. I think it was merely a matter of time before this situation was going to rear it's head, but next time, it may not be so obvious. In fact, we may never even see the improvements.

JBW said...

As Sterling said, I'm kind of on the fence about these matters myself. First off, someone will always have an advantage over others even without technological advancements. The line "all men are created equal" is one of the biggest misnomers in our society. In the end, tiny little tweaks to our bodies will not produce that much of an unfair advantage.

Now when you start to consider replacing or amputating entire limbs and organs, the discussion becomes a lot more convoluted. Perhaps we will have to start testing for genetic manipulation and doing whole body work-ups to detect surgical enhancements. The field of possibilities is way too large to plan for at this point in time; we will most likely just have to address each issue as it becomes reality.

Another reason I'm not quite sure where I stand here is that while I'm all in favor of untarnished athletic competition, I'm also very curious as to what we as a species can accomplish with our own bodies as the canvas for physical modification. So as someone who's already expressed an affinity for implanted cybernetic devices, I may not be objective enough to discuss this subject fully.

Matt said...

"In the end, tiny little tweaks to our bodies will not produce that much of an unfair advantage."

It all depends on what exactly is a tiny little tweak. That's where my whole argument lies. When does a tiny little tweak become a medium size tweak? And then a large tweak?

I think the tweaks are here and have been here for a while. The "level playing field" is a thing of the distant past.

What I'm really trying to say here is that sports are gay. That much we can all agree on.

JBW said...

As I said, I think we will not be able to address the tweaks, tiny, medium or large, until they present themselves, and then we will have to do so on an individual basis. Comparing heart valves to carbon-fiber legs is just so apples-to-oranges.

And while I don't completely agree that sports are gay (although there does seem to be an inordinate amount of butt-slapping involved in many), I do believe that taking them too seriously is Liberace-gay.