Do We Need Technology to Break Olympic Records?

ALTEveryone sitting at home watching the Games of the XXX Olympiad on NBC (more than 30 million of us) are considering the impossibility of looking like the athletes we see on TV. While we tuck into another pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food, we dream that we will have arms as round as a gymnast’s and abs as flat as a sprinter’s. This will never happen. They have training, youth, discipline, and years and years of hard work on their side. We just have a gym membership and a vague dream.

But the other advantage they have is technology. Not only are we talking about the high-tech bows of the archery competition that would make Katniss Everdeen drool in District 12 or the aerodynamic helmets that cyclists wear that make them look more like the queen from Aliens than an actual human. Think about all the advances in nutrition, all the studies about exercise, all the breakthroughs in training, and all the new flavors of Gatorade that go into making superior athletes. It’s the difference between a simple quarter turn on the vault from 1956 and McKayla Maroney’s nearly impossible Amanar with a whole flip and two and a half twists. (This one image shows the staggering comparison nicely).

What if technology goes too far? Will we eventually reach a place where the human body is pushed to its limits and we will be physically unable to do bigger and badder things in these age-old events? Will technology then have to come in and push us past the plateau? Will the future Olympics be full of highly engineered cyborgs and the gold medals go to their computer programmers as well as the meat and bone athletes?

That was the question no doubt lingering on some viewers minds after seeing Oscar Pistorius, a South African sprinter who competes on a set of carbon fiber prosthetics having been born without lower legs. From the knees up, he looks like any elite-level athlete. From the knees down, he looks a little bit like something you would see in Minority Report (he’s even earned the nickname “Blade Runner”). Pistorius failed to make the finals for the men’s 400-meter race, but will run as part of the South African relay team on Thursday night.

This isn’t without controversy. Science can’t prove whether or not his legs give him any advantage over traditional runners. Some say that he should be allowed to compete if he can qualify, just like anyone else. Others are afraid that if technology such as his is allowed to enter the race, sub par runners will endure risky procedures to make themselves into Olympic champions with some high-tech isomers and risky surgery. (Both sides of the argument are laid out here.) Of course, considering that he didn’t even qualify, it’s unlikely athletes will be rushing to the doctor’s office any time soon.

While a field of runners carrying nothing but cybernetics below the ankles seems insane, just consider the new world record set by Usain Bolt in the 100-meter dash. He ran the race in 9.58 seconds, which is faster than most people can sneeze. Since 1968, the record has been slowly chipped down from 9.95 seconds and mathematician Reza Noubary claims that the fastest time humanly possible is 9.44 seconds. If we continue at the rate of breaking records that has been already established, that goal could be achieved at the 2028 Olympic Games. And then what? If the human body can’t go any faster, are we supposed to accept our limits? Will every country that can produce someone who can run in 9.44 seconds share one gold? Or will changes come in other non-human forms? Will competitors run naked to decrease body weight? Will they be fitted with legs with springs and hydraulic arms? Will the real $6 Million Man be the first athlete to run this race in under 9 seconds?

That doesn’t seem fair, considering the Olympics are about what is humanly possible. It is about taking the one thing we all have in common — the flesh we were born into – and sculpting it into something that is greater than everyone else’s. Just look what is happening in swimming right now. In 2008, swimsuits were created that expelled water, delivered oxygen to muscles, and compressed the body, making it more buoyant. Basically, the suits could make even your grandma’s breaststroke look like something out of Michael Phelps‘ training routine. In the wake of this invention (pun intended), the world records fell harder and faster than ever. In the 2008 Olympics, world records in the 32 events were broken 25 times. In 2004, world records were only broken eight times.

Because it seemed like the competitors were relying more on their superhuman fashion and less on time in the pool, the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), the governing body of the sport, banned the suits in 2010, which heralded the return of the classic suit (much to the happiness of fans of the male form). World records may have been set in a total of 30 of the 32 Olympic swimming events during the super suit era (which also includes non-Beijing competitions), but the London games still saw nine world records broken (in three of the men’s events and six of the women’s). It seems like human endurance will continue to outshine technology, it’s just going to do so much more slowly.

Of course, that might make watching swimming more boring to some people. There is so much more at stake when every victory requires an athlete to be the best in recorded history. But, then again, are those broken records sweeter because they happen more rarely and because they happen as a result of training bought the hard way rather than with new gear purchased with sponsors’ money? (Wow, this is making the Olympics sound even more like The Hunger Games).

Technology will always be a part of sports as long as there are clubs for golfing and poles for vaulting, but pretty soon it seems like we’re going to have to decide whether we want to reside within our earthly limits or keep charting for progress, even if that happens with the help of metal and circuits. It’s not a problem for all of us, but it’s something to think about while you finish your ice cream.

Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan

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