Sport, human and technology.

Elite sports, being a frontier activity, is often looking for the edges of, mainly technological, developments. Frequently elite sports is one of the first field to embrace new technologies. Some people start to wonder if sports is like the “good old” sports of one-hundred years ago, with its core values of sportsmanship, fair play, level playing field, courage, determination, etc.  Fortunately we have to say: no, I am happy that sports has evaluated like society has, it no longer is an isolated activity with its own culture and rules, isolated from what happens outside of the sports arena.

Looking at modern sports training and competitions, some people have this feeling of, in my opinion, misplaced nostalgia. “when I was young, everything was different”. And with “different”, they actually mean: better. These people have to learn to accept the fact that sports changes fast, new sports appear (extreme sports, adventure sports, new combat sports, fun sports), and classic sports seem to be declining, for several reasons like weightlifting,  boxing, wrestling.

This is the influence of  our society. In our anxious, politically-correct  and risk-avoiding society one sees an opposite movement like e.g. the appearance of dangerous adrenaline sports.

As far as the influence of technology goes, even if competitive sports is mainly a competition between humans, we now can see combat between primitive robots (robot wars), robot soccer competitions, or computers beating humans in chess and go.

Human athletes almost always use tools in their competition, starting with sword and shield of the gladiators, to the spears and  armor of the knight during a tournament. (never forget that sports originally stems from the preparation for hunting or combat). In most sports we see the development of specific equipment, like clothing (swim suits) , bikes, rackets, bats, poles for pole-vault, footwear, skates, skis, synthetic tracks and turf, etc. And what to think about sailing boats or race cars? (btw. what is the contribution of the human pilot and the quality of the car?)

In training, many technologies are used for testing, monitoring and analysis, or for recovery: video recording, power measurements, GPS, etc.

Another issue here is the para-Olympic athlete, using better and faster light-weight wheel chairs or blades with better elastic properties for running or jumping. Do we see the slow appearance of the cyborg athlete?

Other medical interventions also impact human sports performance, like as in normal life people might undergo cosmetic surgery to improve themselves, athletes are having surgery like the Tommy John surgery of the elbow in baseball, to throw faster. Or Tiger Woods had his eyes improve by laser therapy in order to see the hole better. (hard to strike a hole in one of you cannot even see the hole with your normal, natural eyesight).

Medications also might impact human performance, and I am not talking banned substances here,  how many athletes cannot train optimally and thus perform at their “natural” best, without have to use painkillers of anti-inflammatories?

Interesting enough people who are involved in anti-doping view the use of medication to able to perform at ones best as an unwanted activity, while themselves using the athlete as guinea-pigs taking urine, blood, saliva, DNA,  tracking them 24/7 and harassing them at any time of the day or viewing and treating athletes as a subhuman species.

Gene technologies have the future as biomedical interventions. Gene modification is already in  use, also in sports. Creating and modifying organisms in the way we want to, is an age-old activity, think about cultivating plants and flowers or breeding animals. But if we talk about modifying, or better, improving human beings, in many people the tone of voice changes. Genetic modification is by some considered “playing God”, but don’t worry we already are playing God all the time. We consider ourselves as thinking and therefor superior organisms, controlling and modifying this small planet and everything on it.

Does the impact of technologies lead to de-humanization of sports?

1. if the answer is yes, than one has to accept that normal life also leads to de-humanization as well

2. competition is an inherent quality of living organisms (plants in combat with insects, trees competing with each other for sunlight, animals competing for food and territory. Robots, until now, hardly feel the drive to be better than others, they don’t know the euphoria of winning or the sadness of losing. Only their designers and programmers might. In short, no humans, no competition.

3. technology does not take out the intrinsic fun of sports, with fun there is no sports. If there is no fun, one can only keep training and competing by external motivation, like the pressure of parents or peers, contracts or money, for a limited period of time.

4. for adult athletes, participation on sports is a voluntary choice, for young athletes read above.

On a more personal level, I still remember the day I broke two personal bests in the 100 meter and 400 meter, just an hour before I picked up a pair of brand new spikes.  So did the spikes make me run that fast or was it myself, allowing to run faster than ever. Even if the spikes contributed  those spikes did not run fast without my feet in it), they allowed me to get the best out of myself, if it was only the placebo effect and the euphoria of the new spikes.

I can see where elite sports is going and if I agree or not, it is better to understand why it is going into some direction and it is up to my athletes and myself to choose that road or not, and get out of sports.

For further reading:

Magdalinski, T: Sport, Technology and the Body

Tamburrini, C; Tammsjo, T: Genetic Technology and Sport

Ross, S: Higher, further, faster. Is technology improving sport?

Miah, A: Genetically Modified Athletes

Mehlman, M.J: Wondergenes : genetic enhancement and the future of society

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