One of the most salient technology-society issues in Olympic sport is that of enhancement. Consider my recent post on gene doping, for example. In general, the question is: When is the use of technology in a sport appropriate or acceptable?
A couple of recent articles online touch on this matter. A piece in Wired notes that all athletes are cyborgs, which is to say that every sport involves the use of some technology. Every item of clothing or kit is designed to enhance performance.
One of the points made in this article is that the most scrutinized enhancements are typically the most high-tech. Consider Nike's AeroBlade, a kind of 3-D printed tooth that can be applied to the bodies of runners to reduce their drag and thus increase their speed. You can see them integrated into the Nike Vapor track and field outfit below.
Courtesy of Nike News.
According to this piece, the issue of acceptability comes down to whether gear allows athletes to maximize their natural potential or whether it augments that potential.
Readers of this blog will recognize that the natural/artificial distinction is difficult to draw clearly.
In practical terms, the article points out that official judgements on gear often turn on how dramatically they change performances. In the 2008 Beijing Games, the LZR Racer swimsuits allowed swimmers to shatter old records. That was too much for Olympic officials, who subsequently banned the gear.
The issue is treated somewhat differently when it comes down to athletes who are more obviously cyborgs, e.g., amputee runners with blade legs like Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius was admitted to the 2012 London Olympics because his blade leg was held not to give him an advantage over the other runners. (Or, more precisely, it was held to be unclear that it did give him an advantage.)
By contrast, Marcus Rehm, the German amputee long jumper, was not admitted into the Rio Olympics (as opposed to the Rio Paralympics) because he could not prove that his prosthesis did not give him an advantage.
The naturalness requirement would simply rule Rehm out of competition. However, since it would be discriminatory to exclude him on this basis—at least, it would in other social activities—the issue was framed in terms of fairness. In applying this criterion, Olympic officials elected to be cautious in admitting cyborgs to the games.
There is a curious symmetry between this situation and the treatment of "hyperandrogenous" women in the Olympics. For example, Caster Semenye has been allowed to compete in the women's events even though her natural levels of testosterone are fall in the male range, a situation that is thought to give her an advantage over "normal" women athletes. Previously, she was required to take an artificial treatment to lower this level to one that was considered fair.
So, the fairness criterion seems able to exclude only athletes with prostheses and not those with natural gifts. In that case, the fairness criterion seems to rely on the natural/artificial distinction, leaving us with that problem again.
Perhaps this tension cannot be eliminated, at least from elite sport. Elite athletic competition has typically been about honoring people who have cultivated their natural, physical gifts and about integrating that honor into a social framework that promotes both elite athletes and people in general.
In other words, this tension may be inherent to elite sport, rather than an unfortunate, modern-day intrusion.