With the arrival of the 2012 Olympic Games, we find ourselves focused on the extremes of human performance. For seventeen days, the world’s finest athletes will compete at the limits of strength, speed and endurance. Many observers have speculated that for a number of these competitions, we may well be reaching the limits of what is humanly possible. After all, the mind and body can only be pushed so far. Already competitors are using myriad techniques to maximize their performance, some accepted, others proscribed. But if we want to continue to see records broken and barriers overcome, it may be only a matter of time before we begin to look to the potential of human enhancement.
It’s a conundrum. On the one hand, purists want to eliminate anything deemed to be an unfair, unnatural advantage. Steroids, human growth hormone, EPO, which stimulates the formation of red blood cells, all of these have been banned. On the other hand, one of the attractions of the Olympics is the opportunity to witness limits being surpassed and records being broken. To see someone accomplish a feat never before achieved. What happens to the Olympics when the ultimate limits have been reached? What happens when the last record has been broken?
Human enhancement, or augmentation, is in its very nascent stages. With the rare exception of sprinter Oscar Pistorius, it’s certainly not yet ready for Olympic prime time. Prosthetics, gene therapy, nanomedicine – much of what falls into this category is still theoretical or, at best, replacement rather than enhancement technology. Especially when gauged against the performance of an uber athlete.
But as we well know, technology continues to advance at a pace orders of magnitude faster than evolution-driven biology. In short, it’s only a matter of time before truly enhanced humans exist, capable of outperforming even the best of unmodified athletes.
Of course, these enhanced players, cyborgs, cyber-athletes, or whatever else they’ll be called, will want to participate too. After all, they’ll still be human beings with the same need to compete, the same desire for glory. Will they be allowed into the Olympics? Probably not. At least not at first anyway.
So they’ll compete in their own version – call it the Extreme Olympics or the New Games, if you will. Certainly the demand will be there. With fewer and fewer records being broken by natural athletes, how could the public not flock to see how much further our limits might be pushed? On top of this, new competitions will invariably be conceived. Speed wall crawling or underwater marathons, perhaps. They’ll be novel, they’ll be exciting and they’ll be very, very popular.
Of course, the Classic Olympics would remain – a paean to the purity of its origins. An homage to our pre-technological roots. But while Classic will continue to attract a devoted, if dwindling number of fans, the New Games will become the real draw for both spectators and the media. This will be where the money is. This will be the future of the Olympics because ultimately, this will be the future of humankind.