Will Athletes be the Transhuman Vanguard?

May 19, 2007

This story, about a double amputee looking to participate in the Olympics, has been getting some press as a human interest story of late. It raises an interesting question on the transhuman front.

Realistically most people are going to be reluctant to make extreme changes to their bodies, especially if the benefits of doing so are not immediately obvious. There are, of course, exceptions such as the BMEzine community or eccentrics like Kevin Warwick, but these people are not likely to appeal to the mainstream, nor do they fit into the realm of immediately useful modifications and are more likely to be seen as gimmicky (unless you really feel saline injections in your cock are something that allows you to be a more efficient and better human.)

So the question is: where are modifications that will be publicly appealing and useful likely to come from? I see three realistic and currently developing possibilities: our aging population, military advances, and athletes. Yes. Athletes.

The issues of baby boomers getting older and seeking out medical solutions to age related problems have been covered, and likely will continue to be covered, whether it’s cosmetic or life extending. The realistic progress here will likely be slow, however, restricted to the pace of declining health. The military has seen a boom of late, mostly due to combat injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, but realistic military attempts at serious modification will likely be kept under wraps and take significant amounts of time to reach the general population (not to mention be restricted).

So that leaves athletes. Why athletes? Well in professional athletics you have a sort of perfect storm of circumstances that encourages embracing risky or untested methods and technologies if they promise an increased edge or chance of winning.

This is perhaps best illustrated in the example of so-called performance enhancing drugs. In an article nearly 10 years ago, Michael Bamberger and Don Yaeger posed the following question to nearly 200 Olympians and would-be Olympians:

Suppose you were offered a performance enhancing substance with two guarantees, if you chose to use it:

1. You will win every competition you enter until you win an Olympic Gold Medal.

2. The substance will cause your death within a year after your achievements. Would you take it?

A (perhaps not so) surprising 50% said yes, they would take the substance. It is often too easy to forget the lengths to which modern athletes will go–and are going–to achieve success. In his broadcast the other night, Stephen Colbert covered the story of the double amputee with the carbon fiber legs that I led off this entry with. Colbert jokingly suggested that other athletes who feel that the synthetic legs gave Pistorius an advantage should cut off their own legs and replace them with similar synthetics. I can’t help but think that Colbert’s comment may prove to be prescient.

Because of the highly competitive win-at-all-costs nature of modern sport, I see it as a place where many new bodily modifications will see their genesis. Athletics also provides an ideal entrée for body modification techniques for another reason: the heroes of so many are sports stars and professional athletes. Moreso than soldiers getting a limb replaced or grandma getting botoxed, the exciting action clips of the next Michael Jordan performing on his new improved legs or the next Tony Hawk surviving a horrific crash thanks to his reinforced skeletal structure are most likely to spark legions of adoring fans to imitate their hero.


2 Responses to “Will Athletes be the Transhuman Vanguard?”

  1. Acumensch Says:

    Nice blog!

    Athletics does seem to be the area where we will see these enhancement technologies crop up, I agree. But you have to wonder whether human enhancement includes more than simply mechanical and physical enhancements. For example, does human enhancement also include chemical modification? Militaries around the world have often used biochemical enhancements to alter the state of mind soldiers are in, or to ease pain. Medical science is full of cyborgs, as Haraway says.

    I don’t mean to imply that this is a bad thing. But it does have implications for atheletics.

  2. Thanks. Great points. I certainly don’t exclude drugs or other forms of biochemical enhancement in the argument presented above. In fact drugs are probably the area that’s seeing the most advanced use by athletes right now if you look at things like steroids, blood doping techniques and other performance enhancers. You only need to pick up a sports and fitness magazine to be bombarded with an awesome array of ‘supplements’ intended to enhance the human body.

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