What defines human physical excellence? Is it the pain, sweat and grit of elite athletes using every slight genetic advantage to perfect their bodies for competition? Or is human ingenuity also to be celebrated, particularly when science can allow disabled athletes — who are just as gritty and driven as their able-bodied counterparts — to compete on a level playing field?
The Olympics and Paralympics already struggle with this question. Now, into the debate comes a ‘cyborg Olympics’ that melds human and machine to create a new kind of athlete. In October, nearly 80 teams from 25 countries around the world will gather in Zurich, Switzerland, to compete in the Cybathlon.
Each team is made up of engineers and scientists who have created a powered prosthesis for a disabled ‘pilot’ to use in one of six competitions. Electrical stimulation of paralysed leg muscles allows pilots with spinal-cord injuries to ride bikes. Other races use robotic prosthetic arms to complete tasks such as setting a dinner table, or track brain activity to race avatars on a screen.
What sets the Cybathlon apart from other sporting events is how it celebrates human technological achievement rather than just physical excellence. The Olympic Games strictly limit the technology that athletes can use, for instance requiring cyclists to ride bikes that adhere to tight standards. The Cybathlon, by contrast, limits the humans, requiring that its cyclists must not be able to move their legs without the help of artificial stimulation.
The goals of the two events are very different, of course. The Olympics is a competition for fans’ entertainment and athletes’ glory, whereas the Cybathlon is intended to kick-start innovation in prosthetics for real-world uses. And as technology and opportunities develop, they should also spark broader debate about human enhancement.
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