Before he tragically shot his girlfriend, South African runner Oscar Pistorius was known as the blade runner, or the fastest man with no legs. Pistorius was the first amputee to win a medal in track at the 2011 World Championships, and he was the first double amputee to race in the 2012 Summer Olympics (he didn’t medal there, but he took home a couple golds and world records in the 2012 paralympics). Before those Olympics, Pistorius was initially disqualified by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) on the grounds that his prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage. At the time, I remember thinking that was ludicrous — the guy is a double amputee, after all. How could he possibly have an advantage over runners who have their own legs?
Apparently, the blade-like prosthetics offer less resistance and more spring when they hit the ground. But then what about bionic limbs? Or how about exoskeletons? Those clearly give the wearer an advantage — at least when it comes to strength — over able-bodied folks. These wearable technologies have become so advanced, and so prevalent, that athletes who use them will soon have an Olympics of their own: the Cybathon.
In October 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland, “cyborg” athletes will compete in six events: powered-legs prostheses, powered-arm prostheses, powered exoskeletons, powered wheelchairs, muscle-stimulated bike races, and brain-computer interface races. The athletes are eligible to win medals, as are the scientists or companies who developed whatever robotic device the athlete used to win. Some of these races will look a lot like races we might see in the traditional Olympics, except with a little more equipment. But others might look pretty strange, such as the brain-computer interface event, in which participants will wear an EEG cap to control an avatar competing in some kind of racing video game with their minds.
The Cybathon website has illustrated each event to provide a glimpse, albeit somewhat cartoonish, of what to expect.
The competition is sponsored by the Swiss National Competence Center of Research in Robotics, which aims to promote research and development of these new devices. It also raises questions about technological enhancements in both athletes and non-athletes, which is a little bit like doping to improve performance. Obviously in a competition like this, where everyone’s got some kind of augmentation, no one has an unfair advantage, but it does bring up the possibility of turning us into Iron Man-type superheroes, whether we’re compensating for an injury or not.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that — think of how wild sports competitions would be. Regardless, what happens in 18 months in Zurich will give us a glimpse of the future.