Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, philosopher, journalist, and author of the bestselling novel The Transhumanist Wager. He writes an occassional column for Motherboard ruminating on the future beyond natural human ability.
A quiet revolution is happening in competitive sports. Some futurists think that in just decades, humans will sprint faster than horses, people will shoot guns with near-perfect accuracy using bionic eyes, and athletes will swim entire races without taking a breath.
Already, untainted urine samples have become as essential to top runners as their shoes. Brainy engineers have become as necessary to cyclists as their bikes. And the precise carbohydrate/protein ratio in meals consumed by swimmers the night before racing the 400-meter individual medley has become as important as flip turns.
The rapid advancement and implementation of science and technology are dramatically changing the human species and our activities. Sports cannot remain the same. Bionic augmentation, performance-enhancing drugs, and radical technological innovation are the keys to the coming sporting events increasingly being called transhumanist competition. The word "transhuman" literally means beyond human.
So far, society has had trouble with embracing radical science and technology in many competitive sports, especially those which heavily rely on physical performance of the human body. Instead of encouraging open usage of performance-enhancing drugs and technologies to evolve competition, most sporting bodies and their leadership have sharply condemned anything that deviates from the status quo competitive milieu of the first modern-day Olympics held in Athens, Greece. In 1896.
That may change as the benefits of transhumanist-minded competition become obvious to athletes and spectators alike.
"To some extent the Olympics and related sporting competition is about seeing how far the human being can go, how far it can perform," said Peter Rothman, a futurist, scientist, and editor at H+ Magazine. "Transhumanist competition and an Olympics dedicated to it would be the fullest expression of this idea."
If we fast-forward 20 years, what might such a cybernetic competition look like? Surely, it will be even more exciting than what we already have. Take one of the favorite winter Olympic sports, Freestyle Skiing—Aerial, where athletes slide down launch ramps of various lengths and hurl into the air performing multiple aerobatic feats. Two tricky issues define this dangerous sport: how much air time a skier can get and how badly the skier will be hurt if they don't land their jump safely. New technology, both of which are likely to be available in 5-10 years time, would handily deal with these issues.
First, lightweight mini-rocket thrusters attached to the back of skis would burn for a few seconds, pushing ski jumpers down launch ramps at far higher speeds than ever before. Naturally, the air-time of jumps will be far longer and higher than without the rockets. But it's the type of ski suit that these aerial skiers wear that would allow them to do tricks only futurists dream off.
Sensor-controlled suits could instantaneously inflate all around the body if the skier can't make a safe landing. Instead of breaking bones, the jumper would bounce down the slopes, unharmed but probably cursing. As far as aerial tricks go, with some much air time, expect newly invented ones. Instead of performing the Kangaroo Flip 900, expect the Toxic Rodeo 1620. Maybe throw in a few variations for kicks.
Regardless what happens in a coming Transhumanist Olympics, all sports will still need rules. Exoskeleton technology could soon allow unthinkable feats, say, swimmers running on water. Powerlifting would likely be a sport defined by super-enhancement muscle-building drugs, customized steroid treatments, bone strengtheners, and epinephrine-like shots that create short-lasting bursts of adrenaline and rage. Just enough to lift a ton of deadweight above one's head. Obviously, we’d need some safeguards here.
The sport of swimming might include webbing fingers together with skin grafts to give improved paddle-like effects. We could see sleek, no-drag, full-body suits and even aerodynamic helmets. Finally, an injectable short-term microparticle "oxygen substitute" would make races completely underwater where resistance is least. Swimming may become the first Olympic sport with no breathing.
The monetary incentive, along with the bonus of prestige, fame, and pride, has certainly pushed athletes to use radical science and technology to improve their performance. As with the exploits of Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez, who used illegal performance-enhancing drugs to reach the top of their respective sports. Many others are using proven and legal, or questionable and illegal products and methods to improve their performance. Some athletes will do what they must to win.
In the face of the increasingly strict policing of athletes—the anti-progressive "war on performance-enhancing drugs”— a Transhumanist Olympics would be an outlet for experimentation beyond “natural” ability. It would be an alternative for athletes who dedicate much of their lives to a sport and don’t want to be constantly scrutinized as potential cheaters and forced to undergo strip searches and urine tests right before events.
Today, you break a world record and the the first thing someone wants from you is a blood sample, not a congratulatory high-five. Transhumanist competition could change that, embrace the science and technology that can make sporting events ever-more thrilling, and evolve athletic competition, finally, to fit the 21st century.