My Kingdom for a Swimsuit

August 1, 2009

Some people think that technology in sports is a non-issue. Steroids, blood doping and new snowboard compounds should be considered outside the realm of athletic performance, as if we were still in ancient Athens watching naked male runners stride around a dirt track from stone seats. I’m not one of those people.

Technology has invaded every cell in our bodies, every joint in our limbs, every corner of our houses. If we drive high performance cars and ride high performance bikes, we may as well improve performance in every area of our existence. Viagra and cialis are supposed to be for men with erectile dysfunction, but advertisers wink when they show television spots with virile looking older men and nubile younger partners.

The recent controversy over hyper buoyant swimsuits and world records should be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. At least until scientists perfect a genetic compound that will make human skin into a replica of dolphin hide, the Lazer suit and its progeny will remain the ne plus ultra of techology invading the realm of human sporting performance, and we should attend to its effects.

Consider the fact that Michael Phelps is likely to be the most gifted swimmer who ever did a flip turn, and that he was just beaten by an upstart who was four seconds slower a year ago and you will understand the gravity of this problem. Science has provided humans with methods of defying gravity, decoding genes, and flying to Mars. There is no reason to think that technological progress will stop pushing the envelope in the next century, with the result that robots will think and feel analogous to humans, and humans will be filled with bionic parts that slow the aging process. However, the line between what is human and what is not must be drawn definitively and soon or we will lose what is most precious to our species. Star Trek gave us warnings about this issue in the 1960s and science fiction continues to probe the ethics of artificial versus human nature.

The beauty and majesty of human movement, and of the body’s capacity for new physical achievements, should not be tainted by any form of technology that creates a false advantage or which eliminates an inherently natural limitation in what animals (humans) can do. Athletic regulations, standards and governng organizations have been lax in examining the role of technology in sports. It is high time ethicists (who look a medical issues) and other philosophical and psychological experts looked seriously at challenges to our most basic physical and mental capacity for “performance” in many realms, not just sports. Hats off to Mr. Phelps for forcing the issue. Now we can tackle the harder question of how to make a swimsuit that makes any woman’s body look like that of a supermodel. Now that would be technology we could believe in.

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