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Performance enhancement: Superhuman Athletes

27 July 2012

By Maisie Gibson.

In the world of sport human augmentation is something of a hot topic. Words like ‘doping’, ‘EPO’ and ‘Genetically enhanced’ fly in whispers around changing rooms and training camps. Strict restrictions and regulations put in place by the Sports Authorities aim to stop any hints of cheating in its tracks to preserve sporting integrity and fairness. Yet the war continues to wage. In her article for Nature, Helen Thompson looks at some of the increasingly ingenious ways that medicines are adapted to avoid detection. But where’s the line between the legal and the unnatural? Thompson highlights that many athletes “rely heavily on nutritional supplements”, which although totally legal, can “improve performance by as much as 8%.“ When you consider that records are broken with a 0.01 second gap, that’s 8% you can’t afford to loose.

The article investigates the different ways that we can play with athletes to ensure a top performance during a race, including surgical enhancement to create webbed fingers for swimming and ingesting nanotech robots to ferry oxygen to red blood cells, all of which are completely illegal and ethically questionable.

Another area that has shown up some grey patches recently is that of prosthetic limbs. Thompson turns to Bruce Dyer, BU’s resident prosthetics engineer, to talk about whether our current artificial limb technology “actually confers an advantage over the flesh and blood variety.” Although a topic which has ‘split scientists’ across the globe, Dyer seems certain that, for now, we simply cannot match a natural limb in every way. He goes on to use South African Paralympic gold medallist Oscar Pistorius as an example: the athletes ‘cheetah style’ prosthetic legs have caused a lot of controversy in past games. Dyer explains that, although Pistorius’s spring-like prosthetics allow him to speed up at the end of a race, they put him at a disadvantage coming out of the crouch at the start of a race or when turning a curve. “When he’s running straight ahead, he eventually hits a natural state of harmony like bouncing on a trampoline… but then he sometimes runs right off the track because he can’t turn.”

So at the moment the line between human power and technology is still very much there, but what could happen if we reached that line, and then crossed it? Helen Thompson concludes by considering the effects of superprosthetics, bionic limbs that ‘truly emulate biological limb function’ and go one step further. According to Nature, performance enhancing technologies will “not only extend human limits” but “they will demand an Olympics all of their own.”

Maisie Gibson, 17, is a student at Budmouth College in Weymouth who is working at Bournemouth University in the Press and PR Department. She joined BU on a Sir Samuel Mico Scholarship, which provides 10 students from her college with essential work experience for four weeks over the summer. For further details about the scholarship can be seen online.

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