Sport //

Beyond the bounds

Leigh Nicholson thinks para-athletes should dope on technology.

Image: Daniel Wetzel, via Flickr.

Premiering a dramatic trailer reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Swiss National Competence Center of Research in Robotics announced their plans to hold Cybathlon – the first championship for para-athletes using advanced supportive technological devices.

The Cybathlon is a Paralympic-style championship with disciplines such as powered exoskeletons and brain-computer interfaces. Each awards two medals, to the “pilot” (for athletes) and the device provider.

In the past, Olympics committees have fought tooth and nail to ensure that competitors do not exceed “able-bodied strength” from the advantages of drug doping and, in recent years, technology doping. With all the controversy surrounding the advancement of uniform design and disability support technology like prosthetics, it seems obvious that people are not yet ready to think of human capabilities as being inclusive of technological advancements.

It is confronting to imagine an athlete’s performance as solely dependent on tech-gear access and financial funding. However, it is equally frustrating that, in a condescending structure of control, the performance of disabled athletes and their supporting devices must be kept at the same level as their “abled” opponents.

On the surface, the championship seems like an interesting conglomerate of Paralympic events unhindered by technological constraints. On a broader scale, it will hopefully look at the future of disability support design available for a wider market.

That performance is inclusive of augmentation is an assumption that that freaks a lot of people out. In an article in The New Yorker, writer Tim Wu wrote about people’s intelligence being inclusive of their smart phones information, commenting, “we are now different creatures than we once were, evolving technologically rather than biologically”.

Becoming “part machine” is fear-mongering and should not steer the argument away from the fact that at its most basic, the competitions are providing funding and awareness for supportive devices for those
who need it. The event’s founder Robert Reiner is aware of this, citing his aim as “delivering the best possible assistance for paralysed humans, thus trying to improve their quality of life”.

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