With the Olympics drawing to a close shortly, I couldn’t help noticing the tremendously high number of Olympic and world records that have been broken. According to the official site 36 world records and 74 Olympic records have been broken as of August 19th. It certainly makes for an entertaining Olympic games, but this started me wondering about the future of sport in general and the Olympics in particular. The question I ask myself is, just how close are we to the limit of human potential as far sporting endeavours go?

Where are we now…?

I would say that if we haven’t passed that limit already, then we are surely very close to what humans with no technological assistance are capable of. And this of course raises the point, just how much of a role is science and technology currently playing in sport?

It is clear that sport has become more professional over the last several decades. Just about all athletes now competing at the games do their sport professionally and certainly training techniques have improved tremendously as well (sport is big business now after all). However, no-one can say that technology isn’t playing a major role:

  • sophisticated monitoring equipment
  • specially formulated drinks and meals
  • statistical analysis supported by advanced data storage and retrieval techniques
  • etc.

All these now play a major role in the life and training of a professional athlete. And none of those things would be remotely possible without powerful software, hardware and advances in chemistry, biology and medicine. Let us also not forget the medical imaging and testing technologies that can help avoid injury and help athletes recover much faster and more fully in the event of injury. All of this goes on behind the scenes, the only things the public sees are chiselled muscles and jaw-dropping performances.

Of course, one can still argue that all this science and technology is only indirectly supporting athletes, but no-one can argue that equipment used by most sports has become, fully as sophisticated as the training methods. This equipment is in no small part responsible for how far performance in many sports has advanced. There has been a lot of controversy already about the shark-skin swim-suits that have become popular in recent years; with some experts saying that they give too much of a boost to what someone without the aid of a suit would be able to do. And let’s face it one of those things could make Buddha look like Apollo tight as they are, so I am inclined to believe it. But what about some other sports that have benefited directly:

  • tennis (graphite and carbon rackets, nylon strings)
  • pole vaulting (poles made of fibreglass composites rather than bamboo)
  • running (specially designed runners and spikes, skin hugging body suits etc.)
  • cycling (a decent racing bike costs almost as much as a decent car, I am not even going to go into the technologies involved)
  • rowing (they don’t make those boats out of wood any more :))
  • there are many others

Surely the results we are seeing now could never have been possible without the modern equipment that science and technology has produced. So, can we really say that all those world and Olympic records are purely the result of human effort? I don’t think so.

What about the future …?

Where does all this leave us in years to come? Well, modern equipment, training methods and fancy suits can only take us so far. The way we are going, given another couple of decades, we will surely hit a performance plateau. What will happen then, no highly entertaining sport competitions, Olympics where no records are broken? Possible but unlikely, like I said sport is big business; losing audience is simply not an option, so we are back to the original question, what next?

Surely none of us are naive enough to believe that all the athletes competing in the games are drug free. I would certainly bet good money that at least some of them are using some kind of performance enhancing juice. Therefore the next step might be to legalize such drugs. Given free reign, science can surely come up with some very interesting substances (with equally interesting side effects I am sure :)) that would push athletes beyond anything we ever dreamed possible. That possibility is somewhat horrible to contemplate, certainly interesting, but no less horrible for the fascination.

The other option, is for us to redefine what “purely human endeavour” actually means. We can allow the use of “assistive technologies” in sport, it would surely provide a lot of entertainment value (miniature jet packs anyone :)), but it will no longer be the sports we know, that is beyond doubt.

Looking even further into the future, will drug tests be replaced by genetic modification tests, or will genetic engineering technologies become an accepted way for athletes to “reach new height of excellence”? Well, I say, bring on the monkey-robot-clone-trooper synchronised diving team it certainly appeals to my sense of the macabre. I would however love to hear other opinions, do you think science and technology have pushed us beyond what humans are capable of, or do you think blood, sweat and tears are the cause of the impressive results that we have seen in the Olympics?