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   The Choice is Yours
 The Choice
 is Yours

NBICS and Other Convergences: The Paralympics, the Olympics, Human Enhancement Technology and the Doping Discourse

by Gregor Wolbring

June 15, 2007

High-performance sports is an area where a transhumanized version of ableism is highly visible (see e.g. article by Andy Miah). Rising expectations of athletes, and the pressure to win, trigger research and development in new products and processes that can be used to move the bodily functioning of athletes and their external equipment to ever higher levels of performance. These advances are used by so called ‘impaired’ and 'non-impaired’ athletes.

This raises a variety of questions; namely: (1) should there be a limit to the enhancements allowed? (2) where should the line be drawn between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ human enhancement technologies? (3) will there be a difference in the future between ‘impaired’ and ‘non-impaired’ athletes? (4) who will be the ‘impaired’ and ‘non-impaired’ athletes of the future? and (5) will the Olympics become the Paralympics and vice versa?

Let’s deal with the first and second questions.

The  International Convention against Doping in Sports (which entered into force on February 1, 2007), the World Anti Doping Code, and the Anti Doping Code of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC) give some guidance as to what is now seen as legal and illegal. They also indicate when an illegal action can be legal. Annex II Standards for Granting Therapeutic Use Exemption of the International Convention against Doping in Sports -- reproducing the World Anti-Doping Agency’s “International Standard For Therapeutic Use Exemptions” states, for example:

4.3. “The therapeutic use of the Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method would produce no additional enhancement of performance other than that which might be anticipated by a return to a state of normal health following the treatment of a legitimate medical condition. The use of any Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method to increase “low normal” levels of any endogenous hormone is not considered an acceptable therapeutic intervention.”

There are implementation and scope problems with the above instruments.

The language of the instruments does not take into account what doping might entail in the future. It focuses on metabolic doping and processes of doping but pays very little attention if at all to hardware, techno doping. There is no anticipatory language or guidance with respect to emerging forms of doping -- requiring continuous rewriting and catch-up.
A recent UK report Human Enhancement Technologies in Sport by the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee highlights a variety of shortcomings in a long list of points; namely, that there is little transparency in the decision-making process with regard to items placed on the Prohibited List (point 62); ambiguity as to which performance enhancement method is to be prohibited and which shouldn’t (point 63); possible misuse of the therapeutic use exemption (points 66-68); and the lack of but the need for an increase in foresight capacity to anticipate potential future illegal human enhancement technologies (point 98).

That said, however, the report itself has problems.

On the one hand, it outlines strategies to increase research and development on legal human enhancement technologies (HETs) (section 8) recommending for example that the Government develop a specific funding stream for research into legal mechanisms for enhancing human performance in sport (point 122) and that significant effort be made toward the application of relevant knowledge obtained in the military for the benefit of sport (point 129). On the other, it gives no clear guidance as to where the line should be drawn between legal and illegal HET.

The report also cites bioethicist Julian Savulescu, who believes that performance enhancement “is not against the spirit of sport” and that “there is no reason sport must remain purely a test of natural ability” (point 44) and that anti-doping legislation should be removed “to permit safe performance enhancement” (point 46).

Julian Savulescu’s view is likely to become a common sentiment when one takes into account the reality of a murky-to-non-existent line between legal and illegal HET, the refusal to really outlaw HETs in general, the lack of foresight with respect to emerging HETs, inconsistency in rulings and the application of existing instruments, and the ever-present expectation that athletes will perform beyond their natural abilities, and the impression that doping comes with few consequences for how positively one's achievements will be perceived.

We will see a constant increase in the development and use of HETs, and a constant push to keep the list of illegals down and increase the list of legals. Indeed, we might see a future where everyone uses some form of HET, and the sponsors are the companies providing the HET. In the end, it will be up to spectators to choose whether they will watch HET enabled events, and ignore non-HET enabled events, knowing that the performance is not the same.

Let us now deal with questions three to five.

‘Impaired’ Athletes Competing Against ‘Non-Impaired Athletes’

The case of Oscar Pistorius  -- “the sprinter who calls himself  the fastest man on no legs” -- described in a recent New York Times article, highlights two different issues in the segregation between sports of the ‘impaired’ and ‘non-impaired.’ The first is that they can’t compete against each other; the second that they often can’t compete even in parallel events, but are segregated in time.

According to the New York Times, Pistorius wants to be the first amputee runner to compete not in the Paralympics, where he won Gold before, but in the Olympics. However the world governing body for track and field (the IAAF) wants to bar him on the grounds that his prosthetic technology may give him an unfair advantage over sprinters using their natural legs. The IAAF Council implemented a new provision on March 26, 2007, with immediate effect, which relates to the use of” technical aids” during competition.

This new rule  prohibits; “(e) Use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device. (f) Use of any appliance that has the effect of increasing the dimension of a piece of equipment beyond the permitted maximum in the Rules or that provides the user with an advantage which he would not have obtained using the equipment specified in the Rules.”

That the IAAF wants to bar him on the ground of  ‘technical doping’ is not surprising, given that it does not allow wheelchair athletes into the Olympic marathon for the same reason -- ‘techno doping.’ However the IAAF is inconsistent, as it permits athletes to sleep in tent-like devices designed to simulate high altitude and increase oxygen-carrying capacity, which is another form of techno doping. (This inconsistency is also covered in the UK report.) 

It is doubtful that the IAAF can show that the technology of Oscar Pistorius’ prosthetics may give him an unfair advantage over sprinters using their natural legs. Even if these legs were better than ‘normal legs,’  bionic legs could be seen to fall under rule 4.3. of the “International Standard For Therapeutic Use Exemptions” as they are obviously therapeutic. The New York Times article covers a variety of arguments for and against the ban, citing among others Juan Manuel Alonso of Spain, who heads the IAAF’s medical and anti-doping commission and is against the ban.

In the past, people classified as ‘impaired’ were denied participation in the events of the so called ‘non-impaired’ because they were seen as not competitive enough. With advances in science and technology that increase the performance of ‘impaired’ people, however, the performance gap is closing, invalidating such an argument. It is now increasingly being asked why an ‘impaired’ person should not be allowed to compete against a ‘non-impaired’ person (e.g. Robert Gailey).  That the IAAF has to use the techno-doping card to prevent Paralympic athletes from competing against Olympic athletes shows how far bionics have improved.

Even if one keeps bionic runners separate from biological runners, and wheelchair racers from biological racers in a given race -- as transhumanist George Dvorsky and some IAAF members  advocate -- confining bionic runners and marathon wheelchair racers to the Paralympics and rejecting their inclusion in the Olympics does appear even less tenable.

Segregation of ‘Impaired’ Athlete Events from ‘Non-Impaired’
Athlete Events

People seen as ‘impaired’ and ‘subnormative functioning’ now have the Paralympics, while those seen as ‘normative functioning’ have the Olympics. That ‘impaired’ and ‘non-impaired' people are not part of the same games is questioned by many. Even if they do not compete against each another, they could still be part of the same game. While men and women do not compete against each other at the Olympics, for example, they both participate in the Olympic competitions.

The Oscar Pistorius case highlights another argument against segregation. Although he might not be allowed to compete against biological runners in the Olympics, why should he and other bionic runners not have a bionic running event as a discipline at the Olympics?

There are two types of Olympic events. Some are based mainly on the biological performance of the athlete (e.g. the high jump) while others depend on external tools (e.g. the pole vault). One could compare bionic and wheelchair racing with the pole vault, and biological racing with the high jump. So it would be logical to have bionic running and jumping events in the Olympics. One could give standard bionic legs to the runners and update the standard from time to time. Why should a bionic runner not have the same exposure and respect as a pole vault athlete?

Will the Olympic Athlete become the Paralympic Athlete...
and vice versa?

Taking into account the concepts of ableism, transhumanism and transhumanized concepts of health, impairment and ableism (see a variety of my columns) -- and that many feel ‘impaired’ people are at the forefront of receiving human enhancement technologies (especially those that are hardware based) -- and given what I wrote above, it might be a future possibility that the Paralympic athlete could become the Olympic athlete and vice versa. The question is: What justifies the separation of the Olympics from the Paralympics -- the level of performance or the body structure of the athletes? The second reason does not quite fit with the ideals of the Olympics -- which leaves the argument based on the performance of the athlete. This could have interesting consequences.

Bionic athletes might outperform biological athletes in the future. Bionic runners might run faster than biological runners. Bionic jumpers might jump better than biological jumpers. Keeping the performance argument in mind, this means that biological athletes might be the Paralympic athletes of the future, and bionic HET athletes the future Olympic athletes. Athletes without HETs could be seen as impaired in the future -- which would fit with the transhumanized version of health that I have covered in other columns and elsewhere.

The Choice is Yours

There must be a basic rethinking of competition and sports to deal with these issues. The scope of Article 24 – Promotion of research in anti-doping of the International Convention against Doping in Sports is much too limited to perform the research required to address these new questions and challenges faced by sports and athletes.

“States Parties undertake, within their means, to encourage and promote anti-doping research in cooperation with sports and other relevant organizations on:
(a) prevention, detection methods, behavioural and social aspects, and the health
consequences of doping; (b) ways and means of devising scientifically-based physiological and psychological training programmes respectful of the integrity of the person; (c) the use of all emerging substances and methods resulting from scientific developments.”

A retooling of the discourse is needed if one really wants to take on the challenges linked to NBICS advances.


Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist, disability/vari-ability/ability studies scholar, and health policy and science and technology governance researcher at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; Part Time Professor at Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees for the International Organization for Standardization section TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the editorial team for the Nanotechnology for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and former Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (2003-2007 maximum terms served). He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website, moderates a weblog for the International Network for Social Research on Disability, and authors a weblog on NBICS and its social implications.


Please contact the author for information on these references
or for additional future references at gwolbrin@ucalgary.ca

© Gregor Wolbring, All Rights Reserved, 2007. Please contact the author for permission to reprint.


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