Gathering the strongest, fittest, and fiercest athletes, the Olympics are arguably the world’s most anticipated sporting event. Occurring once every two years and alternating between summer and winter games, the Olympics demand the entire world’s attention. For many Olympic athletes, standing on the podium with a medal around their neck, representing their country, is the highlight of their career, and for the rest, it will remain as their biggest dream.
But the Olympics are changing right before our eyes. Competition is becoming more intense and every year, powerhouses in their sport are breaking world records, setting the stakes higher than ever before. Athletes are dominating their divisions with near superhuman abilities. But how? What is it exactly that has given them an advantage? Is it genetics? Drugs? Hormones? Or other forms of enhancements?
But more important, where is this all going? How will recent changes and advancements in science, technology, and social ethics affect future Olympics games?
Thanks to the efforts of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the first modern Olympics occurred in Athens in 1896 when he proposed a reinstatement of the Ancient Olympic Games and formed the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Known as "The Games of the First Olympiad," they were declared a roaring success, and was well received by the audience.
By 1924, the Olympics were officially separated into Winter and Summer games, with the first Winter Games occurring in Chamonix, France. It only consisted of 5 sports: bobsleigh, ice hockey, curling, Nordic skiing, and skating. The Summer and Winter games were held in the same year until 1992 when they were set into a four-year cycle.
If we look at the differences in the games from it’s beginning to now, the changes are stunning!
Initially, women were not even allowed to compete most events, the Olympics of 1904 had only six women athletes and they all participated in archery. Another large change related to infrastructure. The swimming event in 1896 took place in the middle of the icy, open water where competitors in the 1200m race were taken by boat to the middle of the water and forced to fight waves and adverse conditions to get back to the shore. The winner of the race, Alfréd Hajós of Hungary declared that he was just happy to have survived.
Add into this the evolution of cameras and computer systems that allowed athletes to examine their every movement. They can now watch play-by-play, step-by-step and see where they need to change their biomechanics and techniques. It also allows for referees, umpires, and sport officials to properly govern plays and regulations to make better decisions regarding rule infringements. Sporting equipment, such as swim suits, bikes, helmets, tennis racquets, running shoes, and endless other pieces of equipment have helped advanced sports tremendously.
Today, more than 10,000 athletes compete in the Olympics. The stadiums are extravagant and concrete, the media has taken over with hundreds of millions watching the games globally, and more women are competing then ever before! If all of this has happened in the last 100 years, just think about the possibilities for the future.
The Olympics have historically been divided into two gender categories: male and female. But nowadays, with an increasing amount of transgender and intersex athletes, this concept has been highly criticized and negotiated.
Transgender athletes were officially allowed to compete in the Olympics in 2003 after the International Olympics Committee (IOC) held a meeting known as the “Stockholm Consensus on Sex Reassignment in Sports.” The regulations were extensive and required “hormone replacement therapy for at least two years before competition, legal recognition of the individual's new gender, and mandatory genital reconstructive surgery.”
As of November 2015, however, transgender athletes could compete alongside the gender they identify as, without needing to complete genital reconstruction surgery. This rule was a game changer, and shared mixed opinions amongst the public.
Currently, the only requirements for trans-women are 12 months on hormone therapy, and there are no set requirements for trans-men. This decision allowed many more trans athletes to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, a hard battle that many have been fighting for years. Since this decision, the IOC has received mixed judgment and media attention.
In terms of inclusivity, the IOC have received many positive reviews. But in terms of fairness they received harsh harassment that primarily focused around male to female transitions. Because men naturally have a higher level of testosterone than women, the transition takes time to lower it to a “normal” women level. IOC regulations require a trans woman to have a testosterone level below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months. The average woman, however, has a testosterone level of about 3 nmol/L.
When a man makes the transition to a woman, there are also things that he cannot get rid of, including height, structure and some of their male muscle mass. For many, this is seen as an unfair advantage. But this advantage is often disclaimed by stating that muscle mass and height could also be a disadvantage in some sports. To add to this, Cyd Zeigler, author of “Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports,” bring up a valid point; “Every athlete, whether cisgender or transgender, has advantages and disadvantages.”
Chris Mosier, the first transgender man to compete on Team USA also put critics to shame with his statement:
“We don’t disqualify Michael Phelps for having super-long arms; that’s just a competitive advantage he has in his sport. We don’t regulate height in the WNBA or NBA; being tall is just an advantage for a center. For as long as sports have been around, there have been people who have had advantages over others. A universal level playing field does not exist.”
One thing everyone does seem to agree on is that it’s complicated. In a day and age of inclusivity and equal rights, the IOC can not discriminate against trans athletes, stating themselves that they want to ensure “that trans athletes are not excluded from the opportunity to participate in sporting competition.” They are in a tough situation where they must reflect on their values as an organization and discover the best way to deal it.
So what exactly does this all mean for the future of the Olympics games? Hernan Humana, kinesiology professor at York University in Toronto, Canada, reflects on the questions of humanity stating that “My hope is that inclusivity wins… I hope we don’t lose sight of, in the end, who we are and what we are here for.” He predicts that there will become a time where we will have to reflect on our ethics as a human species and we will have to “cross the bridge when it comes” as there is no way to really predict what will happen.
Perhaps the conclusion to this a declaration of a gender “open” division. Ada Palmer, author of the science fiction novel, Too Like the Lightning, predicts that instead of dividing into male and female categories, everyone would compete in the same category. She suggests that “events where size or weight offer major advantages, they would offer “open” division where anyone could participate, but also events segregated by height or weight, much like boxing today.” It would end up being mostly women competing in the smaller divisions and males in the larger.
Humana, however, brings up a problem with this conclusion: Will this promote women to reach their full potentials? Will there be enough support for them to succeed to the same levels as men? When we divide boxers on their size, we do not discriminate against them and say that the smaller boxers are not as good as the big ones but Humana argues, we are quick to criticize women and say “Oh, well she’s not that good.” The formation of a gender “open” division could therefore lead to even more problems than the ones we have now.
The “Perfect” athlete
As stated above, every athlete has his or her advantages. It is these advantages that allow athletes to succeed in their sport of choice. But when we talk about these advantages, we are really talking about their genetic differences. Every trait that gives an athlete an athletic advantage over the other, for example aerobic capacity, blood count, or height, is written in an athlete’s genes.
This was first confirmed in a study performed by the Heritage Family Study, where 21 genes were isolated to be responsible for aerobic ability. The study was performed on 98 athletes who were subjected to the exact same training and while some were able to increase their capacities by 50% other were unable to at all. After isolating the 21 genes, the scientists were able to conclude that athletes who had 19 or more of these genes showed 3 times more improvement in aerobic capacity. This, therefore, confirmed that there was in fact a genetic basis to athletic ability and it paved the way for further research on the topic.
David Epstein, an athlete himself, wrote a book on this called “The Sport Gene.” Epstein attributes all his success as an athlete to his genes. When training for the 800m, Epstein noticed that he was able to surpass his teammate, even though he started at a much lower level and had the exact same training regiment. Epstein also used the example of Eero Mäntyranta from Finland, a seven-time world medalist. Through genetic testing, it appeared that Mäntyranta had a mutation in his EPO receptor gene on his red blood cells, causing him to have 65% more red blood cells than the average person. His geneticist, Albert de la Chapelle, says that it no doubt gave his the advantage that he needed. Mäntyranta, however, denies these claims and says that it was his “determination and psyche."
There is now no doubt that genetics are linked to athletic ability, but now comes the main question: Can these genes be exploited to manufacture the genetically “perfect” athlete? The manipulation of embryonic DNA seems like a topic for science fiction, but this idea may be closer to reality than we think. On May 10th, 2016 researchers met at Harvard for a closed-door meeting to discuss the recent advancements in genetic research. Their findings were that an entirely synthetic human genome could “very feasibly exist ‘in as little as a decade’” with a price tag of approximately $90 million. There is no doubt that once this technology is released, it would be used to manufacture the “perfect” athlete.
However, this brings up another very interesting question! Will the genetically “perfect” athlete serve any purpose in society? Despite the very obvious and extensive ethical concerns, many scientists have their doubts that the athletes would do “any good” in the world. Sports thrive off of competition. As noted in a feature by Sporttechie, researchers “were not conceived with the intention of ever being unilaterally winnable, and while a perfect athlete would personify a resounding victory for science, it would typify a calamitous defeat for the world of sports.” It would essentially abolish any sort of competition and possibly even the whole enjoyment of sport in general.
The economic impact
Upon examination of the financial and economic side of the Olympics, most agree upon the unsustainability of its current state. Since the first Olympics, the price of hosting the games has increased by 200,000%. The Summer Games in 1976, with a price tag of $1.5 billion, nearly bankrupted the city of Montreal, Canada, and it took the city 30 years to pay off the debt. Not a single Olympic games since 1960 have come under their projected budget and the average over run is a staggering 156%.
Critics, such as Andrew Zimbalist, claim that all these problems stem from the International Olympic Committee. He states that, “It's an international monopoly that is unregulated, has an enormous amount of economic power and what it does every four years is that it invites the cities of the world to compete against each other to prove to the IOC that they are the most worthy hosts of the Games.” Each country competes with each other to prove that they are more “lavish” than the other countries.
Countries are starting to catch on, and the overall public is becoming more weary of the consequences of hosting the games. The Winter Olympics of 2022 originally had nine countries bid. Slowly countries began to drop out due to lack of public support. Oslo, Stockholm, Karkow, Munich, Davos, Barcelona, and Quebec City all dropped out of their bids, leaving only Almaty, in the middle of unstable Katazstan region, and Beijing, a country not known for Winter sports.
But, there has to be a solution, right? Humana, at York University, believes that the Olympics are, in fact, viable. That the use of existing arenas, housing athletes in university and college dormitories, cutting back on the amount of sporting events and lowering the prices of attending could all lead to a more financially stable and enjoyable Olympic games. There are many options of little things that would make a huge difference. The escalation of the Olympics now, as Dr. Humana and many others agree, is unsustainable. But it does not mean that they cannot be saved.
A glimpse into the future
At the end of the day, the future is unpredictable. We can make educated guesses as to how things may or may not occur, but they are just hypotheses. It is fun though to imagine what the future would be like. It is these ideas that influence many movies and TV shows today.
The Huffington Post recently asked 7 sci-fi writers to predict what they thought the Olympics would look like in the future. A common thought across many different writers was the proposal of multiple different games for different “types” of humans. Madeline Ashby, author of Company Town predicts, “We’ll see a diversity of available games: games for augmented humans, games for different types of bodies, games that recognize gender is fluid.” This idea welcomes athletes of all shapes and colours to compete, and promotes the inclusivity and advancements in technology. This seems to be the more likely option at this point, because as Patrick Hemstreet, author of The God Wave says, “We enjoy witnessing the heights and complexities of human ability. To see members of our species blow past seemingly insurmountable barriers are the greatest form of entertainment.”
To many, the idea that we will modify the human body through genetics, mechanics, drugs or any other way, is highly inevitable. With the advancements of science, it is nearly possible now! The only current things stopping them are the ethical questions behind it, and many predict that these won’t stand for too much longer.
This does, however, challenge our idea of the “authentic” athlete. Max Gladstone, author ofFour Roads Cross, suggests an alternative. He states that we will eventually have “to negotiate what humanist athletic ideals mean when the human body becomes a limiting factor.” Gladstone continues on to state the possibility that the Olympics could retain the “authentic,” non-enhanced athlete but that does not necessarily mean that we, the audience, will. He predicts that perhaps “someday our children’s children, who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, will gather to watch, with metal eyes, a bunch of fierce kids made from meat and bone race the four hundred-meter hurdles.”
The 2040 Olympics
The Olympics are going to change drastically and this is something that we need to start thinking about now. The future is exciting and the advancement of the human athlete is going to be a spectacle to experience. If we look at how much the Olympics have changed since they were reinstated in 1896, the Olympics of 2040, for examples sake, will truly be revolutionary.
Based on the current trends in gender regulations in the Olympic games, inclusivity will most likely prevail. Transgender athletes will continue to be accepted into the Olympic games, with perhaps slightly more regulations on testosterone and other hormone treatments. A universally fair playing field for athletes has never, and will never truly exist. As we have touched on, everyone has advantages that make them the athlete that they are and makes them so good at what they do. Our problems with the future of the Olympics will be concerned with the exploitation of these “advantages.” Genetic research has jumped heaps and bounds, claiming that an entirely synthetic human being could be manufactured in as little as ten years. It seems strangely possible that by 2040, these synthetic human beings could be participating in the Olympic games, with their perfectly engineered DNA.
By this point in time, however, there will have to have been a change in the structure of the Olympics. It is likely that the 2040 Olympics will occur in more than one city or country to spread out the games and decrease the need to make new stadiums and infrastructures. By developing a feasible way to host the Olympics, the games will be more accessible to more people, and it will be much easier for countries to host the games. It also is highly likely that the amount of games will decrease in accommodation for a smaller scaled Olympics.
At the end of the day, the future of the Olympic games truly lies in the hands of humanity. As Humana discussed earlier, we must take a look at who we are a species. If we are here to be an inclusive and fair race, then that would lead to a different future than if we are here to be the best, compete and dominate other. We must keep in mind the infamous “spirit” of the Olympic games, and remember what we really enjoy the Olympics for. We will come to a crossroad where these decisions will define who we are as human beings. Until then, sit back and enjoy the view.
The Olympic games have changed drastically since their reinstatement in 1896. Athletes are stronger and more fit than ever before, and every Olympics we seem to be witnessing more and more exhibitions of athletic greatness. Meanwhile, transgender athletes are challenging gender regulations, host cities are going bankrupt, and genetic researchers predict an entirely synthetic human embryos in 10 years. How are these trends going to affect our future Olympics?