Posthuman Sporting Bodies

Pramod K. Nayar (pramodknayar@gmail.com) teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad.
4 November 2023

This article delves into the posthumanisation of sports, as various notions of enhancements in terms of sports, and also looks into the cyborgisation of playing sports as well as the sporting experience. It argues that the increasing scale of cyborgisation as seen in sports, is a testament to its proliferation in other aspects of human lives.

 

 

In 2015, Jon Entine wrote in The Huffington Post:

It is sport's doomsday scenario: a new generation of bioengineered performance-enhancing agents that can transform also-rans into gold medallists. Imagine athletes injecting artificial genes right into their muscles – a virtually undetectable act that would give them the sinewy muscles of a cougar, or endurance like that of an antelope. (Entine 2015)

This angsty appraisal of a cyborgisation of the athlete comes in the wake of rapid biotech developments, clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) cloning, and tighter doping protocols in sport. It rests on an assumption/myth about “natural”—as opposed to “enhanced”—bodies that was increasingly at odds with the gene revolution and software–wetware congeries that humans have already become and whose representation, along with early artificial intelligence (AI) in popular culture, right from Terminator and Robocop to The Matrix and Transcendence, had effectively made cyborged bodies the stuff of a common cultural imaginary. More strikingly, it articulated the bogey of gene doping as the next, and equally, if not more illegitimate, stage in the manipulation of sport.

Neil Harbisson was born unable to distinguish colours and so had an antenna surgically implanted in his skull to enable him to translate light into sound. He became the first “official” cyborg individual. Now, how does one separate the therapeutic and the enhancement functions of his antennae (exactly akin to Oscar Pistorius’ blades that are somewhere between therapeutic and “advancement”)? Can such devices and apparatuses then be outlawed as belonging to one or the other category of enhancement, as Steve Fuller asks (2021)? Do Harbisson or Pistorius as posthumans express themselves differently and if so, is their expression an acceptable one? This would also be a question of social acceptance of different bodies. As George Mendz and Michael Cook also summarise the question: “the fundamental problems of how different posthumans will express what they are, what dignity they will be accorded, and what will be the meaning of freedom and how it will be guaranteed” (2021).

Sport, like any cultural practice, operates on a set of rules consensually agreed upon. The emphasis on skills developed through training rather than a mechanically, pharmacologically induced enhancement has served as a rule in sport. Arguments against doping founded on this rule are similarly employed against the possibility of a gene modification of athletes. Athletes need to agree that to participate in any sport they must forgo doping and now enhancement. The World Anti-Doping Code (WADA 2016) enunciates a set of pure values associated with sport:

Anti-doping programs seek to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as “the spirit of sport”. It is the essence of Olympism, the pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each person’s talents. It is how we play true. The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind, and is reflected in values we find in and through sport, including Ethics, fairplay and honesty; health; excellence in performance; character and education; fun and joy; teamwork; dedication and commitment; respect for rules and laws; respect for self and other Participants; courage; community and solidarity.  

These are the values associated with sport and, like all values, they are social constructions. They determine the nature of the sport, the sporting body, and the experience of the spectacle. But the history of humanity undermines the founding assumptions on which the fear of techno-scientific enhancement is based.

We Have Always Been Cyborgs

Humans have always, from the beginning of time, used technology (including stone implements, the earth, wood, and metal), to enhance performance and efficiency in domains like hunting, agriculture, cooking, and travel. We have used prosthesis, external devices, and tools to not only fill any lacunae in our human form, ability, and function but also to improve yield, speed, and output. We have co-evolved with technology, as any posthumanist would note of human history. Today, we depend heavily on devices and processes to efficiently undertake our routine human activities (and we will not even discuss that most cyborgised field—medical support). As James Hughes, one of the world’s leading bioethicists and commentators on human enhancement, puts it:

We will increasingly depend on our intelligent personal assistants as extensions of our own memory and cognition, cataloguing our life experiences, collecting information, and summarizing and prioritizing choices. (Hughes 2018)

When we lead cyborg lives already, it is inevitable that sport too would see an incorporation of technology to not only enable improved performance by the sportsperson but also for the spectator’s experience of sport. Like ordinary lives, sport has been rendered technoscientific with devices and techniques directed at honing and shaping the athlete’s body. Apparatuses like ultralight bicycles and polyurethane swimsuits enable the cyclist and the swimmer to ride and swim faster and invite the question: would we deny that these are posthuman too, since the supposed “natural” body of the athlete performs in conjunction with technological devices like the cycle and clothing?

In recent times, the well-publicised cases of Markus Rehm (the “blade jumper”) and Pistorius (the “blade runner”), athletes with prosthetic limbs competed successfully against able-bodied athletes. Pistorius and Rehm were covered in media light. A long line of such athletes who have participated in the Olympics before, notably Lis Hartel (equestrian), Neroli Fairhall (archery, and the first paraplegic to compete in the Olympics), and Natalie du Toil (swimming, who qualified for the final competing with able-bodied swimmers, in the 100- metre freestyle at the 2002 Commonwealth Games).

Pistorius’s success motivated the International Association of Athletics Federations to pass a ruling that prohibited the “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” (IAAF 2023). Opinion was divided over two key questions: were such athletes enhanced humans, and did their prostheses give them an undue advantage over those other athletes? An official commenting on the Rehm case said: “With all due respect, we cannot accept something that provides advantages. It affects the purity of sport” (Pielke 2016). But how “pure” has sport ever been?

Naturally, the commercialisation of cyborged sporting bodies is now, literally, on an industrial scale. Biomechanics has emerged as a major industry that has already come up around enhanced bodies with franchisees and companies preparing a culture of sport built around such bodies.[1] Sports trainers now offer services in neurological enhancement:

Enhancing an athlete’s nervous system function is the key to enhancing performance. Even a genetically gifted athlete with incredible power, speed, and torque will be limited by, an inefficient central nervous system (CNS). Improving CNS function means improved speed, strength, mobility, anaerobic endurance, agility, stability, aerobic endurance, and balance.[2]

Biomechanical work on sporting bodies also accumulates a vast amount of data about the body, from nutrition levels to the biochemistry of a workout. The mathematisation of the body, an integral feature of posthumanism, as Katherine Hayles pointed out as far back as 1999 in How We Became Posthuman, is aligned increasingly with the datafication of the world for, as Rob Kitchin reminds us in a recent work, “data-driven endeavours are not simply technical systems, but are socio-technical systems. That is, they are as much a result of human values, desires and social relations as they are scientific principles and technologies” (2021: 5).

There is now an emergent industry in “Human Enhancement Games” as a parallel to the traditional Games:

[the] future Human Enhancement Games, a new kind of sports franchise following the structural template of the Olympic Games. Teams assembled by state-backed research and technology companies compete in the full range of events without regulations regarding doping and performance enhancing procedures.[3]               

With this commercialised convergence of bodies and technology in order to enhance performance, new cultures of sport are inevitable. Gene doping, commentators believe, will be the next step in this commercialisation of enhanced bodies. (There are medical/health reasons proffered against the use of drugs, of course.)[4]

Now we turn to the spectacle and spectatorship of sport.

The camera and the television altered the nature of sport spectatorship because it took the viewer into the stadium and the arena, as if we were there. Mediating the experience of sport was technology. Instant slow-motion replays, digital navigation and tracking devices, gigantic screens at the venues that literally double the events, and now, players wearing cameras alter the nature of immersive experience for the spectators, taking us right on to the body of the sportsperson, which then becomes the vantage point for us to see the event. Spectator participation in terms of responding to the sport, broadcasting their views on social media set up for the specific event, again altering the nature and degree of spectator participation and immersive experience. And, if we turn towards augmented reality and digital sports, we have a whole new order of the cyborged sporting experience as well. Sport has already been cyborged in the last decade and altered the very experience of the sport for the spectators, who have been cyborged too.

Enhanced Sporting Bodies versus General Human Enhancement?

The debate on human enhancement has divided the posthumanists. The transhumanists led by Nick Bostrom presume that the limits of the body need to be transcended. To its supporters, transhumanism is “about having the right to use the great range of technologies for increasing the likelihood of living a good life, that is, the human right of morphological freedom” (Sorgner 2020: 41). To its critics, in the school of thought identified as “critical posthumanism,” this is merely an intensification of the human (Wolfe 2010; Braidotti 2012; Nayar 2012).

The enhanced human in sport is really a “transhuman”—seeking to overcome the limitations of biology through technological interventions. “This [genetic modification] is not only an issue for sport, it’s a broad ethical issue for human beings,” said Johann Olav Koss, a physician and speed-skating champion who was the athletes’ representative to the International Olympic Committee’s WADA, thus gesturing at the larger context of genetic modification. As Koss indicates, the question of enhancing sporting bodies cannot be  segregated from larger questions and contexts of human enhancement.

Would it be acceptable if an academic were to seek enhancement by pharmacological, electronic, or genetic means in order to raise their performance in research and/or publications? Or a musician? What if the academic or the musician undertakes germ cell modification so that their future generations will also be brilliant academics and musicians? Is the speed and skill that an Usain Bolt, Roger Federer, or Lionel Messi achieves human at all? Can their years of rigorous training, discipline, and mental conditioning be seen as a technology of enhancement? And why is it that in sport, in particular, any enhancement is deemed unacceptable?

By the same definition, education is a technologyin the original sense of “technē,” meaning art or craftof human enhancement, since it alters our abilities to calculate, read and write and, eventually, think. These we believe are good additions to the human form and function. In other words, the issue of enhancement for sport is not separable from human enhancement in general since sport is only one field of human activity and endeavour. Instead, the question, as Andy Miah suggests, ought to be: is any form of human gene modification for enhancing abilities ethically acceptable since it alters what it means to be human? (2004: 7, 150). This begs the question whether we all agree on what it means to be human. If we start picking specific traits for enhancement, does it significantly alter human diversity?

The perceived crisis of doping and gene doping is cast as a binary: between the “natural” or “naturally gifted” sportsperson in an antagonistic relationship with the doped and modified sportsperson. The latter is seen as villainous and unethical, especially in media representations, since s/he is deemed to have gained an unfair advantage over the naturally “gifted” sportsperson. This is a moral–ethical debate around the very use of technology, as Rayvon D. Fouché observes:

The elite level of sport is defined by abnormal bodies that have been honed to efficiently perform a series of repetitive athletic tasks with precision ... Sporting communities valorize athletes who, through hard work and sacrifice, have overcome their human failings to regularly produce uncommon and ideally abnormal athletic feats. The fear is that posthuman athletes, by augmenting their bodies with technoscientific devices, have taken shortcuts to success, and bypassed the arduous labor to reach the highest levels of athletic success. (2020: 274)

Is genetic modification a shortcut and thus tantamount to “cheating”? There are, as commentators have noted, medical, ethical, and moral issues around the subject of performance-enhancing drugs. Gene doping simply raises the perceived crisis to the next level, and the concerns over gene doping are akin to the concerns over drug use in sport: they stem from larger concern about genetic modification; like the latter emerged from the worries over drug use (Miah 2017). The anxiety over gene doping is also closely aligned to a fear of eugenics and the possibility of state misuse of genetic technology to create further hierarchies in the social order.

Whether the pharmacologically enhanced, high-performance sportsperson is also a cyborg, whether a pharmacologically enhanced person embodies a dehumanisation of the human sportsperson, and whether performance is being given greater social (and financial) value over humanness are crucial questions to ponder on. To begin with, we have no consensus as to what “natural” means, given that bodies are shaped, trained, fed, and all traitsgait, posture, eating habits, manners, skillsare constructed through cultural training. Further, it is also to be kept in mind, as environmental humanities scholars argue, the world remains larger than and beyond the human, and the question of how the enhanced human fits into this larger world with other humans, non-humans, and the non-living is to be addressed as we proceed to reinvent ourselves (Guanio-Uluru 2021).

Therefore, in the case of some individuals, does their extraordinarily rigorous training amount to cyborgisation as well since it enables greater endurance and better performance? How do we measure humanness? If any aspect of our bodies—including our brain/mind—has been enhanced, would we cease to be human and become non-human or more-than-human? Are people with transplants, chips, and pharmacological infusions an emergent condition? Are highly trained, mentally conditioned athletes as human as us ordinary mortals? To put it differently, what counts as legal enhancement—rigorous training, for example—is determined by a socio-cultural consensus on what is natural and what is not. (And we will not even think in terms of eerily humanoid robots or “robo-sapiens,” Robertson [2018].)

Further, we recognise that factors like diet, medical care, and training facilities are crucial in the making of world-class, high-performing athletes, and that sport has never been a level-playing field (literally). Several inherited traits are altered through diet and training, thus calling into question the idea of “natural” factors in the making of world-class athletes (Varillas-Delgado 2022). In such a context, why should a performance-enhancing gene modification of an athlete’s body be denied to her/him if others have had the advantage of high-nutrient food, excellent apparel, exceptional medical assistance, and advice?

The discourse against genetic modification generates a “genetic Calvinism” (Stove 2001) and is a variant of “pharmacological Calvinism.” “Pharmacological Calvinism” is a phenomenon where people object to the use of drugs for nontherapeutic purposes (Hoberman 2017). We are on track—no pun intended—to an unacceptable genetic Calvinism of a public outrage against genetic modification except for therapeutic and life-saving purposes. In 2008, WADA, exemplifying a genetic Calvinism, defined “gene doping” as the “nontherapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to enhance performance.” Genetic Calvinism is the tension between the acceptable-medical and the unacceptable-enhancing consequences of genetic modification. Until such time as humanity arrives at a consensus—and this will evolve, like technology, as our attitudes towards technology also change, along with the legislation—as to what is natural, unnatural, acceptable and unacceptable in bodies, genetic Calvinism will pervade our debates.

This tension calls for a review of what we deem to be the social value of enhancement. Allen Buchanan has argued that if human excellence and productivity can be enhanced then, “the state may well take an interest in facilitating biomedical enhancements, just as it does in facilitating education and other productivity-increasing traditional enhancement” (2017: 353). For Buchanan, enhancement is a model of development. If this all-round development of the human, individual, and collective can be achieved by genetic modification, what could be the argument against it? As Richard Playford puts it in a recent essay, “if modifying humans through technology puts them at an advantage compared to their unmodified peers, then one way to avoid the resultant inequalities would be to modify everyone” (2022: 43).

Moving beyond such enhancements to moral ones and proceeding along the same line of questioning, would moral enhancement of humans make a better world? If cognitive and moral enhancements make humans more compassionate, charitable, altruistic, and empathetic, would it be acceptable? Can we think of cognitive enhancement in isolation from, say, corporeal or moral (see Levin 2021)? Just as all technology, these modes of enhancement would also be mired in politics, since what virtues are valued higher than others so that these alone can be enhanced in a human cannot be easily determined.

If the enhancement of certain skills is much desired, then why not sporting skills? If compassion, mathematical reasoning, appreciation of music, and empathy is culturally acceptable, indeed valued, qualities that we permit and desire, to be enhanced, why do we object to faster, higher, further performances in athletes? Would the enhancement of the first set of qualities in individuals dehumanise them simply by making us better humans with greater capacities for math and music, but enhancing the ability of a person to run a faster marathon dehumanises her/him by making her/him a lesser human? Why should sport be “pure” and the rest of the human skills, qualities, and practices be open to technoscientific improvement? Also, can we have moral enhancement without cognitive enhancement that allows us to see, understand, and empathise with, say, suffering and pain? (This latter question drives Perrson and Savulescu [2008] to argue that cognitive enhancement must be deferred until we can achieve moral enhancement.)

Humanity has always sought excellence and efficiency through the employment of technology, other lifeforms, chemicals, and the planet itself in order to eat better, dress better, calculate better, memorise better, think better, love better, and even die better. The question of posthuman sport cannot be separated from the general question of posthuman developments and its ethical consequences. To single out sport alone for its cyborgisation is to ignore the posthumanisation of our lives.

We are all always already “blade runners.”

 

[1] “Biomechanics in Sport.”  https://www.physio-pedia.com/Biomechanics_In_Sport. Accessed on 27 February 2023.

[2] “Athletic Performance.” https://www.advancedhumanperformance.com/athleticperformance. Accessed on 27 February 2023.

[3] “Human Enhancement Games.” https://bravenew.sport/human-enhancement. Accessed on 27 Feb 2023.

 

[4] The question of gendered bodies, enhanced or not, opens up a further debate (and not only in the domain of sport) and one that has emerged in discussions of posthumanism. See, among others, Haraway 1991, Braidotti 2012, Ferrando 2014.

Pramod K. Nayar (pramodknayar@gmail.com) teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad.
4 November 2023