This is a Battle of Ideas satellite event
With only a few months remaining before the London 2012 Olympic Games, British athletes are preparing hard in pursuit of a record haul of medals. To help them better the 47 won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an army of coaches, doctors and psychologists is at hand, along with a thriving sports technology industry, all backed by an unprecedented level of public and private investment.
National ambitions aside, we all want to see exceptional performances from the world’s best athletes, such as Usain Bolt’s record-smashing sprints. Yet sometimes we are uneasy when athletes shatter old records, fearing it is artificial aids, and not the athlete’s individual effort, that accounts for the achievement. We seem to be hanging in a precarious balance between expecting a superhuman performance and fearing the crossing of nature’s boundaries.
When particular technologies have been ‘too successful’, such as Graeme Obree’s bicycle and riding position, or polyurethane-coated swimsuits, they have been banned for giving an unfair advantage. Some, like Rebecca Adlington refused to use the new swimsuits for ethical reasons even before they were banned, claiming they are a form of ‘technological doping’. And with such high stakes to play for and constant advances in medicine, the temptation of actual chemical doping looms as large as ever, and it is hard to demarcate precisely the line between legitimate medical treatment and unfair artificial advantage.
Many take such a hard line against doping, calling for life bans from the Olympics for athletes like Dwain Chambers, who has long served his sentence. Others point out that sport is a very unnatural pursuit, and the intensity of training and competition has become such that no doping techniques are as dangerous for the athlete’s body as the sport itself, many ‘doping’ techniques being necessary to restore the athletes’ body to a healthy state. Some argue that, as enhancement technologies become part of everyday life and the line between medicine and body enhancement is blurred, it will become increasingly difficult to keep them out of sport. They believe we should allow all sorts of enhancement technologies provided they are safe.
So where should we draw the line between the artificial and the natural in sport, between effective sports equipment and ‘technological doping’, between legitimate medical therapies and illegitimate, performance enhancement treatments, between the struggle to excel and the need to have fair and balanced competition, between the urge to go beyond the boundaries of human nature and the fear of losing our humanity?