The Olympics, Doping and the Meaning of Sport:
Performance enhancement technologies and the changing boundaries of human nature
Date: Wednesday 5 October 2011, 6:30pm (for a 6:45pm start) to 8:30pm
Venue: The Millenium Room, The Carriageworks, Millennium Square, Leeds
£5 waged/£3 unwaged on the door
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?
This event is a Battle of Ideas 'battle satellite' event
Is the rise of the super-athlete ruining sport?, The Guardian (January 2010)
Make me a superhero: The pleasures and pitfalls of body enhancement, The Guardian (May 2009)
Britain on track for record medal haul at London 2012, BBC News (March 2011)
Dwain Chambers: ‘I’m a determined little man’, Spiked-Online (April 2009)
London 2012 Olympics: is Dwain Chambers' dream of competing at Games still alive?, Telegraph Blogs (May 2011)
Technological doping' doesn't suit Rebecca Adlington, The Guardian (July 2009)
Enhanced Athletes? It's Only Natural, Washington Post (August 2008)