Paralympics, Prosthetilympics or Cyberlympics? September 19, 2012Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV205 , comments closed
So, you were all been paying close attention to the Paralympics in London, right? They ended just over a week ago, but I thought a I’d follow-up on how Oscar Pistorius performed. As you should remember (since we mentioned it here and here and here), this year he was the first disabled athlete to compete in the “regular” or able-bodied Olympics using a prosthetic leg; he then went on to compete in the Paralympics, where he was already a multiple gold medal winner.
Given the global fascination with Pistorious, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by a news item suggesting that “Paralympians could soon outperform Olympians”:
“We’re already at the era where prosthetics can outstrip human performance,” said David James of the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University. “With the developments being made in things like powered knees and ankle joints, athletes will soon be flying down the track.
“It’s possible Paralympic athletes could one day run faster than Usain Bolt.”
Let’s assume that James means “flying down the track” metaphorically, not literally via some artificial wing implants. When I see this the question that comes to mind (via a frequent discussion in our STV 205 course) is this: at what point do prosthetic enhanced people become cyborgs? And will that mean a new Cyber-Olympics? A Cyberlympics, held every four years in the most high-tech cities of the world?
It’s not always an easy line to draw. For background, prosthesis are artificial body parts and there’s evidence people have been using them for thousands of years. The original definition of cyborg demands that the artificial component be a feedback device, as first applied to Rose the Rat in the 1950s. Rose was a rodent with an implanted osmotic pump driven by an artificial control feedback loop to deliver injections at a specific rate. She was described by the scientists who created her as a cyborg, shortened from cybernetic organism; the word cybernetics itself was borrowed from kybernetes, a Greek word meaning steersman or helmsman of a boat, a position which requires careful government and control. These days, the definition of cyborg is much looser. Some of my students have argued that a cyborg requires a permanent graft of an artificial body part, and many prefer it to be something high-tech. Glasses with corrective lenses don’t count, because we take them off at night and they’ve been around for centuries. The same goes for any prosthetic limb. They’re temporary and ancient. But something like Google Glass — glasses combined with a display screen, video camera and wireless networking that Google began prototyping this year — probably would count towards cyborg, even if the expectation is still that you would take those off now and then.
I think if we go back to Pistorious we get a better spot to draw the line. The sporting world’s worry with him was that his artificial legs provided an advantage over other athletes. That is, they worried the legs did more than normalize but enhanced his abilities beyond that of a normal human. His whole Olympic career hinged on the lack of enhancement: they don’t look like normal legs and they don’t even act like normal legs, but combined with the rest of his musculo-skeletal system there was no overall enhancement. And so, the Olympic able-body race was fair and he placed 16th.
Then, he attracted some controversy in the Paralympics after he lost the 200m race to Brazil’s Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira and complained that Oliveira’s blade legs were too long, giving him an unfair advantage. To quote the Guardian:
The twist in the story is that it is the very fact Pistorius wants to run in the Olympics and other able-bodied competitions that cost him here.
To do crossover like that, he can only run on blades that have been cleared for use by the IAAF, the sport’s governing body. Longer blades, of the kind Oliveira used, are only legal in Paralympic events.
If Pistorius switched, he would not be able to run in non-disabled competitions. Besides which, he would undermine his own argument that his success is about the body above the knee, rather than the technology below it. In a sense, he is a victim of his own ambition.
I don’t think the story is about undermining his own argument. I think the story is about the effort expended trying to normalize athletes, even Paralympic athletes who must conform to a series of rules and regulations regarding permissible technological aids. None of which permit enhancement, or unfair advantage. And that is where we find the line that demarcates prosthetics and cyborgs: enhanced abilities that exceed normal. A great deal of Pistorius’ complaint had to do with what he felt was a suspicious and abnormal leap in Oliveria’s abilities, which he attributed to the longer legs. For what’s worth, Pistorious did close out the Paralympics with a gold in the 400m race, though his time was still three seconds slower than the able-bodied equivalent (Pistorious would need a time machine to head for the 1930s before he could win in the 400m race).
Somehow I don’t think the Paralympians will ever exceed Olympians at their own game, if only because I’m a bit cynical and suspect the rules will be engineered (pun intended) to prevent that. Could a Cyber-Olympic substitute appear, with enhanced athletes, even the requisite flying ones? I have my doubts. Even there, it could never be a free-for-all, unlimited, anything-goes technological frenzy of super-normal abilities, because there can be no sport if there can be doubts about fairness. Faster, higher, stronger goes the motto, but that comes with an expectation of a normal baseline that all observers can see and judge just how much faster, higher and stronger. Without normal, there is no fairness; without fairness, there is no competition. And cyborgs aren’t normal (yet).
Did we win? Did we invent that? Does it matter? August 15, 2012Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV404, Uncategorized , comments closed
So, the 2012 London Olympics are over. How did we do? Can’t we just count medals? Maybe.
Canadian athletes earned 1 gold, 5 silver and 12 bronze, for 18 medals. According to this common tally, Canada placed 36th, right behind Norway. Wait, hang on, that’s not what I saw here, and on TV, where I learned that Canada placed 13th. What’s going on?
It turns out that the common way of ranking is by the number of golds, followed by silvers, then bronzes. That puts Canada about halfway down the list of countries that earned a medal, nowhere near the top and nowhere near as exciting for the folks at home. So, some news outlets rearranged rankings according to the total number of medals, elevating the Canadian position. CTV, Globe and Mail, CBC, I’m looking at you. Others, like the National Post, The Toronto Star, and the local paper, The Record, used the other system. Also, lets not forget a third way to count things up: 3 points for gold, 2 for silver, 1 for bronze. That puts Canada in 19th, but not many people use that system.
This ranking problem is hardly a new issue. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Chinese athletes earned more gold (51) than any other country, and apparently some American news outlets switched ranking systems to total medals (100 for China, 110 for the US), having lost the gold medal tally (only 36 that year). This year, no problems: the US won on both tallies (46 golds, 104 total). At the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, Canada had the highest number of gold medals, so we won, except the United States actually had more medals total, so they also won. There’s a nice little blog entry over at the CBC hitting on some of these issues.
My favorite bit of ranking trivia for this year has to do with the rivalry between Australia and New Zealand. The Kiwis were doing better in London than the Aussies, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Australia. And so, from New Zealand’s Stuff.co.nz:
Many Australians are glumly contemplating their meagre – for them – haul of one gold, nine silver and four bronze.
So deep is the despair that official free-to-air Australian Olympic broadcaster Channel 9 avoided showing New Zealand’s charge up the medal table, which took this country [New Zealand] to tenth at one stage before settling at 12th by the end of the day.
Its medal table had only the nine top countries, then a gap down to Australia. And some pundits have suggested pooling the wins for Team Oceania, to save Aussie red faces.
So, how does this all this connect to technology? The Olympic nationalism reminds me quite strongly of technological nationalism, especially the kind that celebrates citizens as inventors of revolutionary technologies and tabulates lists of national technologies. In both cases, the effort can get out of hand as nations “adjust” the facts to suit their national narrative.
So, for example, one of the early stories during the Olympics was of Missy Franklin, a swimmer for the American team who won five medals (four gold). Though she was born in the United States and has lived there her whole life, it was hard to avoid hearing up here in Canada that her parents were Canadian and she does hold dual-citizenship, and so by progenitor proxy she was swept up in the Canadian narrative even if we can’t count her medals. Technologically, in Canada, we think of Alexander Graham Bell–the inventor of the telephone–as Canadian, so the telephone is Canadian. But the Americans think it’s American, and the Scottish think it’s Scottish. Bell was born in Scotland, emigrated to Canada, and carried out the actual inventing in America. As Bell himself delicately explained, the idea was conceived in Brantford but born in Boston. All of which sets aside who actually invented the telephone. Was it Bell, or the American Elisha Gray, or the Italian Antonio Meucci (or is that Italian-American?).
Nations can get quite fussy about national technologies. The Soviet Union was notorious for its lists of Russian inventors of Western technologies. Americans have not always been fond of European or Japanese cars. In the mid to late 20th century, Canada had a misplaced if widely believed self-image problem of being a bit of an un-innovative, conservative, branch-plant technological laggard.
Its all a little odd that the nation must be the unit of measurement when so much of technology and so much of sport is global–like the Olympics–or local–like the millions of organized leagues and unorganized pickup athletes everywhere. And so despite the cynicism we can level at the Olympics and the media circus that surrounds it, there is a little, even surprising, flame of hope to be found in the Olympic Charter: the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries, and the International Olympic Committee simply does not draw up an official global ranking by country. So all those tables and rankings of gold vs total medals are just the jingoist exercise we all knew them to be and it is the athletes that matter, not the nations. (I’m just glad it hasn’t become the transnational corporate games yet, for while I prefer Coke over Pepsi I’d never been able to choose between Nike and Adidas. )
Faster, higher, Twitter August 14, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
We have posted a number of items about technology at the Olympics in London. In particular, these posts concerned the use of technology within the sports themselves. Of course, not all the Olympic technology stories were played out on the field. Here are a few that concern technology at the Olympics but in other arenas.
In the US, the biggest off-the-field story would have to be NBC’s decision not to carry events live. To the disgust of many Twitterers, NBC preferred to present the Games on TV during primetime in the US, which comes around hours after the events have actually occurred in London. (The network did, however, stream the events online.) This irked some viewers because the outcomes of the events were usually known before they were broadcast, thus ruining the suspense. Presumably, NBC chose this form of coverage because the Olympics are expensive to cover and primetime is when the network can recoup the most money in advertising for doing so.
Guy Adams, journalist for The Independent, had his Twitter account suspended, apparently for revealing the email address of NBC Olympic president Gary Zenkel in a tweet critical of NBC’s Olympic coverage. Twitter’s rules prohibit tweeters from publishing personal information, such as personal email addresses. However, the email address that Adams published was already available on the Internet, through Google search, and was for NBC’s corporate site, that is, nbc.com. Also, it appears that Twitter may have provoked the situation by alerting NBC to the Tweet so that the network could complain and get the offending account suspended. NBC hosted a special Olympics Twitter feed in partnership with Twitter, so it seemed as though Twitter might, in effect, be censoring tweets in order to prevent its partner from looking bad. Twitter has since retracted the suspension and apologized.
The London Olympics also featured it share of memes. I have already commented on the viral video of Stephan Feck mis-diving into the pool. It turns out that many Photoshop users were also watching the Olympics, and used their skills to produce many hilarious pictures with Olympic athletes inserted.
Finally, British PM David Cameron has announced that the anti-doping testing center built for the Olympics will become the Phenome Centre for genetic research:
The Phenome Centre project will use a portion of the lab’s equipment to analyse patient and volunteer samples to look for biological markers of disease present in the human phenome.
Usually, the material legacy of an Olympic games consists in new sporting venues and housing from the Olympic Village. A medical research center seems a laudable legacy, and also suggests how much doping and therapy tend to overlap in medical technology.
New sporting technology at the Olympics August 10, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Several new technologies have made their appearance in the London Olympics. These new technologies arise in many areas of the games, including security, broadcasting, and training. Here, I want to draw attention to some of the technologies that have gained my attention in the sports themselves:
- Oscar Pistorius, aka the “Blade Runner”, has made Olympic history for participation in the Games with his leg protheses, as Scott has already discussed. His participation caused some controversy concerning whether or not his leg blades give him an unfair advantage. It does not seem so, but the broader issue of how to view prostheses in the Games remains.
- The Mondotrack surface for the racing events has not been much discussed, although I have noted it in an earlier post. The material is specifically designed to produce faster running times. Presumably, the use of this surface will not affect the outcome of the races, in terms of the order of finishing since all of the athletes run on it. However, it may tend to undermine the credit that the runners gain from their finish times, especially Olympic or world records.
- The Quantum Timing system by Omega has received a lot of attention. The system is deployed in the swimming and track races, and can measure intervals to an accuracy of a microsecond. I assume that this increase in accuracy has resulted in fewer dead heats.
- Along with the timing system comes a new set of starting blocks for the track races. The blocks include a pressure sensor that measures when the runner presses against it, indicating a start. Any start that occurs earlier than 0.1 seconds after the starting gun is judged to be a false start. Sprinters respond in around 0.13 seconds, so the design seems reasonable. Also, each starting block has a speaker that plays the starting gun sound, ensuring that each runner can hear it at the same time, no matter what their distance from the starting gun is.
- The Tae Kwon Do events include body and foot pads with pressure sensors. The Protector and Scoring System (PSS) measures the force and location of kicks and punches, thus removing the need for human judges to estimate these from a distance. The same events also now include a video replay system that allows judges to review earlier calls.
- Although the Speedo LZR full-body swimsuits prominent in the Beijing Olympics are not allowed, many swimmers are using the Speedo Fastskin3 suits. These suits have some fancy features designed to reduce drag and thus speed up swim times.
One technology that I would like to see introduced is video review in the soccer events. FIFA, the governing body of the event, says that no system currently available meets its requirements. However, after a couple of calls in the Canada-USA match, I would think that a scheme analogous to that introduced in Tae Kwon Do might be a good idea.
A new danger at the Olympics August 9, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
You have to feel for Stephan Feck, the German diver who blew a dive in the men’s 3m diving competition. During his attempt at the forward 3 1/2 somersault pike, Feck seemed to lose his grip on his left leg, which sprang free and unhinged his form, finally causing him to flop onto the surface of the pool flat on his back. He received a score of zero from the judges.
Feck performed another dive but then withdrew from the competition, “in too much pain to continue“. Robert Dillon of the Sydney Morning Herald continues on to note that the incident illustrates the dangers of diving:
Injury is an occupational hazard for elite-level divers….
Australian rookie Ethan Warren, who finished 15th in Monday’s qualifiers to secure a berth in the 18-man quarter-finals, said he did not see Feck’s faux pas.
He said injuries are part and parcel of every sport but gave an insight into the punishment divers can suffer when things go wrong.
“It depends how you hit the water, really,” Warren said. “You get this big sort of burning, stinging sensation. A bit of bruising, some blood vessels can pop, but overall that’s sport.”
Anyone who has performed a painful bellyflop into the pool should acknowledge the truth of this observation.
The incident also reveals a new danger in Olympic sport, namely the “viral video“. Video of Feck’s flop has gone viral on the Internet, with many commentators making puerile comments on the dive and the diver. We can only hope that Feck’s notoriety does not last long, and that it does not affect him too adversely.
So, the risk of injury and “the agony of defeat” have always been part of sport. In the Internet era, we can add the ignominy of the unfortunate viral video.
Technology and team sports August 8, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The ancient Greek Olympic Games did not include team sports. The Greeks did practice some team sports resembling field hockey and soccer but these were not considered appropriate for the Olympic competition. The Games seem to have embodied the ideal of autarky, that is, self-sufficiency.
The modern Olympics do reflect the same ideal. However, there are a number of team events in the Olympic Games in London. We can divide them up according to the way in which they employ technology.
First are the team events that consist of multiple instances of individual events. In the team fencing events, for example, two teams of three fencers face each other in a set of individual bouts, with each member of one team fighting every member of the other team once. An aggregate score decides which team wins. Another example would be the swimming relay races. In this sort of team event, the technology needed is no different than in the individual events.
Second are the team events that are conducted with the same technology as individual events but using different rules or techniques. In team badminton, for example, the players use the normal shuttles and racquets but play in a court that is shorter and wider than in the individual event. Different strategies of play are called for because of the presence of multiple players and the different court dimensions.
Third are team events that resemble individual events but use equipment that is specially modified for use by multiple team members. Examples would include the team events on the water, such as rowing, paddling, and sailing, in which teams race using equipment that is similar to the equipment used by individuals but has been modified to be used by several team members at once.
Last are team events for which there no corresponding individual events. One example would be soccer. Soccer is inherently a team event and uses equipment that is not used in any individual sport. Similar examples include volleyball, water polo, and basketball.
At least two events do not fit comfortably in this scheme, namely the 4×100m and 4×400m relay races, and beach volleyball. The relay races obviously derive from the normal 100m and 400m sprints but they employ batons and require baton passing that does not occur in the source sports. Beach volleyball resembles court volleyball and shares the ball and net with that sport but is played on a different surface and with only two players on each team.
Many team events employ similar technology and techniques as do individual events. The derivative nature of these events suggests the continued primacy of the individual sports in the Olympics, and the ideal of autarky from the ancient Games. However, the inclusion of team sports with new equipment and techniques suggests that the ideals of collaboration and interdependence has also become important in the modern summer Olympics.
The sporting attitude to technology August 7, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The London Olympics provides us with an ongoing opportunity to discuss the role of technology in Olympic sports. Bernard Suits, who formerly worked in the field of philosophy of sport here at UWaterloo, defined games (& sports) as follows:
To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].
For example, the 100m dash aims to achieve the crossing of the finish line ahead of the other competitors [prelusory goal] using only a launch from starting blocks and running down a 100m lane in a track [lusory means], where the rules prohibit the use of more efficient means, e.g., a motorcycle, [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted because they make a sprinting sport possible [lusory attitude].
In this definition, technology features prominently in the areas of lusory means and constitutive rules: The first stipulates what technology is permitted whereas the second stipulates what technology is prohibited. So, it is not surprising that many technology stories about the London Olympics focus on distinguishing permitted from prohibited equipment. For example, Oscar Pistorius has been permitted to run in the 400m dash with his leg blades. However, the use of whole-body, polyurethane swim suits has been banned in the swimming events.
Although there are important technological aspects to these stories, they are also about the lusory attitude. That is, both decisions were made to respect fairness, to provide all the participants with roughly equal opportunities to succeed. If some competitors are able to afford superior gear, e.g., fancy swimsuits, whereas others are not, then that could be considered unfair. Thus, such swimsuits are disallowed. Fairness in sport, then, is an important part of the lusory attitude and a crucial consideration in the deployment of technology.
However, the relationship between technology and the lusory attitude is not all one way. Fairness does constrain the deployment of technology, but developments in technology also affect the lusory attitude. The development of performance-enhancing drugs, for example, has led to suggestions that new events be created especially for enhanced athletes, e.g., a 100m dash for runners who use steroids. The introduction of new technologies often leads to controversy on whether or not the result is truly a sport or rather some other form of activity.
Suits’s characterization is silent on the matter of what it takes for an activity to become accepted as a game or a sport. Indeed, it is unclear that there is any definitive resolution to this problem. However, some constraints do seem to apply, at least to Olympic sports. One that involves technology is that the technology should serve to facilitate but not to dominate the athlete’s display of physical and mental prowess. Thus, the javelin throw is an Olympic sport whereas the missile launch is not, even though both are competitive activities. It might be great to see whose missile flies further but it hardly seems like a sporting accomplishment.
A more subtle case centers on the so-called “magic carpet” material used for the Olympic track events. The running surface is a special, layered set of materials called Mondotrack:
Mondotrack was first used in 2008 but has been improved. “The backing is now a stretched hexagonal honeycomb shape with elongated, diamond-shaped cells that flex easily in any direction, rather than just forward,” A Mondo spokeswoman said. This makes the track more elastic and responsive, she said, providing better support of the foot – resulting in better control during the rolling movement of the foot, higher energy return and more control and comfort.
Runners have commented on how responsive the new material is, and it may well be helping them to run at new, record times.
The issue with Mondotrack is not fairness; all the athletes run on the same surface. The issue is whether or not the surface is contributing too much to the outcomes of the events. The IOC may like the new surface because new record times make for good television. However, there remains the issue of whether or not such a use of technology is appropriate for the lusory attitude of the Olympics. What do you think?
Olympic timing August 3, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Clocks are very important to the conduct of many Olympic sports. In this posting, I will survey how timing technology features in the games.
(Search Engine People Blog/Wikimedia commons)
Perhaps the clearest example of timing technology in the Olympics is in the time trials in road cycling. In this event, cyclists race individually around a specified course, starting at 90 sec intervals. Cyclists make their way around the course on their own, not in the company of competitors or teammates. Cameras and transponders are used to determine elapsed time. Ranking is based purely on how fast each cyclist completes the course.
In other sports, time is critical because competitions occur in specific durations. For example, a Judo match runs for three minutes (or less). A men’s boxing match lasts for three rounds of three minutes each (or less). The duration of each match is part of the design of the sport: It is long enough to allow the competitors to show their stuff, but short enough to keep everyone engaged.
Timing plays a subsidiary role in sports where ranking depends on order of completion. In the 100m dash, for example, rank depends on the order in which runners cross the finish line. Because there are typically more competitors than lanes, the race is run in heats, with the first two or three finishers moving on to the next race. In some cases, runners who did not finish sufficiently high in order may be advanced because of their finishing time. Consider how this situation works out in Olympic swimming:
There are preliminaries in the 50m, 100m and 200m distances, followed by the top 16 moving to two semi-final heats, with the winner of each semi-final plus the next 6 fastest swimmers moving to the finals.
In the event of a dead heat, there may be a run-off or swim-off between the tied competitors.
Finally, timing seems to have little role in a few sports. Olympic tennis, for example, does not use time to determine ranking or duration of matches. This situation was evident when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France beat Milos Raonic of Canada after a match of 3 hours and 57 minutes. However, a player can be penalized for delay of game for taking more than 90 seconds between plays or 120 seconds between games.
In races, it is odd that so much emphasis is placed on absolute times, given that order of arrival determines ranking. Whenever I see coverage of an Olympic race, there is just as much emphasis and interest in whether or not an Olympic or world record will be broken as there is on the order of finishing. This interest is reflected in the technological effort devoted to the accuracy of timing in these events. Omega, the official timekeeper of the Olympic Games, has rolled out the Quantum timing system for the swimming events, which can time races down to the 1/10,000th of a second.
Such increases in accuracy should have the (fairly minor) effect of reducing the occurrence of dead heats and, thus, swim-offs. It also increases the chances that a record might be broken, as ever smaller decrements in elapsed time can be recognized as new records. This development, in turn, might drum up further interest among spectators, who seem to find the breaking of records as significant (or more so) than the medals themselves.
Of course, dependance on timing equipment can lead to problems. Consider the outcome of a women’s fencing match between A Lam Shin of Korea and Britta Heidemann of Germany. Heidemann was able to win the bout 6 points to 5 after a 5-5 tie. However, it seems that a timer had not been activated after a stop in the bout, thus allowing the bout to go on after it should have ended. Had the bout finished on time with the 5-5 score, Lam would have advanced instead of Heidemann. Unfortunately, the timing equipment is considered right, even if it is not properly deployed:
The result left Lam in tears and prompted her coaches to file an appeal…
“It was most likely that there was some failure with the equipment or the button had been pressed in time,” said general secretary Maxim Paramonov.
“We were confronted by a dilemma: to take the right decision from a human point of view or the right decision from the point of view of fencing rules, which aren’t perfect. The technical committee decided to take the second route.”
So, clocks can play many roles in Olympic sports. They may be needed to record elapsed time as in time trials, duration as in judo matches, or pacing as in tennis. For television purposes, elapsed time seems to be a crucial factor in any sport. Note the disappointment in the following description of records in the Tsonga-Raonic tennis match:
The 66 games played were the most ever in a three-set Olympic match and the 48-game third set also set a record. It wasn’t clear whether any time records were broken since match lengths weren’t recorded in early Olympic competition.
It is almost as if they did not care about the length of tennis matches back then. How odd!
Clocks make some Olympic sports possible. Others they make feasible and, for the audience, more exciting. The Olympic Games without clocks would be unrecognizable.
Gender, sport and technology at the Olympics July 31, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
In this blog, I would like to raise the issue of gender. The Olympic Games tend to simplify the identity of sports. That is, sporting events at the Games are differentiated largely on the grounds of:
- Type of sport, e.g., soccer, 100m dash, synchronized swimming, etc., and
- Type of competitor, e.g., male and female, individual or team, or weight category.
In other competitions, one might find sports broken down along further parameters, e.g., age groups, ability levels, recreational versus professional experience, and so on. The point of creating all these categories of competition seems to be inclusiveness, that is, to allow as diverse a range of participants as is feasible. The point of the Olympics, however, seems to be to be exclusiveness, that is, to produce and to showcase a select number of elite performances.
Perhaps the main exception to the ideology of exclusiveness at the Olympics is the breakdown of competitors according to gender. The first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 had no women’s sports, but each Olympics thereafter has included an increasing number of them. The number of male athletes and events still dominate (the Beijing 2008 Games included 1,704 more male than female athletes, and 38 more male than female sports events/classes), but addition of women’s events have increased the scope of the Games to a large degree. It seems that the tension between the values of exclusivity and inclusivity has moved in favor of inclusivity over time: The types of competitors allowed has increased the number of events, in spite of continuing emphasis on exclusivity in the types of sports.
Technology has, in most ways, played a minor role in this development. Very few sports stipulate that men and women must employ different equipment in their events. The only one that comes to mind is gymnastics, in which only men compete on the horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, and the rings, whereas only women compete on the uneven bars and the balance beam. In other sports, women and men could use the same equipment, if they so choose.
The most controversial application of technology to gender is in gender tests. Because they tend to be physically stronger than women, there is an incentive for male athletes to compete as women. There have been a few competitors in the women’s events who were suspected of being men. The IOC introduced gender tests in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, which involved a physical examination by a series of doctors. However, since these tests were humiliating and invasive, they were discontinued in favor of a more high-tech alternative: genetic testing. Only athletes with XX chromosomes could be considered female for purposes of competition. Of course, this test also proved unsatisfactory, as some people have genetic conditions that call into question the mapping of womanhood to XX chromosomes. For example, Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska had cells that were a mosaic of XX and XXY chromosomes.
The IOC has thus abandoned genetic definitions of men and women. Instead, an athlete is now considered male if their testosterone level is in the male range:
The new rules, announced last month, disqualify athletes from women’s events if they have testosterone levels in the normal male range, which is 7 to 30 nanomoles per liter of blood. Because the top range for women is slightly below 3 nanomoles per liter, such levels could give athletes an unfair advantage that officials have a duty to root out, said Dr. Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of IOC’s Medical Commission and a former Olympic high jumper.
Note that this new test is essentially like a drug test: It is less a test of maleness as much as a test for a performance-enhancing substance. However, it is far from clear that this test will do any better since the relationship between testosterone levels and performance in female athletes is not well understood. It is quite possible that the new rule will give rise to the same sort of problems as did the older one.
In brief, technology has done little to support the value of inclusivity as far as gender is concerned. With the exception of gymnastics, technology has done little to establish any contrast between men’s and women’s events through the development of gender-specific equipment. Neither has it done much to sustain the distinction between male and female competitors.
The question then arises: Is technology neutral with respect to exclusivity or inclusivity within Olympic sports? Or, does it tend to reduce the difference between genders in that arena? What is your view?STV100 , comments closed
There are some people who believe that technology creates cultural convergence: that using similar technologies leads to cultural homogenization. It’s a deterministic view, and often comes up in discussions relating to technology and globalization. However, to continue the theme I started last week, we could easily draw the Olympics into this discussion. After all, it is a global event with over 200 countries participating, and the signs of globalization are omnipresent in logos of a select few multinational sponsors. Moreover, I hope you’re not visiting the games with a hankering for french fries — at least not the non-McDonald’s kind:
To sell fish and chips, the London organising committee (Locog) had to get a special dispensation from McDonald’s, the official restaurant sponsor, which is expected to provide 10% of meals served at the Games. Under its deal with the International Olympic Committee, the fast-food chain had the sole rights to sell chips or french fries. It allows Locog’s caterers to sell fish and chips, but not chips on their own.
The Olympic menu sounds pretty bland, given the hundreds of cultures that could have been represented. But even if there were hundreds of different cuisine available at the Games that might not matter. As David Nye points out in Technology Matters, such a choice might be illusionary. Consider the microcosm of a multi-ethnic food court at the mall, with a variety of different meal options, including curries, kebabs, pizza, and Timbits:
On the level of the technological systems used to produce and deliver the food, most differences evaporate. The food court’s businesses all use the same kinds of freezer, steam trays, fryers, and microwave ovens. They prepare dishes suited to the demands of a cafeterias, an assembly-line operation that functions best when food does not require much on-site preparation before it is is served. (p. 83)
Somehow, that passage reminds me of Olympic athletes: all using the same gear, the same training programs, the regimented and biomechanical pursuit of efficiency and maximization of the human body.
And yet, I’m not worried about cultural convergence. Not after learning of the American television broadcaster NBC deciding to cut a segment from its own coverage of the Opening Ceremonies last Friday. A somber tribute to “terrorism victims” and others who could not join in, depicting the struggle between life and death, was replaced by NBC with an interview of a star American athlete because:
“Our program is tailored for the U.S. television audience,” said NBC Sports spokesman Greg Hughes. “It’s a credit to [ceremony director] Danny Boyle that it required so little editing.”
So I guess the ceremony just wasn’t American enough. Huh. I don’t think it was Canadian enough either, because I don’t recall seeing that bit on the CTV broadcast in Canada. I also missed Lord Voldemort and dozens of flying Mary Poppins. Too British for our post-colonial tastes?
Finally, if we’re going to poke NBC’s lack of global awareness, or perhaps just awareness in general, I was a bit gobsmacked by the NBC reaction to the mid-ceremony appearance of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who was sitting at a computer inside a giant house. Maybe not everyone has to remember the name of the very famous British man responsible for the creation and growth of the World Wide Web, but I’ll let Twitter take it from here:
“If you haven’t heard of him, we haven’t either.” NBC Olympic anchor on Tim Berners Lee. Co anchor: “Google him”. Breathtaking.—
The Firm (@TheFirmOnline) July 28, 2012