Sports enthusiasts like myself look forward to international competitions like the winter and summer Olympics for a wide range of reasons: exciting new gear, competitive races, and big-name athletes, to name a few. But for some people, every two years isn’t often enough to experience the rush of global rivalry.
Others yawn at watching the same old sports every time. Skiing, again? they sigh without enthusiasm. We already know the Nordics have us beat, just like we know that Olympians aren’t accurate representations of average humans, let alone the less fortunate among us.
I wrote last week about how science and technology have the potential to change sports as we know them, but that innovations could be controversial, constituting as “tech-doping” and tilting the playing field. What I didn’t mention is that next year there will be an international event specifically for bionic athletes: humans enhanced by technology.
Called the Cybathlon, or the Bionic Olympics is a competition like no other set to begin on October 8 of 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. The championship is specifically for pilots with disabilities using advanced assistive devices, including robotic technologies.
When the human body meets robotics, amazing things are possible. Some call the result bionic athletics or enhanced humanity, illustrious of what science, technology and medicine can accomplish together.
Here’s a rundown of the various disciplines that will be included in next year’s spectacle:
- Powered arm prosthesis race, through which “Pilots with forearm or upper arm amputations will be equipped with actuated exoprosthetic devices and will have to successfully complete two hand-arm task courses as quickly as possible.”
- Brain computer interface race, through which “Pilots will be equipped with brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that will enable them to control an avatar in a racing game played on computers.”
- Powered wheelchair race, through which ““Pilots with different disability levels (e.g. quadriplegics, paraplegics, amputees) will be equipped with power wheelchairs, which will enable them to steer along a particular race course.”
- Powered leg prosthesis race, through which “Pilots with transfemoral amputation will be equipped with actuated exoprosthetic devices and will have to successfully complete a race course as quickly as possible.”
- Powered exoskeleton race, through which “Pilots with complete thoracic or lumbar Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI) will be equipped with actuated exoskeletal devices, which will enable them to walk along a particular race course.”
- Muscle stimulation bike race, through which “Pilots with complete Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI) will be equipped with Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) devices, which will enable them to perform a pedaling movement on a cycling device that drives them on a circular course.”
The Cybathlon has implications for sports, technology, and people with disabilities. Though none of the disciplines mentioned fall squarely into the sports industry, the parallels are clear. By welcoming cutting-edge technology into the forefront of this competition instead of idealizing natural athleticism, a world of possibilities is opened that could shape the future of sports, create new games, and encourage sport innovations.
But more importantly, the Bionic Olympics suggest that sports are no longer limited to the toned, able-bodied men and women that grace our screens, untouchable as gods and goddesses. Numbering at 65 million, disabled people are perhaps the largest minority in the world. The Bionic Olympics sends a message to all people the disabled should not be marginalized, or treated as less-than. They demonstrate how new innovations can overcome the setbacks of humanity, sometimes augmenting individuals with extraordinary capabilities — we’re talking controlling objects with brain power, lifting heavy loads with bionic prosthesis, and other super-human abilities.
In this way, the Bionic Olympics flips the age-old assumption of what it means to be an athlete — and what it means to be a winner — on its head. Even better, it can push the development of assistive technology so that patients can benefit from it in real life sooner rather than later.
It’s unclear now what the impact of the Cybathalon will be, as it’s certainly not being marketed with flashy commercials like the summer Olympics in Rio. I’m not even sure if it will be televised, and from my own research, it looks like there’s only been a splash of press, most of it last year. All I know is that it would be a shame to let this enthralling endeavor slip through the cracks, because it has the potential to do a lot of good, and, in my opinion, have mass appeal.