Team Blog

Where will it end: enhancement-lympics?

Technology might soon allow us to go beyond our ‘species-typical’ abilities. PBS NewsHour

The Paralympics seems to define itself as representing the below species-typical, impaired people and the Olympics are the species-typical although on the upper end of the bell curve (see my blog To define oneself as less able). In this the Paralympics follows the prevailing meaning of health which is benchmarked to the normal or species-typical body.

We expect certain abilities in members of a species; we expect humans to walk but not to fly, but a bird we expect to fly. If the bird cannot fly, we perceive it as impaired and if humans cannot walk, we perceive them as impaired. It also follows an understanding of ableism that perceives species-typical body abilities as a norm.

However increasingly we can modify the human body to gain beyond species-typical abilities. To have the ability to obtain beyond species-typical, body-related abilities through various means is the focus of the growing group of transhumanists and the concept of transhumanism.

Many of the ability expectations used to justify the preference ableism of species-typical body abilities over ‘sub species-typical’ ones, can be employed to justify the preference ableism of beyond species-typical body abilities over less than beyond species-typical abilities.

Ability expectations of beyond species-typical abilities can be justified through various ethics theories. Virtue and Confucian ethics and consequentialism are employed to support some enhancements beyond the species-typical.

Some ethicists argue for the legalisation of various forms of enhancements in sport and outside. Ethicists such as Julian Savulescu and John Harris push for the obligation to enhance oneself beyond the species-typical.

What has that to do with disabled people? Many ‘therapeutic’ body devices developed to mimic ‘normal’ body structures and expected body functioning, are envisioned to increasingly allow the wearer to outperform the ‘normal’ body in various functions (therapeutic enhancement, TE). The ‘cheetah’ prosthetic legs worn by the South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius are one very instructive example of such a therapeutic’ device with enhancement potential. Disabled people are seen as having a key role in mainstreaming and increasing the acceptance of non-therapeutic technological body enhancements beyond the species-typical.

What will the impact be for the Paralympics and the Olympics when the enhancement form of ableism takes hold?

For one the move beyond the species-typical enables the transformation of the meaning of health which incorporates, condones, and even expects human performance enhancement beyond species-typical boundaries as one prerequisite of being “healthy”, where enhancement beyond species-typical body structures and functioning is defined as a therapeutic interventions. Question is how does that changes the classification codes of the Paralympics?

Secondly, as I stated elsewhere (Wolbring, G (2012) Paralympians Outperforming Olympians: An Increasing Challenge for Olympism and the Paralympic and Olympic Movement Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 6: 2. 251-266):

this shift could make the species-typical athlete part of the Paralympics as they are now the impaired ones who can not compete against the enhanced ones. The Olympics could morph into a techno enhancement Olympics. This would be in tune with the self understanding of the two events as to how they relate performance wise to each other in the moment.

Then there could be the move that the Paralympics become the assistive device events where ‘disabled’ and ‘non disabled’ athletes are together in competing in the mastery of the assistive devices whether therapeutic devices such as wheelchairs and exoskeletons or devices in general including the ones we already have in Olympic events such as bob sleighs and the Olympics became the event of disciplines without devices.“

In the same article I outlined the scenario that "spectators will not find species-typical track and field events exiting to watch but rather as a curiosity as the old uncool way given that the spectator outperforms the species-typical track and field athlete”.

I submit we need a honest debate about the form in which sport can still be of use and what type of ability expectations decrease the utility of sport for the well-being of humans.