What will the 2056 Olympics look like?
As long as the name of the Olympics holds some kind of international prestige, people and countries are going to do whatever it takes to grab those gold medals. But with technology developing at a rapidly accelerating pace, what does that going to mean for the state of global athletics? Maybe it's a good time to dream ahead. Let's take a look at some technologies currently in development that could tilt the playing field for better or worse in 35 years' time.
Genetics: A Pandora's box of possibilities
Today, the Olympics is held up as a fair event because people come to compete with the genetics they were born with. But isn't superior genetic potential itself an unfair advantage? Why should a competitor be stuck with the limited potential their parents gave them?
The world of genetics has been upended in recent years by the discovery of CRISPR-Cas9, which, to grossly oversimplify, allows the precise editing of DNA in a living subject. Initially, the focus of most research seems to be chopping out and replacing the bits of DNA responsible for hereditary diseases.
But it doesn't take much imagination to see how an individual or a national sports program might want to use this kind of technology once it's better understood. In theory, any genetic advantage you can pinpoint can be rolled out into another person's DNA – either before the point of conception with altered sperm and egg cells, or by editing the genetics of an already living person.
To start with, that could go some way toward leveling the Olympic playing field, but that's just the beginning. The days of the genetically edited 10-foot-tall basketballer, designer-built ultra-flexible gymnast or ultimate load-bearing weightlifter might not be that far away.
Who knows if it will be possible to test for edited DNA in the same ways we currently test for performance enhancing drugs. But is it even that different from the idea of government-influenced athlete breeding programs? Famously, China's seven-foot-six basketball prodigy Yao Ming was rumored to be the result of a program in which the Chinese government tracked and "encouraged unions" between its tallest athletes across several generations.
And then there's the genetic sequencing and selection of embryos, which will soon allow IVF parents to examine the genetics of dozens, or potentially hundreds of their own embryos before deciding which ones to implant. As deep-learning AI data analytics begins to uncover more and more about the effects of each gene, parents will get more and more information about each embryo in advance. It's hard to see people selecting against height, athleticism and many other factors that'll give their kids huge advantages in the sporting world and far beyond.
Perhaps the 2056 Olympics will need to see athletes separated into classes based on their genetic status (natural, selected or edited), in order to keep things as fair as possible. But figuring out which is which could be nearly impossible.
Perhaps instead, classes could be cut according to genetic potential. You could go weightlifting only against others with no significant genetic advantages over you. But would people be remotely interested in seeing anyone but the absolute best? The debate, and watching the open class competition, will sure be interesting.
Sensors and Augmented Reality
In many sports, information can be the key to success – or at least, an incredibly valuable training tool. Swimmers are already being fitted with sensors that can provide them with audio feedback to improve their technique. Real-time feedback like this can put you on track quicker than anything a coach can tell you.
Real time monitoring of nutrition levels, hormones and other medical signals could help athletes arrive at the starting line primed for peak performance, and we're already seeing the beginnings of that. Coaches should be able to monitor their athletes from a physiological perspective instead of just a performance one, helping work out the perfect time for substitutions and other interventions.
Likewise, we're starting to see the rise of augmented reality, in which information can be overlaid onto the world as we look at it, and it's not hard to see how that might be useful to an olympic athlete. Imagine AR glasses that predict the flight of an archer's arrow given the current orientation of the bow and the wind conditions, or that can give a marathon runner a bunch of live information about his competitors' pace and locations, or show a trap shooter exactly where to aim as the target flies past.
Presumably much of this functionality will be instantly banned, but the logistics will be difficult. It will be easy enough to check for smart contact lenses or the like, but what about Neuralink-style brain implants, which could conceivably display things directly onto a person's visual cortex without any external attachments, or give people an extra mind-control interface to their machinery? Will athletes need their heads scanned at events?
And who knows, as advanced sensors and augmented reality become more and more integrated into our normal lives, maybe allowing them into the Olympics will start looking like a more reasonable proposition.
Prosthetics and Bionics
There will come a time soon when Paralympic sprint times start to eclipse what "able bodied" Olympians are capable of. Today's prosthetic legs for amputees, for example, are already allowing them to occasionally mix it in the open class in a few different sports. Currently they're reasonably simple blade springs, but some people already consider those an unfair advantage.
Amputee sprinter and occasional murderer Oscar Pistorius was allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes in the 2012 Olympics, but only after a fascinating legal battle to prove his carbon sprinting blade legs didn't give him superhuman capabilities by storing and releasing more energy than human limbs, and that his performance still deteriorated with fatigue in the way that his competitors do.
Pistorius was able to prove that his prosthetics weren't an advantage, but powered knee and ankle joints are in development that will surely eventually outperform a human joint. There are already bionic lenses that claim to give you vision three times better than a natural eye. Bionic hand technology is going gangbusters as well, with prototypes beginning to achieve mind control and touch sensitivity.
The venerable human heart itself could eventually be superseded by a bionic unit – potentially one that provides a constant flow of blood with no pulse per se. Imagine the athletic benefits of a tireless mechanical heart – and of course, the potential dangers.
It's easy to imagine a high-tech alternative Olympics in which the bionic technology is as important, or more important, than the human element, much like modern Formula One racing.
In fact, welcome to the future: it's already begun. In October 2016, ETH Zurich held the world's first Cyborg Olympics in Switzerland – the Cybathlon. Athletes competed using the latest prosthetic technology, brain-computer interfaces and even powered exoskeletons.
The Cybathlon is mainly still focused on bringing disabled humans as close as possible to "normal" capability using technology, but it won't be long before bionic athletes are far surpassing the natural abilities of the human body.
mRNA, the Microbiome and Mind-Altering Substances
Medical technology is advancing so quickly that it's impossible to tell what'll be coming down the pipe in 30 years' time, but there are a couple of key areas of research now that seem certain to make an impact on future athletic performance.
For starters, look at the mRNA vaccines that have leapt into prominence thanks to COVID-19. These ingenious treatments act like instruction codes for your body, telling the cytoplasm in your cells exactly which proteins to synthesize using the same language your body uses.
But you can imagine how these miniature mRNA manufacturing operations could be repurposed to produce a range of performance-enhancing proteins throughout the training process and all the way up to the Olympic finals. It's hard to know what kind of evidence these mRNA treatments might leave behind, should such things be banned in international competition. It's also not a cheap process to develop and test such things – but COVID has kickstarted an extraordinary new technology that's already finding a range of helpful ways to intervene in human life.
Another exploding area in next-gen medicine is the microbiome. We are legion; humans cannot exist without the help of billions of symbiotic organisms, each working toward its own benefit but serving a common good. The vast populations of bacteria and fungi in our intestinal tracts are much more than just passengers; we're rapidly learning just how much they can influence, from our moods to our allergies, our energy levels to our sleep, our immune systems to our inflammation levels and responsiveness to medical treatments.
It's crazy to think the microbiome won't play a key part in future Olympic preparations; if a human is really a team of billions, then you want your team stacked with the most helpful symbiotes you can get. Research is already underway, for example, on a species of lactic acid-gobbling bacteria called Veillonella atypica, which appears to help increase endurance in marathon runners. There will be many more species like this, and athletes looking for an edge against other people as psychotically dedicated to training as they are will need to marshal every bug they can.
And then there's the great mystery of the mind. Many decades of the drug war have robbed humanity of reams of research into the potential benefits of psychedelics and other mind-altering compounds found throughout the natural world and beyond. But things are opening up now, and research is already underway into the potential performance-enhancing effects of psychedelics.
Time and again, when the human body seems to reach its absolute physical limits, we see the "heart of a champion" kicking in; through willpower alone, people can find new reserves of strength and energy. The greatest Olympic moments place this extraordinary mental switch under the spotlight time and time again. And if the brain can convince your body to go into superhuman mode, perhaps there's ways to help the brain do it. Even to make the brain do it. Iron will in a pill. Heart of a champion in an injection. Wouldn't mind a bit myself.
Neurostimulation, the brain, and the Singularity
Already, even at previous Olympics, athletes have been trying to gain an advantage through neurostimulation. "Neuropriming" headsets are starting to emerge that electrically stimulate the brain to prepare it for activity, claiming both to improve the strength and organization of the signals sent to the muscles. This is said to give immediate performance results, but the technique is also proving effective at priming the brain to learn and acquire skills faster.
Of course, this is absolutely trivial compared to what could be achieved through direct brain stimulation, or even direct actuation of the muscles using external electrical pulses. Imagine the muscle memory benefits of having an autopilot-like system take your body through a thousand repetitions of a perfect gymnastics routine, swimming stroke or golf swing.
Perhaps a bigger thing to think about is the technological singularity – the point where we build a computer that's smarter than the smartest human brain. All human technology up to this point is the product of the magnificent, but limited, squishy hardware we're born with. As somebody once said (I'd attribute this, but my flabby human brain can't remember where I read it), humans looking at the universe are like a dog looking at a telephone – we simply lack the mental machinery to understand it beyond a few trivial interactions that we see achieve certain results. But we're accelerating toward a point where we can build computers that have a greater ability to understand things than we do.
Futurists have been speculating for decades on what might become possible after we hit that moment of singularity, but one thing seems certain: the pace of technological development will accelerate wildly. When the human brain invents a machine smarter than itself, that machine will invent something smarter again, and so on and so forth, at an increasing rate of efficiency, wirelessly networked with other burgeoning artificial minds around the globe in the way the human brain could never replicate.
Ray Kurzweil, who popularized the concept of the Singularity in his 2006 book The Singularity is Near, has predicted we're going to hit this liminal moment in technological history in about 2045 – indeed, among experts, the median prediction is closer to 2040. Either way, by the time the 2056 Olympics roll around, enhanced biology should really be hitting its stride. Totally relevant, then.
But what to expect? By its very nature, the Singularity portends to take us far beyond the limits of what the human imagination can conjure. One key tenet is the idea of transhumanism – moving the human consciousness and experience out of the flawed, deteriorating, illness and injury-prone physical bodies and brains we've had to put up with for hundreds of thousands of years, and into some other form that can evolve as the technology itself evolves. Any mental or physical capability we were lacking can be built in, be it the ability to intuitively understand multidimensional space, or remember things perfectly, or interface directly with other minds, or fly, or use twelve yo-yos at once.
At which point, the concept of having a world-wide competition to see who can drag last year's model of meat-bag around a field the fastest will probably start to look a lot less interesting. Maybe we'll have evolved to the point where we value collaboration over competition. Or we may well be worrying more about other questions like what it actually means to be human, and how do we prevent an artificial intelligence far more brilliant than our own from circumventing our feeble-minded attempts to control it and mobilizing an army of nano-bots to enslave us all and turn us into biological batteries.
Or maybe we'll be watching the swimming. Who knows.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on August 8, 2016. It has been revised and updated for 2021.