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Tech by VICE

Switzerland Will Host the First Bionic Olympics in 2016

Cybathlon is a cyborg-friendly competition for parathletes.

by Meghan Neal
Mar 26 2014, 6:50pm
Images: Cybathlon

Last month, I wrote about the risk of a "technology doping" scandal during this year’s Olympic Games in Sochi, which were peppered with souped-up gear like nanotech swimsuits made by aerospace engineers, potentially toeing the line between utilizing the best modern-day equipment and cheating.

It's an ethical grey area in athletics that's just getting murkier as bio-enhancing devices improve, and it's even more complex in the Paralympic Games, where assistive devices like prosthetics are of course commonly used. But even parathletes have to comply with strict guidelines limiting how far your gear can take you; the goal is to match able-bodied human strength, but not to go beyond.  

But this is the 21st Century, where technology is the star of the show. So I wasn't too surprised when I heard that in 2016, Switzerland will host the first Cybathlon, basically an Olympics for cyborgs, whose MO is that augmenting human ability with biotech shouldn't just be permitted, but encouraged.

The Cybathlon will award two categories of medals for each event: one for the athlete and one for the scientist or company that manufactured the robotic assistive device. That includes things like the latest prosthetics, exoskeletons, and powered wheelchairs, and more futuristic technologies like electrically stimulated muscles and brain-computer interfaces.

For instance, during the BCI event (image above), participants—or “pilots” to use the Cybathlon lingo—that are paralyzed below the neck will be equipped with brain-machine interfaces that will enable them to control an avatar with their mind. The virtual avatar will compete in a horse or car racing video game.

Here are the six competitive events and their promo images, via the Cybathlon website.

Powered Arm Prosthetics Competition

Powered Leg Prothetics Race

Powered Exoskeleton Race

Functional Electrical Stimulation Race

Powered Wheelchair Race

And a trailer for the games, published earlier this month:

Sponsored by the Swiss National Competence Center of Research in Robotics, the idea is to promote the development of new medical devices and research. But it also opens up a whole range of questions about the future of competitive sports in the age of augmented humans.

Maybe you remember the famous case of Oscar Pistorius during the 2012 summer Olympics in London? He beat out able-bodied competitors running the 400-meter race with blade-like artificial "Cheetah" legs. It earned him the fantastic nickname, "Blade Runner," and started a huge controversy over the ironic notion that prosthetics may give disabled players an unfair advantage.

Whether it's unfair I'll leave open to debate, but there's no question it's an advantage, and increasingly, a big one. Once you open that door, where does it stop? It’s easy to let the imagination run wild: Will there be a superhero Olympics somedaywho can fly the highest, or teleport the furthest?

We've wondered before about what a man vs. machine Olympics would look like. Now we’ll get a peek at what’s possible when man and machine start to merge.  

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Oscar Pistorius