Technology to continue to push athletes' limits

MICHAEL DALY
Last updated 05:00 19/07/2012
HARDER, BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER: Performance-enhancing technologies will advance to a point where they would extend human limits and need an Olympics of their own, engineer Hugh Herr says.
Reuters
HARDER, BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER: Performance-enhancing technologies will advance to a point where they would extend human limits and need an Olympics of their own, engineer Hugh Herr says.

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Performance-enhancing technologies will create athletes who need an Olympic Games of their own, a biomechanical engineer predicts in the latest edition of Nature.

Hugh Herr's lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working on a bionic running leg.

With the 2012 Olympics in London only days away, Herr told the journal that decades into the future, a bionic limb would be produced that was so sophisticated it truly emulated biological limb function.

That would be an "Olympic sanctioned limb", but without any human-like constraints it would become the basis of a human-machine sport such as race car driving.

Performance-enhancing technologies would advance to a point where they would extend human limits and need an Olympics of their own, Herr said.

"For each one there will be a new sport - power running, and power swimming, and power climbing."

New sports would emerge in the same way as the invention of the bicycle led to the sport of cycling.

Returning to the present, orthopaedic surgeon Scott Rodeo cast doubt on suggestions surgery was already improving the elbows of baseball pitchers.

Pitchers who had surgery to replace a damaged elbow ligament with tissue from a hamstring or forearm tendon have claimed they could throw harder after the two-year rehabilitation process.

But Rodeo said the science did not back up the stories.

Replacing an entire joint would also be unlikely to work under the physical demands of elite sport, he said.

That could change if researchers made major advances in engineering skin, tendons and other replacement body parts.

Andy Miah, a bioethicist at the University of the West of Scotland suggested the possibility skin grafts might be used between fingers and toes to improve swimming.

Nanotechnology was another frontier. Researchers were already experimenting with blood supplements based on oxygen-carrying nanoparticles for use in emergency situations.

There was a lot of talk about the possibility of biologically infused nanodevices that could perpetually maintain certain thresholds of performance.

Another article in the journal raised the possibility that future Olympics could allow handicaps and gene therapy for people born without genes linked to athleticism.

There was growing evidence world-class athletes had a minimum set of performance-enhancing genes, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans from life science technologies investment firm Excel Venture Management said.

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More than 200 gene variants had been associated with athleticism.

In the future Olympic rule-makers might use handicaps to level the playing field for athletes without the beneficial genes, or athletes might be allowed to upgrade through gene therapy, if that was safe.

The authors said they expected that as genetic modification became more common, there would be a gradual acceptance by Olympic officials of safe genetic enhancements.

They also questioned how easily scientists could detect wither a genetic variant was natural or introduced, pointing to the problems already encountered in trying to confirm the gender of female competitors.

- Fairfax Media

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