I have something to confess.
I’m an Olympics junkie.
It’s true. Sports I don’t follow 3 out of 4 years suddenly feel like must-watch TV. Athletes I’ve never heard of suddenly become topics of daily conversation in my family. It’s completely engrossing and ridiculously fun.
What makes these athletes so good? Take Michael Phelps — the most decorated Olympian ever. It’s part biology: his long torso is designed for the water. It’s part focus: watch him lock in with his headphones pre-race. It’s part hard work: he has logged thousands of hours doing lap after lap in the pool.
Sometimes athletes get an extra edge from technology. Remember the high-tech full-body swimsuits that were deemed to create too great an advantage for those, including Phelps who wore them in Beijing?
As we are discovering more and more often, a huge number of athletes are also seeking an advantage through doping, as almost the entire Russian team apparently has been doing.
What separates the training techniques we allow from those we call “cheating?” It’s not straightforward. And what if we just allowed athletes to do whatever they wanted to prepare? SNL long ago imagined the future in “The All Drug Olympics.” (worth watching!).
This week I’ve found some mind-bending reads on the topic of technology, chemistry, cheating and the Olympics. Really good stuff.
I also include some of the profile pieces I’ve most enjoyed on 4 of this year’s stars: Michael Phelps, Simone Bile, Katie Ledecky, and Usain Bolt.
Read widely. Read wisely.
1. The Fascinating History of Olympic Doping
The gist: This quick read covers some of the most interesting stories of athletes trying to gain an edge through shady means, and how the technology for avoiding detection is advancing today.
“In the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, the American Thomas Hicks won the marathon gold in a bold display of performance enhancement: His handlers fed him steady doses of whiskey, egg whites, and strychnine — though now used as a pesticide, the drug was marketed as a tonic into the 20 century, like some sort of Victorian energy drink. Hereportedly lost eight pounds over the 26.2 mile race. But poisoned or not, he won.”
“Doping Is As Weird and Old As the Olympics, and It’s Only Getting Weirder”
by Drake Baer in New York Magazine
(5 minute read)
2. Self-Driving Cars and Swimming?
The gist: The USA swimming team is using technology from BMW’s autonomous-driving cars unit to analyze the performance of their swimmers in the water. So cool! Is it fair?
BMW Deploys Self-Driving Technology for Olympic Swimmers
by Jonathan Levin and Tariq Panja in Bloomberg
(2 minute read)
3. How do we define “cheating”?
The gist: This is such a good article. It explores how we determine what’s cheating and what isn’t in sport and how the line is often pretty arbitrary.
“So, as the rules stand: having an incredibly rare gene mutation that boosts red blood cells — okay; training at altitude to boost red blood cells — okay; shelling out thousands of dollars to sleep in a tent that simulates altitude — okay; injecting a drug, one approved for other medical uses that causes your body to act as if it’s at altitude — you’re a disgrace. How should we draw the line? Where does a fair advantage end and cheating begin?”
This is my top recommendation of the week.
“Magic Blood and Carbon-Fiber Legs at the Brave New Olympics”
by David Epstein in Scientific American
(7 minute read)
4. The Superhuman Olympics
The gist: This piece begins with a killer first line: “For the purpose of this post, I’d like to suspend moral and ethical considerations for a moment…” It goes on to imagine a future where athletes and scientists team up to enhance human potential beyond what is possible today through gene editing, robotics and exoskeletons, augmented reality and AI. Wild stuff.
“We’ve seen a number of recent extraordinary advances in gene editing technology…As this develops, imagine we get to a place where we can design athletes for specific sports…A swimmer might want to select for an elongated torso or more muscle endurance. But why stop there? Perhaps we could even edit in webbed fingers and gills.”
This Is the Olympics On Technology — When Enhancement Is the Norm
by Peter Diamandis in Singularity Hub
(6 minute read)
5. The Cyborg Olympics
The gist: One entrepreneur is working to create the kind of olympic games imagined in the previous article — with athletes and technology openly working together. The “Cybathlon”, hosted in Zurich this October will feature athletes showcasing hardware designed to help the disabled with prosthetics and other tech.
“A race for prosthetic-arm users will be won by the first cyborg to complete tasks including preparing a meal and hanging clothes on a line…Easily the strangest will be the brain–computer interface (BCI) race, which will feature 15 pilots sitting still for 4 minutes while large screens in the arena show what is going on in their heads. Each will attempt to guide an on-screen character through an obstacle course using specific patterns of brain activity, translated by an electrode cap into three commands: accelerate, jump over spikes or roll under laser rays.
Welcome to the Cyborg Olympics
by Sara Reardon in Nature
(12 minute read)
Bonus: Olympic Profiles
If you want to geek out on the Olympics, here are some awesome pieces on four of the most compelling Olympians this year (they all will rank among the greatest of all time.)
Seeking Answers, Michael Phelps Finds Himself by Karen Crouse in The New York Times. (15 min)
You’ve heard about Phelps wanting to “do it right” in this Olympics. This is the story of his fall and his turnaround. “Phelps described his decline as inevitable and said: ‘It’s like we dreamed the biggest dream we could possibly dream and we got there. What do we do now?’”
Katie Ledecky vs. Secretariat — Which Machine Was More Tremendous? by Josh Levin and Jessamine Molli in Slate (3 min read)
Fun article comparing two of the most dominant racing performances in the history of sports.
A Full Revolution by Reeves Wiedemann in The New Yorker (30 min read)
An in-depth profile of the gymnast that many are calling the best in history. “I met Simone there at nine in the morning, as she began a warmup that involved climbing twenty feet up a rope in five seconds, using only her arms. Biles is four feet eight, but she is all muscle, with jackhammers for legs and a tendency to bounce around a room, whether or not it has mats.”
Usain Bolt’s Final Turn by Luisa Thomas in Grantland (16 min read)
This article is a year-old but is some of the best writing on Bolt, the man who hopes to win the 100m dash for record third time in a row (no one else has done it twice). “He hits the ground with a thousand pounds of force, twice what most humans can do…Other sprinters have low centers of gravity, compact bodies, legs like pistons. Gatlin, for one, is built like a train. Bolt spends more time in the air. He seems to soar.”