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A League of Their Own

Let’s say it’s the year 2048. Nairobi is hosting the summer Olympics. The feel-good story of the games is about a paraplegic runner who regained function thanks to a surgically implanted brain-computer interface—and dogged perseverance, of course. She goes on to win the gold. Then the story takes a turn: Competitors allege that the neuroprosthetics that helped her recover the ability to run actually provided her an edge over the competition. Should the International Olympic Committee put an asterisk next to her record-breaking time? Strip her medal? Amend its bylaws to bar all future cyborgs?

This story of a bionic ringer isn’t pure science fiction. In 2012, Oscar Pistorius ignited a similar scandal when some competitors alleged the prosthetic “blades” he ran on granted an unfair advantage. Pistorius didn’t win any medals at those games, which is probably why nobody forced the issue. However, neuroprosthetics—devices that restore or enhance body or brain function by communicating with a person’s nervous system—could push the human body far beyond its natural limits of strength, speed, agility, and recovery time. These technologies are still in the early stages, but the double-edged nature of human ingenuity all but guarantees that, if scientists do someday create neuroprosthetics capable of enhancing human physiology, some hyper-competitive cheats won’t be far behind.

Neuroprosthetics is still a young field, and its most promising clinical applications remain years away from mainstream medicine. Still, the technology is promising enough to imagine the inevitable crossovers into nefarious nonclinical applications. Bionic limbs promise obvious enhancements to strength and dexterity. Deep brain implants that calm Parkinson’s tremors could evolve into stimulants that enhance an athlete’s reaction time. Such fine-tuned control of the body’s synapses could allow athletes to cheat in undreamt-of new ways. Regulations might seem like the solution for containing such abuses, but the drug scandals that rock sports every few years are testaments to prohibition’s futility. Instead, let’s give these nerve-jacked jocks of the future a league of their own.

The idea for separate, performance-enhanced leagues originated in response to sporting’s neverending doping saga. The most common protest against the notion is that it would encourage athletes to engage in risky behavior. Anti-doping purists often raise this argument to oppose similar ideas about freeing athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs: Misuse could damage vital organs, push bodies past the limits of recovery, and even result in overdoses.

However, this idea runs counter to evidence that prohibition itself is what encourages athletes to take dangerous risks. Confused? Well, first consider how easy it seems to be to not get caught doping in professional sports. In 2015, journalists were leaked blood testing data from the International Association of Athletics Federations that suggested nearly a third of all athletes who won Olympic medals between 2001 and 2012 were doping. A 2015 Dutch survey indicated that only about 2 percent of all athletes who dope get caught. Harvard University ethicists have argued that those two statistics explain why doping is actually a highly rational decision for any competitive athlete: If all your top competitors are cheating without consequence, why shouldn’t you join in?

Performance-enhanced leagues render cheating moot. The reason is accountability. If society enjoys a transparent view of what augmented performance looks like, athletes who opt to cheat in so-called “natural” leagues would have less plausible deniability for their gains is strength, speed, agility, and recovery time. They’d be as easy to spot as a WWE wrestler on the Greco-Roman college circuit.

These leagues could actually prove safer for athletes. Trainers, physicians, and yes, regulators, would ensure performance enhancers are used responsibly. Neuroprosthetics present a different risk profile than drugs, beginning with the invasive surgery required to install most of the hardware. Many of the other risks aren’t yet known, but could include exposing the body to radiation, infection, or physiological strain. The necessary medical oversight alone could make a compelling case in favor of augmented neuroprosthetic leagues.

Sports are hugely profitable enterprises, and some of the world’s most talented physicians, engineers, and scientists help athletes perform at their peak. Enhanced leagues could lead to the accelerated refinement of neuroprosthetic devices that might help even non-athletic humans perform better in their daily lives. We could also see a Moore’s Law-like effect reducing the cost of neuroprosthetic devices, making them more affordable for people without wealth or privilege.

The biggest challenge for enhanced leagues would be recruitment. After all, to realize any of the aforementioned benefits, the augmented athletes would have to believe they won’t be ostracized. Society can begin by confronting its existing biases against augmentation. Athletes who compete in so-called “special” leagues are rarely recognized for their skill, drive, and spirit. In some ways, it is disabled athletes who represent the apotheosis of the sporting ideal—pushing themselves to perform the impossible. The fact that they, or any other athlete, might use technology to achieve their goals might seem unnatural, but it’s the most human thing in the world.