August 5, 2016
Around the world, nearly 80 research groups in 25 countries are honing their technologies for the €5-million (US$5.5-million) event. They range from small, ad hoc teams to the world's largest manufacturers of advanced prostheses, and comprise about 300 scientists, engineers, support staff and competitors: disabled people who will each compete in one of six events that will challenge their ability to tackle the chores of daily life. 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. A powered-wheelchair race will test how well participants can navigate everyday obstacles such as bumps and stairs. ... The venue — Zurich's 7,600-spectator ice-hockey stadium — should combine with the presence of television cameras and team jerseys to give the Cybathlon a sporting vibe similar to that of the Paralympics, in which disabled athletes compete using wheelchairs, running blades and other assistive technologies. The difference is that the Paralympics celebrates exclusively human performance: athletes must use commercially available devices that run on muscle power alone. But the Cybathlon honours technology and innovation. Its champions will use powered prostheses, often straight out of the lab, and are called pilots rather than athletes. The hope is that devices trialled in the games will accelerate technology development and eventually be used by people around the world.
Increasingly over the past half century, the Olympics have been seen as an opportunity for host cities to instigate large-scale urban improvement programs, from infrastructure building to the regeneration of entire segments of the city. The hard deadlines associated with the event can provide extra momentum to pursue wishlist projects, like new airports and transit lines, as well as the incentive to make big investments that might otherwise be politically challenging. ... The International Olympic Committee and local organizers are now trying to avoid these kinds of planning missteps and bad investments; leaving behind a positive "legacy" is the new Olympic imperative. London, which spent roughly $15 billion hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics, has been the most proactive in thinking about its Olympic planning as a way to generate long-term benefits for the city, focusing its investments on redeveloping an economically struggling part of the city. Rio de Janeiro, days away from the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics, is hoping to parlay its hosting duties into improved housing and transportation infrastructure—though there are many signs organizers are falling short.
The great dash men of recent history have been overtaken by the specter of doping. Four of the five fastest men ever, whose records were all set in the last eight years, have tested positive for steroids or stimulants. The preceding generation of sprinters, like Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis, was no less defined by doping. Gatlin won a 2004 Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters when he was coached by Trevor Graham, a former Olympian who later received a lifetime ban from track for helping his athletes obtain the drugs they used to dope. Graham’s best runners, including the Olympic sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, tested positive for banned substances. Gatlin’s current coach, Dennis Mitchell, also a former Olympic sprinter, was suspended after a positive test in the late 1990s. ... The pressure to seek chemical advantages in a sport where the margins of victory are so small cannot be overstated. Gatlin finished first at the United States Olympic trials earlier this month. Michael Rodgers finished two-tenths of a second behind him, in fourth place, and did not qualify for the Olympics in that event. ... An industry has popped up to certify which supplements are clean of banned substances. A no-less-vigorous underground industry of pharmacists and endocrinologists boasts to athletes and coaches of being able to increase muscle mass and endurance and speed the healing of injuries while evading ever more sophisticated tests. Anonymous surveys suggest that significantly more athletes dope, often in microdoses, than are caught.
Olympic officials and anti-doping advocates tout the ever-lengthening frontier of drug testing as a deterrent and an assurance that they will pursue athletes who dope, even years after the fact and right up to the statute of limitations. But the system for disqualifying those athletes, reshuffling results and reallocating medals is so cumbersome and prolonged that, by the time it plays out, economic and psychic payoffs for the new recipients have long since evaporated. ... "The reality is that the only people to get punished in the sport from doping [are] the clean athletes." ... Delayed medals never quite add up to full gratification for athletes. Instead, they symbolize the butterfly effect of an altered trajectory. The difference between gold and silver alone can swell to seven figures over a career. Prize money can sometimes be restored, but that's generally a pittance compared to the contractual and commercial opportunities that vanish, impossible to re-create. And there's no way to reconstitute the pomp and emotion of the moment. ... Only half of the summer sports medalists disqualified over that period had positive drug tests during Olympic competition. The other medals were stripped based on retests up to eight years after the fact, or evidence unearthed by law enforcement (such as in the BALCO investigation) or the scrubbing of a sanctioned athlete's results over a period of time, as was done in Lance Armstrong's case. WADA's statute of limitations is now 10 years.
It seemed absolutely crazy. The idea that an Iowa housewife, equipped with the cutting-edge medical tool known as Google Images, would make a medical discovery about a pro athlete who sees doctors and athletic trainers as part of her job? ... First, it was with her family’s Emery-Dreifuss, then when she thought they had lipodystrophy, and now she thought that she and Priscilla just must have a mutant gene in common because of the exact same pattern of missing fat. But how, then, did Priscilla get a double-helping of muscle while Jill’s muscles were scarcely there?
Thirty-one US alternates—sometimes called replacement athletes, reserves, or spares—are headed to the 2016 Games. The overachievers who never expected to make it this far will be thrilled, but most are not. Describing the Olympic alternate experience, they use words like “painful,” “frustrating,” “humbling,” and “incredibly difficult.” ... The Olympic team selection process varies by sport. Athletes from individual sports like fencing, equestrian, and gymnastics earn spots based mainly on tournament results and trials. Team sports like soccer and field hockey are wholly subjective, with roster decisions made solely at the coaches’ discretion. ... Unlike the countless books that have been written about the Olympic Games and athletes alike, no such tomes exist about alternates. There is no list of names of Americans who have served as Olympic alternates ... No estimated number. No real history at all.