The 2016 Summer Olympics haven’t even started yet, and they’re already a mess. No matter which way you look at it ― politically, economically, environmentally or scientifically ― Brazil and the International Olympic Committee are struggling to the finish line in Rio de Janeiro.
The degree of calamity in Brazil, and the added panic ushered in by Zika, make the situation there uniquely dire. But many of the issues in Rio are ethical dilemmas that have surrounded the Olympic Games for decades. The years pass, and still, poorly compensated workers continue to build the Olympic stadiums; still, the IOC refuses to pay its oft-impoverished athletes; still, dope-powered athletes continue to pass drug tests; still, local officials continue to falsely claim the games will help the local economy; and still, the gender divide in sports continues to look more and more dated.
To many sports fans, the Olympics can feel like an emblem of the stodgy old guard, enough so to make you wonder: Besides pulling at our nationalistic heartstrings, what do the Olympics really accomplish? And where are they headed?
It’d be pessimistic to view the Olympics as a bleak dystopia beyond repair. So, we asked seven science-fiction writers to imagine how the games might look down the line. Their responses ― including an homage to human athletes facing down robot competitors and an alternative to gender-based event categories ― are refreshingly solutions-focused, offering a glint of optimism in the face of disrepair.
1. Climate change will cause the Winter Olympic Games to change drastically.
-Madeline Ashby, author of Company Town
“First, I question whether the Olympics has much of a future. I understand that there are existing structures of power that work to keep the games going, and for that reason they are likely to continue. But in the long term, in the face of ongoing scandal, rising expense, and rising temperatures, it seems unlikely that the games can continue in the way that they have. After all, how can you have winter sports when winter is only a memory?
“Still, people do love sport. They love competition. They love displays of strength ― both physical strength, and the strength of will necessary to become an (honest) Olympic competitor. That’s why I think that over time, we’ll start to see more movements like the Nemean Games Revival, which is less about brands and more about, well, games. And I think we’ll see a diversity of available games: games for augmented humans, games for different types of bodies, games that recognize gender is fluid. If the IOC wants to live up to its ideals, it will have to both quash corruption and make room for change.”
2. A new, more environmentally sustainable alternative to the Olympics will rise up.
-Malka Older, author of Infomocracy
“I would like to imagine an Olympics untied from nationalism (or, what the hell, a world without nationalism!) where we would see the best athletes competing against each other, not just the best as chosen by each country. In this world nations wouldn’t take any particular pride in hosting the games, so decisions about whether or not to do so would be based on sober analyses of whom the events would benefit and whom they would harm. Or maybe we could divorce the games from corporate interests instead, so that when a country offered to host, they would be hosting with their own resources and the attendance would benefit their own enterprises. (In both these scenarios, by the way, the IOC is long defunct, probably by way of criminal prosecution.)
“These Games would be held without any new construction, without packed sunbaked parking lots or rushed and unsafe facilities or dead workers.”
”Neither of these seem likely. The combination of corporate-subsidized nationalism and tax-payer subsidized investment is too beneficial for both sides. Instead let’s imagine a smaller glimmer of hope, an alternative event, the Sustainable Olympics. We could give them a name, for a place first that opts out of expensive stadiums, traffic congestion, and exploitation: the Jakartics? The Talinnics? The Reykjaviks?
“In any case, these Games would be held without any new construction, without packed sunbaked parking lots or rushed and unsafe facilities or dead workers. They would be broadcast to anyone who wanted to watch them, and without any sob story backgrounds beyond what the athletes themselves chose to tell. They would be low-key, low-maintenance, low-carbon, and yet the stakes would still be high: to be named the best in the world.”
3. Cheesy human interest stories will be replaced by a more immersive, athlete-controlled media experience.
-S.B. Divya, author of Runtime
“The future of the Olympics doesn’t look too bright unless the games make some big changes in their audience engagement. Right now, the International Olympic Committee is stuck in the one-way television age and trying to catch up with the internet while throttling its athletes; access to communication.
“Let the competitors be the eyes and ears and commentators for the games.”
“Meanwhile, the world is moving into increased interactivity ― 3D video, virtual reality headsets, always-on celebrities. This thirst for shared life experience will only grow. The Olympic Games are a brilliant way to showcase the drama of a life spent trying to reach the pinnacle of performance. People devour that kind of story, but tomorrow’s audience is growing ever more sophisticated. They can smell an edited, curated story from a mile away, and they don’t like it. What they want ― even today ― is the raw, personal perspective of each individual athlete. Instant access, no filters.
“If the Olympics are to thrive, the IOC needs to open the floodgates of information and allow athletes to interact directly with the world. Let the competitors be the eyes and ears and commentators for the games. The future is primed for an immersive Olympic experience. I hope we’ll get to see it.”
4. The games will become a nostalgic ode to a time when humans were less scientifically perfect.
-Max Gladstone, author of Four Roads Cross
“What’s the future of the Olympics? Think vinyl.
“Set aside climate change, revolution, and dwindling resources, and assume our society lasts the next two centuries. The more we understand the human body, the faster we will be able to run, and the higher we will be able to jump. Athletes, regulators, and audience will have to negotiate what humanist athletic ideals mean when the human body becomes a limiting factor.
“Someday our children’s children will gather to watch, with metal eyes, a bunch of fierce kids made from meat and bone race the four hundred-meter hurdles.”
“The discussion has already started. Athletes can use some drugs, like caffeine, but not others, like their own blood. No to artificial legs that let sprinters run faster, yes to bathing suits that make a swimmer’s body more sleek. With each new development, we settle on what makes an ‘authentic’ athlete. Someday a human mind in a robot body will run the hundred meter dash in a second. But, for a long time, we’ll believe that doesn’t count.
“Sports will face the hipster’s dilemma. Vinyl is heavy and fragile. A record larger than an iPad stores four songs on a side. But people buy records, and care for them, and value the ‘authentic’ hiss and pop.
“If we survive, someday our children’s children, who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, will gather to watch, with metal eyes, a bunch of fierce kids made from meat and bone race the four hundred-meter hurdles.”
5. And they will do so for the same reason we enjoy going to the movies or looking at art today.
-Patrick Hemstreet, author of The God Wave
“[In the future], your accountant, your masseuse, and your butler (yes, we will all receive a personal C-3PO) will service your needs via a symphonic confluence of circuits and hydraulics. Lightning-fast computation and enhanced processor precision will ensure all pertinent tasks are performed efficiently and free of error. Likewise, the Olympics will showcase the talent of such beloved star athletes as X4-T34G and RP4567-F.
“Yeah — only I really doubt that last part.
“No amount of steroids could transform an Olympian into the likes of X4-T34G.”
“I still go to the theater to see live humans act out fiction and fantasies. The largest playhouse in Houston is about 50 yards from a cinema, yet I still attend and enjoy plays. I still listen to orchestral concerts, although I own the ubiquitous smartphone (paired with a good set of headphones) which separates me by a mere finger tap from any piece of music I wish to enjoy. Chances are, many of you do too. I still want to see humans interact with other humans to demonstrate abilities gained through training and talent alone.
“Why? I — no — we enjoy witnessing the heights and complexities of human ability. To see members of our species blow past seemingly insurmountable barriers is the greatest form of entertainment. Hearing a new story or marveling at the creativity of a new artist is an experience that is firmly enshrined in flesh and bone. This exchange between souls is, dare I say, sacred and will never be yielded to non-sentient metallic automatons.
“That said, the presence of Lucasian mechanical citizens will have some effect on the Olympics, primarily in regard to pharmaceuticals. The use of performance-enhancing drugs will surely remain illegal. But illicit doping in a post robotics-revolution society will be pointless and frankly, silly. After all, no amount of steroids could transform an Olympian into the likes of X4-T34G.
“When the day comes that we are surrounded by walking IBMs and Apples, we will come to a greater appreciation of what it means to be human, warts and all. Think of it, the sanctity of sportsmanship (and all human endeavor) resurrected and cherished as a result of an implacable tide of tick-tock.”
6. Or, it could go the other way, and corporations will sponsor athletes based on their DNA sequences.
-Stacey Berg, author of Dissension
“The future of the Olympics is already here. Athletes take advantage of every available technology to gain an edge, from wearable monitors to altitude chambers to performance-enhancing drugs. What’s going to change in the future is that the athletes will be the technology.
“The new argument is whether to let in players whose entire DNA sequence is synthetic, a technology originally developed for military applications.”
”When the games of the 50th Olympiad open in 2092, ethicists are still debating whether it’s a right or a privilege for ordinary people to have disease-causing traits removed from their embryos, but the Olympics have jumped far ahead. Human gene editing makes it possible to customize the perfect player for every sport, with bigger hearts, better lungs, and faster, stronger muscles designed at will. Sovereign corporations sponsor athletes endowed with patented genetic sequences; fans, at least those who can afford it, snap up these sequences to insert into their own embryos. The new argument is whether to let in players whose entire DNA sequence is synthetic, a technology originally developed for military applications.
“Meanwhile the CyborGames, whose athletes openly embrace mechanical as well as biologic enhancement, are siphoning off the younger, hipper audience. No one knows yet that in 2093, the RetrOlympic Reboot, featuring only athletes produced by random mating, will be the surprise hit show of the year.”
7. And each Olympic event will eventually handle issues of gender differently.
-Ada Palmer, author of Too Like the Lightning
“One big change I think the Olympics will have to face in the next century is how to handle gender segregation in sports. Even here in the early 21st century, binary gender categories are already breaking down. I imagine an Olympics where each event handles gender differently. In events where it makes little difference ― like riflery or chess ― everyone would compete together. Events where size or weight offer major advantages would offer “open” division where anyone could participate, but also events segregated by height or weight, much like boxing today. The smaller classes would have mainly female participants, the larger mainly male, but sex wouldn’t be the divider, the secondary characteristics ― height, reach, stride, shoulder width ― would be.
“The smaller classes would have mainly female participants, the larger mainly male, but sex wouldn’t be the divider, the secondary characteristics—height, reach, stride, shoulder width—would be.”
”I also imagine the future Olympics continuing to be a centerpiece of peacemaking and international cooperation. In many ways the biggest barrier between us and a Jetsons future where we can pop from country to country for a picnic is the international law, borders, conflicts, how to handle national defense as people zip across borders. Lots of industries that would profit from easier international travel — like tourism and sports — have tried to push countries to borders more permeable, but few organizations anywhere have as much international respect, trust, and clout as the Olympics. So I imagine that the Olympics, and sports fans in general, could be the ones to spearhead a movement to push for easier travel regulations, to make it possible for every citizen of the Earth to hop in a flying car and come to the games, see the torch, and share in the Olympic Spirit.
“As I look forward, imagining the political encounters of the next centuries, I think the Olympics will continue to be a space where enemy nations come together after conflict, where marginalized and oppressed groups push for recognition, where alliances are celebrated, causes discussed, awareness raised, grudges eased, and where countries that don’t yet exist will continue to hold each other to the highest standards of excellence. After all, if Antarctica makes the sixth ring on a future Olympic Flag, the Moon or Mars may make the seventh.”
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