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How will innovations in biological science change the fairness, safety, and meaning of sports?

Early Identification Is Already Here

China already screens out youth divers at ages five to eight if their elbows can’t touch above their head.

Science will soon cause a reversal in youth specialization. Children will remain all-around athletes until post-puberty, then be informed which sport they are most physiologically suited for. This is what Australia already does.

The Future Of Injury Recovery: Part Frankenstein, Part Einstein

By converting skin cells into stem cells, then spraying stem cells onto natural collagen scaffolds, we have already regrown ears, tracheas, and bladders — and successfully transplanted them back into humans. To restate: this is not the future. It’s already happening.

Meanwhile, “fracture putty” has been invented and is being tested in humans. Broken bones heal in days, not weeks, thanks to a needle injection of stem cells and platelets into bone fractures.

Where is this headed in 20 years? The line between artificial body parts and natural ones will gradually blur as medical scientists converge on how to rebuild humans — first for injury recovery, then for life extension, and eventually for enhancement.

Materials Technology Deserves More Credit

According to David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, if Jesse Owens were teleported out of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and into today’s world championships of the 100-meters, he would finish second behind Usain Bolt. The reason? Because back in 1936, when Owens ran it in 10.2 seconds, he did so on soft cinders and trowel-dug starting blocks. If he were racing on today’s track surfaces, using modern starting blocks, he would finish a half-second faster. Racetrack surfaces have had a far bigger impact on sprint records than human improvements. Humans are not actually faster (well, one is). We just seem faster thanks to the track.

In the same way, special contact lenses already give baseball players 20/8 eyesight — improving their batting averages significantly. Football receivers’ gloves are so sticky they turn the game into a magic show. Speed-skating ice is demineralized and sprayed on, a single mist layer at a time. Low-friction swimsuits shattered world records so quickly they were outlawed — but the invention of gutters on the sides of the pool that prevented splashback made just as much of a difference. Most of these technological advancements are considered perfectly legal; it’s only when they abruptly change the game (as with the swimsuits) that we declare them illegal.

Now imagine turf football fields designed to help every receiver hit 22+ miles per hour on a route. Imagine spring-loaded, carbon-fibre basketball floors that add six more inches to players’ vertical leap than they have today.

Predicting the Future

1-5 Years

Genetic Screening

Sports continue to stumble as new cases of doping undermine fan interest. Regulators promise detection systems they can’t deliver. Fan attention gravitates to athletes who succeed because of their mental edge, since physical advantages become increasingly suspect.

An obsession with athletic pedigrees leads to a fad of genetic screening at early ages, whereby the vast majority of children are told they have no chance at a professional, collegiate, or scholastic sports career before they even hit kindergarten. Eventually this categorical denial of hope becomes socially unacceptable. It’s also bad for business; today’s kids are tomorrow’s fans.

5-10 Years

Genetic Enhancements

Athletes are first allowed to use genetic enhancements for injury prevention and safety. But as non-professional athletes and medical patients enjoy the benefits of these new treatments, we finally start letting professional athletes use the performance enhancers up to a predetermined, safe level.

10-25 Years

Natural & Enhanced Athletes

Future sports won’t be a battle of humans vs. robots. There will be natural athletes, and there will be enhanced athletes. They will play in separate leagues, the same way today we have amateur collegiate leagues and professional leagues. But there will be a Super Bowl. Who wouldn’t pay to see if natural-born humans can beat ones we “perfected” in the lab?

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