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Caster Semanya and the Purity of Sport September 10, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports, Transhumanism.
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Caster Semanya is all over the news.  By now you’ve probably heard the details (if not you can read them below) so I won’t go into them here.  Suffice to say that Ms. Samanya, the woman’s 800m champion, possess internal testes and is thus not technically a women.  When I first read this story I thought it was an interesting end to a story I had been following for awhile.  What I missed at the time was that this story is not simply about Semanya but has implications for the very foundation of sports.

To understand what I mean you have to understand why people are so concerned with whether or not Semanya is a woman.  In regards to the testing performed on Semanya the IAAF says, “These tests do not suggest any suspicion of deliberate misconduct but seek to assess the possibility of a potential medical condition which would give Semenya an unfair advantage over her competitors. There is no automatic disqualification of results in a case like this.”

A potential medical condition which gives her an unfair advantage.  Think about that for a minute.  Forget for a second that it is her gender which is in question and what the IAAF is saying is that they are investigating whether or not she has a natural advantage over the other athletes.  This is really not the issue as she clearly does have an advantage, her testes giving her far more testosterone (the prime muscle building hormone) than other female competitors.  The issue is whether or not she, and by extension other athletes, can and should be punished for having a natural gift, whether or not an athlete can be punished for having a body with a natural advantage.  Should the IAAF answer yes the implications are staggering.   Could Michael Phelps be banned from competing because of his genes have given him an almost perfect swimmer’s body?  Should Lance Armstrong be stripped of his titles because his cancer treatment left him with a different, possibly more advantageous, physique?  What conditions are allowed and which ones can get you banned?  Believe me I realize this sounds crazy but it’s not unthinkable.  It is exactly where the purity of sport argument takes us.

The purity of sport argument is the overarching reason why things like this or performance enhancing drugs are even talked about.  The argument basically goes that we must ensure that sports is a level playing field, where no athlete has an unfair advantage over the other and all are free to succeed or fail based only on there own talent and determination.  It is a wonderful ideal that, at least for Americans, touches at the very heart of what we consider our core values; belief in individualism, fair play and the idea that if you work hard enough you can do anything.  Unfortunately, as I have said many times before, it’s also complete rubbish.   There is one major flaw in the argument and Caster Semanya exemplifies it perfectly: there is no such thing as a level playing field.  Caster Semanya, like most champions, was born with an innate advantage over her opponents.  Yes, she had to work very hard to get to the level she is at today, but the fact remains that she possess physical gifts that set her apart from the rest of her competition.  To punish her for that is to admit that the purity of sport argument has failed, that there is no level playing field and attempts to enforce the idea are doomed to fail.

The thing is, while there isn’t a level playing field now there could be one in the future if we allow it.  Far from widening the gulf between athletes, things like performance enhancers could serve to make all athletes essentially equal at the biological level.  If Caster Semanya’s excess testosterone gives her an advantage then the solution is not to punish her for something she didn’t do but to give her opponents the option to have that same advantage.   With all athletes biologically equal the only advantage one could have would be in skill or the will to succeed, which is what sport is all about anyway. Give athletes control over their own bodies and far from destroying sports you may just make it better.

Womens 800m Champion Not Exactly A Woman September 10, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports, Transhumanism.
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I have been following this story since I first heard about it but I must admit that this is a twist I didn’t see coming.  For those of you who don’t know there has been a bit of controversy hanging over the current women’s 800m world champion, Caster Semenya.  A few months ago the South African runner won the 800m at the world championships, absolutely destroying her competition in the process.  Almost immediately questions were raised about whether or not Semanya was actually a woman, those questions being fueled by her dominating performance, her deep voice and masculine features.

Well, the IAAF tested Semanya and discovered that she is not a man, but neither is she technically a woman.  It turns out that while Semanya possess a vagina she lacks ovaries.  Instead she has a pair of internal testes making her technically a hermaphrodite.  Those testes have been producing an abundance of testosterone which probably accounts for her masculine voice and features.

The presents a bit of a problem for the IAAF.  It’s clear that Semanya didn’t violate anti-doping rules and she probably was unaware herself of her condition.  However, the fact remains that Semanya is not technically female.  Oddly enough, had Semanya been transgender (i.e. male to female) this would have been a much easier process.  While I’m unsure about the IAAF I know that the IOC has guidelines allowing for the participation of transgender athletes in athletics.

But Semanya isn’t transgender, nor is she technically female, nor technically male.  She is something sports hasn’t had to deal with yet, at least not at this level of competition. You can be sure though that we’ll see more episodes like this in the future as technologies like germline genetic engineering become commonplace.  If we have controversy over a competitor who isn’t technically female, what will we see with competitors who aren’t “technically” human.

On a side note, I personally think she should be allowed to keep her medal as she clearly wasn’t trying to cheat and thankfully that seems like what is going to happen.

World Baseball Classic Championship March 23, 2009

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The final game between Japan and Korea just went to extra innings. If you’re not watching this game, start now. It’s a great one.

The World Baseball Classic and the Arrogance of American Sports March 22, 2009

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Tonight I heard quite possibly the stupidest thing I have heard in a very long time.  I was watching the World Baseball Classic, an international tournament compromising the best players in the world playing for their national teams.  Think of it as the World Cup, thought not nearly as popular, for baseball.  Tonight the USA was playing Japan in the semifinals.  The thing that pissed me off was something one of the commentators said.  They were discussing some questionable moves made by the American coach, keeping a player in when they should have been pulled, and one of them made the point that to a large degree his hands had been tied by the managers of the Major League teams.  The managers wanted to make sure their players got in enough playing time to be ready for the regular season, so rather than simply playing to win the coach also had to make sure he kept players healthy and ready for the regular season.  The stupid thing is not that but what one of the commentators said in defending it, that the managers were right to do that because the regular season was what really mattered in the end and that the players weren’t too worried with this tournament.  According to him they were more concerned with, and now I’m quoting, “winning a world championship.” (i.e. World Series)

I wanted to yell at the screen, THIS IS THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP YOU IDIOT!  The real world championship!  Teams from countries around the world playing not for money, not for themselves, but for the pride of their nations.  That is something worth playing for and it pisses me off that people can ignore that so easily.  But I can’t be too angry at him, because that’s how Americans view international tournaments.  Sure we all pretend to give a damn about the Olympics when it rolls around but when you get right down to it we just don’t care.  We’re the last superpower.  If we win that just proves how great we are.  If we lose, eh, we weren’t really trying anyway.  We have to worry about the “world championship.”

The Illusion of Fairness in Sports March 17, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Human Enhancement, Sports.
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With all the various doping scandals going on in the sporting world right now the word fairness gets thrown around alot.  The idea of fairness in sports is something that is drilled into most of us at a young age.  The idea of sports as a “level playing field,” where no one takes the short cut and everyone succeeds based on their grit, determination and natural talent is appealing to most people.  Unfortunately, it’s also hypocritical and counter-intuitive.  Allowing athletes to use performance enhancers would actually make sports more fair for reasons I will explain below.  Before we get to why athletes should be allowed to use these substances let’s deal with the arguments why they should not.

The objections to the use of performance enhancing substance can be boiled down to two general positions: these substances are dangerous and should therefore be banned, or these substances give some athletes an unfair advantage and should therefore be banned.  As to the first, though as a general rule I think people should be able to do with (and put into) their body as they see fit, when it comes to athletics I agree with this position.  The ultimate end to transhumanism is to make humans stronger, smarter and healthier.  Using substances that give short term boosts to performance but in the long run destroy the body is counter to this goal.  In addition, making harmful substances legal puts some athletes in a position where they must choose between their health and their career, a choice they should not be forced to make.

As to the second objection, it should be obvious at this point that I don’t agree with it.  Saying these substances are an unfair advantage is a poor argument for one simple reason: sports are not fair.  To use myself as an example, I’m 5’9″ and about 160 pounds.  I will never make it into the NFL and neither will most of the men in America.  It doesn’t matter how hard we work or how much practice we put in.  The simple simple fact is that most people are not lucky enough to be born with the natural gifts to become an NFL football player.  Is that fair?  Is it fair that a roll of the genetic dice largely determines who has the athletic ability to become a world class athlete?  No, frankly it is not, and those who were lucky enough to be born with the right genes possess an unfair advantage over those who don’t.  Which brings us to the reasons for allowing athletes to use performance enhancers.

For starters, allowing athletes to use performance enhancers would actually help to make sports more fair.  By eliminating most, and at some point all, differences in physical ablility we can make it so that the only thing which determines a persons success is their effort, their drive, how much time and practice they put in to perfecting their skills, all the things that people say they want to preserve in sports.  Secondly, attempting to restrict what people can and can’t put into their bodies represents an invasion of privacy and an attempt by government and society to legislate standards of behavior.  Not only is this a morally wrong position, it’s also a terribly unsucessful one (just look at the war on drugs, prohibition, and the number of doping scandals in sports to see how successful we have been at outlawing goods) and does nothing to ensure the safety of the athletes.  A better system would be to allow athletes to dope while having systems in place to ensure the safe use of performance enhancers, similar to the idea of legalising currently illegal drugs while having programs in place to help addicts and others under the influence.

In short, the effects of outlawing performance enhancers have repercusions far beyond the sporting world.  They go to the heart of whether or not people have the right to own bodies or whether others (government, church, society) have the right to determine what a person can and can’t do with themselves.

Olympic Update Final August 25, 2008

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Sorry about the break in the updates.  I’m currently touring Europe, so I haven’t had a whole lot of time to update this site.  Still, now that the Olympics are over I figured a recap would be a good idea.

Final Medal Count (Top 3)

China: 51 Gold, 21 Silver, 28 Bronze           Total: 100

USA: 36 Gold, 38 Silver, 36 Bronze              Total: 110

Russia: 23 Gold, 21 Silver, 28 Bronze          Total: 72

Now depending on how you measure it, either China or the US could be considered the winner of these Olympics (though frankly I find the idea of a country winning the games to be idiotic, going against everything Pierre de Coupertin believed when he started the modern games, though thats another story.)  If you prefer gold medals then China easily won, notching 51.  If you prefer total amount than the US came through with the victory, beating out China by ten medals.  Somehow, I’m guessing that where you live is going to determine who you think won the games.

Most everyone knows this by now but it bears repeating.  Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian in history!   He won eight gold medals, setting seven new world records and one Olympic record, giving him a place in history as the man to win the most gold medals at a single Olympics, beating out Mark Spitz’s total of seven, and the most gold medals in a career (14.)  With sixteen total medals to his name, he now needs only two to tie Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina for most career medals ever.  Anyone want to place bets on whether or not he’ll do it.

Michael Phelps wasn’t the only on breaking records and dominating races at these Olympics.  Jamaica’s Usain Bolt won three gold medals in as many races (the 100m, 200m and 4×100 relay) in dominating fashion, setting new world records in a three.  In addition, if he hadn’t had put his arms out and celebrated with 20m left in the 100m dash, he would have been even faster. Thats a scary thought.

This came as somewhat of a shock to me when I heard this, but Kenya has never won a gold medal in the marathon.  That is until now.  Sammy Wanjiru won the marathon in spectacular fashion, finishing with a time of 2 hours 6 minutes 32 seconds, a new Olympic record, to give the great running nation of Kenya the only piece of hardware it had yet to get. 

The USA’s men’s basketball team, the Redeem team as they were known, put America back on top by beating Spain in the finals.  After marching through the tournament with relative ease, by which I mean they destoryed teams by 40 points,  Spain showed the US that it’s days of unquestioned dominance are coming to an end, if not over.   Though they lost by a final score of 118- 107, Spain entered the fourth quarter down only two points and managed to hang around until the very end.  The US is still the best team in the world, but the world is quickly catching up.

Since I’m currently in Ireland I have to give it up to the Irish.  They brought home three medals in boxing, two bronze and one silver, with some spectacular performances by their fighters Paddy Barnes, Kenny Egan and Darren Sutherland.  Unfortunetley, all I could think about was how horrible the scoring system in Olympic boxing is.

Olympic Update #5 August 13, 2008

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Medal Count (Top 3)

China: 17 Gold, 5 Silver, 5 Bronze

USA: 10 Gold, 8 Silver, 11 Bronze

S. Korea: 6 Gold, 6 Silver, 1 Bronze

Another race, another record falls.  Winning his fourth and fifth gold medals at these Olympics, in the 200m butterfly and the 4×200 freestyle, Michael Phelps has officially won more gold medals than anyone in history.  With a grand total of eleven to his name he has surpassed the likes of Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz and Larysa Latynina, all of whom won nine.  Oh, and he still has three races to go.

The Chinese women’s gymnastics team took the gold medal in the team final, beating out the favored Americans.  China, which ended up winning by almost two points, took advantage of an inconsistent American team which struggled to complete it’s sets without making some sort of error.

In cycling Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland took the men’s time trial, while Kristin Armstrong of the US took the women’s.

In one of the scarier things to happen at these Olympics Hungarian weightlifter Janos Baranyai dislocated his shoulder during his lift in the men’s 77 kg division.  He was attempting to snatch 148 kg when his shoulder popped out of it’s socket.  Sa Jae-hyouk of South Korea ended up winning the 77 kg division while Liu Chunhong won China’s sixth gold medal in weightlifting, breaking three world records in the process, by taking the women’s 69 kg division. 

Germany took home a couple of gold medals in fencing as Britta Heidemann and Benjamin Kleibrink won the women’s epee and men’s foil respectively.

This could be the last year that baseball is in the Olympics and nobody, including the players, seems to care.  Baseball, one of the most popular sports in the world, was along with softball stricken from the 2012 London Olympics and must apply for reinstatement to participate in the 2016 games.  I guess the IOC wanted to make time for more trampoline gymnastics.  In actual sports news, South Korea upset the US 8-7 in what was by all acounts a pretty good game.

Steeve Guenot of France, a rail worker in his day job, won the gold in the men’s 66 kg of Greco-Roman wrestling.  It is France’s first gold medal in that sport in 84 years.

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic all advanced to the quarter finals in men’s tennis.  Unfortunately, nobody gives a damn.  We’d all much rather see them in the US Open.

Olympic Update #4 August 12, 2008

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Medal Count (Top 3)

China: 13 Gold, 3 Silver, 4 Bronze

USA: 7 Gold, 7 Silver, 8 Bronze

S. Korea: 5 Gold, 6 Silver, 1 Bronze

Three down, five to go.  Michael Phelps won yet another gold medal while breaking yet another world record.  Phelps crushed the competition in the 200m freestyle, winning with a record time of 1 minute, 42.96 seconds, almost a full two seconds faster than second place Park Tae-hwan of Korea. 

As expected, the Chinese men’s gymnastics team easily took home the gold in the team final, beating silver medalist Japan by over seven points and erasing the bad memories of the teams collapse in Athens.  The US men took the bronze.

Despite what many seem to think, there are other swimmers in the Olympics besides Michael Phelps. Americans Aaron Peirsol and Natalie Coughlin won the gold in their events, the men’s and women’s 100 backstroke respectively, with Peirsol setting a new world record in the process.  Leisel Jones of Australia took the 100 breaststroke.

North Korea got there first medal of the Olympics when Pak Hyon Suk won the women’s 63kg division of weightlifting with total lifts of 241 kg.  In the men’s 69kg division, China continued it’s dominance with another gold, this one from Liao Hui.

In the single kayak slalom, Germany’s Alexander Grimm took first place, but the real story was Benjamin Boukpeti of Togo who gave his country their first ever medal in the Summer Olympics when he won the bronze.

In fencing,  Zhong Man of China defeated Nicolas Lopez of France 15-9 for the men’s saber gold.  Mihai Covaliu of Romania took bronze.

In wrestling, Islam-Beka Albiev of Russia defeated Vitaliy Rahimov of Azerbaijan for the gold in the men’s greco-roman 60 kg.  In the 55kg finals Azerbaijan reversed those results with Bayramov Rovshan defeating Mankiev Nazyr.

Olympic Update #3 August 11, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports.
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Medal Count(Top 3)

China: 9 Gold, 3 Silver, 2 Bronze

USA: 3 Gold, 4 Silver, 5 Bronze

S. Korea: 4 Gold, 4 Silver

The US men’s swimming team won the men’s 4 x 100m relay in an absolute stunner.  Trailing on the final lap, Jason Lezak swam the fastest leg ever in a relay (46.06 seconds,) beating then world-record holder Alain Bernard of France to give America the gold and the new world record of 3 min, 8.24 seconds.  In addition, this gives Michael Phelps his second gold medal on his quest to beat mark Spitz’s record of eight.  Australia came in third to take the bronze.

Kosuke Kitajima of Japan defended his 100-metre breaststroke Olympic title in a record time of 58.91 seconds.

Zhang Xiangxiang and Chen Yanqing extended China’s winning streak in weightlifting, winning the gold in the men’s 62 kg division and women’s 58 kg division (thats 4 golds for the Chinese for those of you counting.)  Chen also broke two world records, setting a total of 244 kilograms and a clean and jerk of 138 kilograms.

Maria Valentina Vezzali of Italy beat out Hyunhee Nam of South Korea for the gold in the women’s foil (fencing.)  Italy also took the bronze with Margherita Granbassi beating out Giovanna Trillini.

Britain’s Rebecca Adlington won a close race in the women’s 400m freestyle, beating out American Katie Hoff by 0.07 seconds.  Joanne Jackson of Great Britain took third.

India won it’s first individual gold medal ever when Abhinav Bindra won the 10-metre air rifle.  India’s last Olympic gold was a team medal at the 1980 Moscow Games in men’s field hockey

The US women’s basketball team followed up the men’s destruction of China with their own beat down, defeating the Chinese team 108-63.  Tina Thompson led the US team with 27 points.

We have our first doping case.  Maria Isabel Moreno, a 29 year old cyclist from of Spain, was caught taking the endurance-boosting drug EPO.  She faces a two year ban.

Olympic update #2 August 10, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports.
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More news from the Olympics:

Medal Count (Top 3)

China: 6 Gold, 2 Silver, 0 Bronze

U.S.A: 2 Gold, 2 Silver, 4 Bronze

S. Korea: 3 Gold, 2 Silver, 0 Bronze

The US Mens basketball team demolished China in the preliminaries 101-70.  Dwayne Wade led the Americans with 19 points, Lebron James had 18 and Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard had 13 apiece. Yao Ming ended the game with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Micheal Phelps smashed his own record (he does that alot) in the 400m indiviual medley, coming in with a time of 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds to take the gold.  For those of you counting, thats one down and seven to go.

In the womens 400m, Stephanie Rice of England beat Kristy Coventry of Zimbabwe and Katie Hoff of America to take the gold.

After beating Japan 1-0, the US mens soccer team was unable to beat the Netherlands to advance to the quarterfinals, tieing the the Dutch 2-2.   Ryan Babel and Gerald Sibon scored for the Netherlands and Sacha Klejstan and Jozy Altidore scored for for the US.  In order to advance the Americans have to at least tie Nigeria in their next match.

Long Qingquan gave China it’s second medal in weightlifting, winning Group A of the men’s 56 kg (123lbs.) with lifts of 132 in the snatch and 160 in the clean and jerk.  Yamada Masaharu of Japan won the men’s Group B competition and Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon (yes that is the correct spelling) of Thailand won the women’s 53 kg Group A.

 The US men’s indoor volleyball team posted a win over Venezuela, a day after coach Hugh McCutcheon’s father in law was murdered.