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LeanerFasterStronger: is a disabled cyborg the future of elite sport?

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Vaughan | 10:03 UK time, Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Disabled playwright and author Kaite O'Reilly, who is one of the guests on the next edition of Ouch!'s disability talk show (due online towards the end of May), was approached by Chol Theatre to write a play about sport and the human experience as part of imove, Yorkshire's cultural programme for the London 2012 Olympics. The resulting play, LeanerFasterStronger, opens at Sheffield's Crucible Studio theatre today, Wednesday 23 May, and runs through to Saturday 2 June.

For background research, Kaite carried out detailed interviews with scientists and elite sportspeople, and also experimented in motion capture labs - where disabled and non-disabled performers saw their bodies moving as a sequence of animated dots which she says were "freed from the preconceptions that go along with viewing the same body moving in the real world".

She became very interested in genetic and bio-engineering of humans as a species - even the idea of a 'cyborg'.

In this guest post for Ouch!, Kaite O'Reilly looks at how this emerging science could influence the possible future of both disabled and non-disabled elite sport - which is also the focus for her play, LeanerFasterStronger.

Will we ever reach the point where impairments are 'cured', or 'fixed' in vitro? People have asked me about my stance on these developments and, as someone who culturally identifies as a disabled person and a disability artist, I know well how complex and emotive the subject can be. Yet in the context of elite sport - and the fictional world of the play I have written - other avenues open up.

As the strapline for the show goes: How far would you go to be the best? Cheat? Dope? Enhance yourself biologically to be LeanerFasterStronger than your competitors? The reality is that we may fast be approaching a glass ceiling about what humans can 'naturally' achieve. Elite sport is big business, and the play asks whether we can expect to continue breaking records and 'improving' every year without a little 'help'?

In the 1980s, women's athletics went through a golden period when phenomenal records were set. Decades on, those records have not been matched or beaten. The turnaround came with the introduction of dope testing. Since those (cheating?) halcyon days, women's athletics have apparently slipped down the scale in popularity. In athletics, it seems that spectators want a spectacle, to be inspired and excited. Watching people fail to come anywhere near a world record set thirty years ago just doesn't cut it.

There is an argument that sport tests what is possible for humans to do - it favours the 'Übermensch' - the idealised, 'perfect' human being. The commercial side of sport is reliant on new records being broken, showing more thrills and spectacle, to keep the fans involved. Various sports journalists I spoke with while researching the play said that the real excitement and focus in 2012 will be on the Paralympics. Coverage of Oscar Pistorius and his carbon 'blades' fills many column inches, and he has become a poster-boy for the future - the next exciting development in sport.

This then offered a perspective to me: what if, in the future, the 'ideal' athlete is one who has impairments and who can benefit from the speed of Pistorius, 'the fastest man in the world on no legs' as the New York Times described him? Developments in wheelchair racing and cycling have the bone inserting directly into the frame - 'bone melding with steel'. LeanerFasterStronger asks whether, for a spectacle-seeking audience, the future ultimate sportsperson may in fact be a disabled one.

Related links

Kaite O'Reilly's website
Kaite O'Reilly's blog
Kaite's research in the motion capture lab


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