Things that are surprisingly sci-fi (but don’t get credit for it) – Part 3: Global Sports Competitions

With this year’s Confederations Cup in full swing, it’s time to tip the hat of science fiction to the phenomenon of global sporting events.

While in theory, we’ve had ‘global’ sports for at least a century now, the reality is that the early World Cups and Olympics were predominantly regional affairs – as athletes tended to be men of leisure (or college athletes, or both) in the early days, they tended to represent only wealthier nations, or at the least, only the wealthier classes of those nations.

While the number of nations participating increased steadily through the 1970s and 80s, the politics and ideologies of the Cold War overshadowed geographic and ethnic identities, putting the global nature of the competitions into the background.   While it would be difficult to pinpoint the emergence of truly global sporting events, the emergence of a single worldwide football market might be one milestone. With stars from Japan and Africa increasingly complementing and supplanting the traditional European and Latin American superpowers – and with the creation of an economically viable professional soccer league in the United States – it is safe to say that football had become a global sport by the mid 1990s.

Other sports have followed, with global tournaments in baseball and cricket being created and expanded, and the Olympics have increasingly become a two-week festival of international excitement and competition. NewsCorp has been an aggressive part of this expansion, of course, packing its satellites with live sports content from rugby to cricket to american football.

But why is any of this scifi? For two reasons: on the one hand is the creation of single, unified global market. And on the other is the larger picture:  humans from every corner of the world, meeting on a truly global scale to determine the fastest, the most strongest, and the best among them. Where the medieval version of this concept involved bloodshed and pillage, we now have a peaceful (generally speaking), cooperative competition, played with the goal of crowning a true world champion.

Because once we start thinking peacefully in terms of planetary supremacy, we are not far from considering new world. If for no other reason than to expand the TV market!



Infrastructure and the convergence of the global human footprint

Like a lot of people, I’ve been having some fun with GeoGuesser, and I have to say, except in situations where location is really obvious (like Ireland, where the signs were all for O’Reilly, Flanagan, O’Connell etc.), I am appallingly bad at this game. Like, tens of thousands of kms off. Sometimes it’s just unfair – a dirt track in Canada is essentially indistinguishable from a dirt track in Siberia – but in others, given that I am primarily making guesses based on the quality of infrastructure and what scenery there is, I am incredibly, incredibly off.

Which is interesting, because this isn’t a Western/Anglo bias (or at least not solely) – having driven through a large portion of US Interstate Highways, I am fully aware of the state of deterioration that some of the US roads finds themselves in. But the degree of similarity, from high way to highway, and the quality of roads even in third-world countries, was a bit surprising.

Secondly, the degree of overlap between Mexico and California, in terms of the structure of cities and appearance of sidestreets, was pretty surprising, even though I’ve seen it in person and up close.

Overall, the degree of my confusion, while certainly potentially due to ignorance, also suggests an acceleration of the global convergence of infrastructure. Fifteen years ago, when I lived in Eastern Europe, this was not yet the case; Soviet streets were notoriously badly built and susceptible to heat and wear, and of course the difference in building material quality and design was also marked. And, certainly, in some places of the world (usually in rural areas), there are still stark differences in quality, but these differences are universal, applying as much within countries as outside of them. To a degree, of course, rural roads in the US should be higher-quality than rural roads in, say, India, but this is not always the case any more.

Maybe this is belaboring the point a bit, but it’s interesting to see these trends from the outside, as a visitor to this planet (as opposed to a native) might – perhaps we are approaching a true confluence in the human experience, and a global cultural point of convergence, through the realities of best practice and shared environmental factors. Given that infrastructure provides the basis for much of the human experience, in terms of availability and export of goods, flow of investment and distribution of culture (in particular via the internet), the positive side of the convergence is exciting. But significant investment is needed if the wear and tear and rising ruin of the rural networks are to be prevented from plunging our backcountry areas – the world over – into a sort of 21st-century dark ages.

In defense of the artificial advancement of the human race.

We make a lot of noise about fair competition and the unfairness of doping, hormonal treatments or other chemical advantages, but let’s consider the issue from another perspective:

If tomorrow the world were threatened by a significant event, such as an asteroid impact, supervolcano eruption, or – dare I say it – confrontation with extraterrestrials, what version of human would we want to confront that danger with? The fully optimized, chemically altered superman a la Lance Armstrong, or the ‘fair play’ human with whatever natural balance of fast-twitch muscle or endorphins evolution has gifted him or her with?

This is a serious question, because it gets at the heart of the whole doping conflict. If you think you’d prefer mankind’s chances with the unaltered version, you’re either delusional or (at best) suggesting there’s something in our natural imperfection that would better qualify us for survival.

I’ll get back to the latter point later. First, a word on natural selection, our planet,  and our universe: the forces that created us are also trying to kill us. More precisely, the apparent statistical anomaly of intelligent life in the Universe suggests strongly that a) the odds against our coming into existence in the first place are astronomical and b) that the odds of our continued existence are hardly better. So before there is talk of ‘mother nature/natural selection knows best’, consider that mother nature could care less about intelligent life, here or anywhere. In other words, when considering our survival, we need all the help we can get, natural or chemical.

Now, to get back to the idea of the inherent advantages of not tampering with our genetics or conditioning – this is an argument born out of the imperfections of the current state of doping / steroid treatments. It is indubitably true that looking like Barry Bonds or Arnold Schwarzenegger is not a unilateral advantage, and that anabolic steroids in particular have a number of unfortunate and unhappy side effects. But at the same time – as the cycling circuit is now proving – it is possible to look quite small, in fact, and still possess extraordinary aerobic and/or anaerobic fitness. Further, it should be pointed out that ‘natural’ weight training and dietary improvements, which have succeeded in pushing human development far beyond even the farthest bounds of previous standards of size, weight, and strength – these are scientific improvements just as much as the ‘illegal’ chemical treatments, and they also have significant physiological drawbacks (overtraining, resulting in muscle tears / shin splints / premature aging of joints etc.). And yet few people decry them as dead ends in the evolution of human development. As a result, while current chemical methods may be flawed, these are flaws that must be worked out in further development and not in avoiding the topic completely.

Further, the hazards and challenges that space travel presents – in terms of muscle atrophication and the difficulty of maintaining basic fitness – suggest that extraordinary solutions must be created and deployed in order to allow the exploration of our system (and perhaps eventually beyond). Fundamentally, it seems at present unlikely that we, in our current form, could make it far off this planet, and as numerous philosophers and astronomers have pointed out, this more than likely means extinction, perhaps sooner rather than later.

Finally, while I am a huge sports fan and completely understand the impetus to deride artificial performance enhancement as ‘cheating’ (which it is, under current rules, and which creates inequalities between richer and poorer athletes), it is worth noting that, at some point in the future when we are all eternally young, good-looking, and well-muscled, we just might owe a significant debt of gratitude to the Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds of the 2000s; after all, they were willing – albeit for significant financial gain – to be guinea pigs when the technologies in question were far from proven, and far from safe. This is not to say that these technologies should not be carefully watched and controlled (a major cause of the conflict in Hard Drop, after all, is caused by irresponsible experimentation in this area), but it is to say that we should not – perhaps even must not – shelve the conversation.