Clash of the Augmented Olympics: Cybathlon vs. the World Future Sports Games

The future of sports is metal, wire, and A.I. The future of competitions will be determined in the next two years.

ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

Sports are often discussed in the context of tradition. Soccer is thought to be more than three thousand years old and national teams play in national styles. The strategy and stars on display at the World Cup or the Olympics are supposed to reflect something fundamental and organic about the society they emerge from. This can lead to both transcendent moments and preposterous commentary, but it almost invariably leads to stasis. Sports seem slow to change even when we have the technology to make them better.

But all gameplay is fluid by definition and the rise in technology and the spread of ideas is allowing us to think of sports much more imaginatively — and more importantly, more inclusively — than ever before. And in no ways is this clearer than in two upcoming sporting events: The 2016 Cybathlon in Zurich, Switzerland, and the 2017 World Future Sports Games in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The events offer competing, if somewhat similar visions for the future of competition. And they are likely to appeal to different crowds.


Organized by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (aka ETH Zurich), the Cybathlon is the brainchild of professor Robert Riener. An international sporting event for the disabled, it’s similar to the Paralympic Games in that athletes can take part in a ton of different slightly modified sports. The similarities end there.

This competition is ultimately about cybernetics. Unlike the Paralympics, the Cybathlon requires competitors to use technology to help offset their disabilities. For example, a prosthetic limb would need to have some sort of electrical component that makes it move and give more power to an athlete. Perhaps it generates energy through motion, and that energy allows for the limb to move around on its own.

In other words, the Cybathlon is where athletes transcend the limits of the human body and pull from technology to allow them to do more. The focus isn’t on force or power or speed, but about creating devices and using them in such a way as to give the body more control over itself and move past limits.

That also means that there’s a strong engineering component to the Cybathlon. Each Cybathlon team will actually be comprised of a technology group that builds and tests the device, and a pilot that will operate the device in the competition events. Both are awarded medals if they place high enough.

There are three goals Riener, who works at ETH Zurich’s Sensory Motor Systems Lab has in mind for the event: bringing academics and industries closer together, helping technology companies forge a better relationship with disabled people so they can understand how to better build devices for them, and educating the public on the possibilities for robotics and electronics to help people in need of assistive aids. He’s interested in using Cybathlon as a way to help spur innovation in the development and use of technologies that can help disabled people around the world.

That’s why the whole thing is chock-full of events that incorporate various types of tasks that almost seem mundane, like climbing stairs, carrying shopping bags, and even opening jars of jam.

About 80 teams are expected to compete in the events in Zurich in October. In addition, on October 6th, ETH Zurich will be hosting a Cybathlon Symposium to showcase recent technological advances inspired by the Cybathlon — focusing on brain-computer interfaces, powered arm and leg prostheses, exoskeletons, powered wheelchairs, and much more.

World Future Sports Games

The World Future Sports Games will take place in Dubai in December 2017 and, as with everything in the shiniest Emirate, will serve in part as a reminder of the Middle East’s extreme wealth. Details on this are still short — it was only announced this month where the games would even be held — but from what has been made public, it’s clear the whole thing takes the sports and technology thing a step further and showcases competitions exclusively using technology. Forget human beings: We’re talking robots and machines powered by remote control or through A.I. It’s the future!

There will be nine different competitions: driverless car racing, robotic soccer, robotic running competitions, manned drones racing, robotic swimming, robotic table tennis, robotic wrestling, drone races, and something cybernetic that hasn’t been fully fleshed out.

The World Future Sports Games is an extension of the World Drone Prix, also being held in Dubai. The UAE has shown a very keen interest in new robotics and autonomous vehicles, and believes these kinds of technologies will play a major role in all facets of life in the future. The government is bullish in its belief that sports act as a great way to showcase this kind of innovation.

Both events may initially seem to be occupying a world of sports that’s an island unto its own. That may be true to some extent, but it’s probably wiser to approach the Cybathlon and WFSG as signs of what the future of sports really will be. Certain sports will be the same maybe forever — baseball can’t not be baseball, and the same goes for soccer of course. But as technology takes off in bigger ways this century, it will be clear that what we call a “sport” won’t simply be defined by the actions of the human body.

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