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The Olympics, Technology and “Reality”

The 2012 Summer Olympics are nearly over. I haven’t watched them much, mostly because I can’t stand the way they are covered by NBC and its affiliates, especially in prime time, when I’m most likely to be watching. I don’t think this video aired on national television but it sums up NBC’s attitude about the Olympics–it’s only marginally about the sports and performances. The main focus is on disembodied female athlete body parts moving in slow motion, sometimes during the execution of an athletic move but often just as the athlete moves around the playing area. It’s soft core porn. Interestingly, I watched the video earlier today on the NBC Olympics page but now it’s gone. I guess someone at NBC came to their senses and realized that it’s inappropriate to focus on female Olympians bodies without emphasizing their athleticism. But anyway, sexism in the coverage isn’t what I was planning to write about tonight.

I wish NBC would focus more on the performances of the athletes. An athletic performance can be interesting and amazing even in the athlete hasn’t overcome significant life difficulties to be an Olympic athlete. Each of those athletes, even the ones who have had fairly mundane lives outside of their athletics pursuits, has overcome incredible odds to make it to the Olympics at all. For every athlete that makes it to the Olympics, there are probably thousands of others who tried and didn’t make it.

That said, one athlete that caught my attention for overcoming incredible odds to make it to the Olympics is Oscar Pistorius. He is the sprinter from South Africa who has a double below-the-knee amputation but who has now competed in the Olympics using prostheses, earning him the nickname “The Blade Runner.” His participation in the Olympics has been controversial. Some have claimed that the prostheses he uses give him an advantage over other athletes and, as a result, in 2008, the IAAF banned their use, which meant that Pistorius would not be able to compete with able-bodied athletes. Although the ban was overturned that same year in time for Pistorius to participate in the 2008 Summer Olympics, he failed to qualify for the South African team. But this year, he was on that team and both the 400 meter individual race and the 400 meter relay. I saw his heat in the 400 meter individual race and although he came in last, it was an inspirational moment.

Pistorius’ historic run reminded me that over time science fiction often becomes science fact. Remember The Bionic Woman? I loved that show when I was about 13 years old. Jaime Sommers was beautiful, brave and bionic. She nearly died in a skydiving accident but she was lucky to be the girlfriend of Steve Austin, aka The Six Million Dollar Man, who had had his own life-threatening accident a number of years earlier. He loved her so much that he begged his boss to save her by giving her bionic legs, a bionic arm and a bionic ear to replace her damaged parts. Unlike Pistorius’ legs, Jaime’s clearly were “better” than human legs, allowing her to run more than 60mph. Her bionic arm was far stronger than a human arm, allowing her to bend steel with her hand. I always loved her bionic ear, which allowed her to hear things that no human could possibly hear, but only if she pushed hair out of the way first.

Speaking of hearing, I love the story about the technology that is being used to make the Olympics sound like the Olympics to home viewers. The Olympic games have a sound designer named Dennis Baxter. He is the reason we can hear the arrow swoosh through the air in the archery competition. This is a sound that folks at the event probably can’t hear. And yet, Baxter sets up microphones so that we, the television viewing audience, can actually hear that arrow move through the air. Baxter claims that this technology makes the event seem more “real” to the viewing audience.

This raises such interesting questions about augmented reality. We can never directly experience the “real.” It will always be mediated by at least our senses. We know for a fact that our brains fill in holes in our visual perception. Our brains augment what we perceive via our senses. When we perceive an Olympic event via transmission technology (like television or the Internet), are we witnessing the “real” event? Is it still “real” when technology augments some aspect of our sensory perception, like when Baxter adds microphones to allow us to hear things we wouldn’t hear even if we were attending the event? When does technological augmentation become unreality? Where do we draw the line? And most importantly, does it matter? Do we care whether we’re experiencing something “real”?

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. James McKey

    Your questions about what defines reality and does it matter reminds me of a somewhat relevant sci-fi/cyber-punk book called “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. In his book (for those that haven’t read it) Stephenson describes the main character as being an original innovator for the virtual reality world known by everyone in the book as the “Metaverse”. It’s very similar to the Internet virtual world “Second Life” that was hot about 5+ years ago (2nd life was started in 2003. Here’s the top viewed intro video describing second life from 2006:

    Anyways, from reading Snow Crash a couple times now (via I feel like we’ll probably see ourselves in the long term as having two separate lives: an online life or presence and a “real” one. Some will spend more in one than another and it will be important to know when we are using the virtual/online world to just escape rather than having any meaningful impact or connection to those we care about.

    NOTE: Snow Crash was published in 1992 a full year before the Mosaic browser helped hypertext (WWW) surplant Gopher and the Lynx text browser. It’s crazy how well Stephenson predicted at least one potential implementation of the Internet. The man might be an alien 😉

  2. Cathie LeBlanc

    I’ve read Snow Crash–really interesting novel with a lot of prescient ideas! I’ve also done a fair amount of research about Second Life and have presented and published a number of papers about it. My favorite paper that I wrote describes my experiences trying to make my female body as realistic as possible–it was difficult to find and use a pair of nipples while penises were freely available everywhere and easy to attach (and detach–oh Freud) to the body, whether it was female or male.

    Anyway, I actually don’t think we’ll experience our online lives as separate from our “real” life. At least most of us will see them as a single life, part of which is carried out online and part of which is carried out in the physical world. There was a lot of research about Second Life, about people who were married in RL but who found and married a different spouse in SL. Perhaps those people did and will continue to see these two lives as separate because there’s no way to reconcile the two. But there have always been people who we talk about living “double lives”–those men who have two families in RL, for example. The majority of us, however, won’t have the kinds of boundaries between our RL and our online lives that cause us to think of them as separate. Sherry Turkle wrote about this back in the early nineties in her book Life on the Screen. I think much of what she found in her research holds true today. We use our online interactions to explore aspects of ourselves that are difficult to explore in RL but we don’t typically see them as separate.

  3. Liz

    Oh, so interesting. I always tell my creative writing students that the only way to “know” the world is through the senses, so when we are writing imaginatively, we must rely on imagery (the language connected to the sensed experience) in order to convey the….uh…..real. Or to convey “a” real. (How many sets of scare quotes will be deployed in this comment?) Do I believe that the senses ARE reality? Am I not Platonic? Hmmm. Or am I just on the second half of a two-person bottle of Belgian Ale? We have a couple of (contradictory?) conversations in creative writing…. one about how language IS a “thing,” how it IS reality. Another about how language is a translation of experience, which is a filtered translation of…..reality? Philosophy & school & imaginative writing = fun. Also, this Allagash Belgian tripel = fun. And as always, your blog post gets me on some serious ruminating. Fingers crossed for these clouds clearing out so we can all step out onto our decks tonight to see the Perseids!

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