Doping scandals across many high-profile sports have seen athletes disqualified, reputations left in tatters and one country having to make a national apology for its doping problem.
Technology is key in the battle between the dopers and the drug testers, but Mike Miller, chief executive of the World Olympians Association, has suggested an unlikely tech solution - implant microchip into athletes much as you do dogs,.
“We’re prepared to chip our dogs and it doesn’t seem to harm them, so why aren’t we prepared to chip ourselves?”
Miller’s comments, reported in The Guardian, suggested that microchips could allow athletes to be monitored for banned substances. We spoke to Kevin Warwick, who became the first 'cyborg' when he had an identification device put in back in 1998, about how this could work.
Microchips for humans
The same identification microchips used in dogs and cats can also be used in humans. Using a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip, the device allows people to be uniquely identified.
The smallest implants can be the size of a grain of rice and are inserted into the hand, and can be removed.
Why would you put microchips in humans?
Alongside the suggestion of stopping doping, microchips can also be used to make contactless payments, to act as rail tickets, carry your health data and act as door keys as a proximity card might do today.
Could microchips in athletes happen now?
Warwick, now emeritus professor at the University of Coventry and the University of Reading, said more details are needed as to what type of implant Miller had in mind, but an identification microchip is certainly possible to prevent urine tests being forged.
“I had mine back in 1998 and I’m still alive to tell the tale, no problem with it”, he jokes. “It’s more of an ethical issue, it’s not an technical issue as to whether you could have them now.”
There is also research at the Swiss university, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), that uses microchips to do blood tests and detect for the presence for certain substances such as glucose, and send the data wirelessly to a doctor.
“If there was a push on that technology I’m pretty sure it could be used as an implanted device in real time”, Warwick predicted, so that athletes could be tested mid race.
Putting an implant inside a human body is not a futuristic idea from Hollywood but a concept that a couple of employers are already offering their staff.
Three Square Market, based in Wisconsin, is offering employees a free microchip, which would not only let them open doors but also log onto computers and purchase break room snacks – all by simply swiping their hand.
The chip works by using near-field communications (NFC), which is the same technology used in contactless credit cards and mobile payments.
Discussing privacy implications of devices more widely, Warwick thinks a greater incentive will appear soon that outweighs the privacy fears. He compares it to a credit card.
“The person wants a credit card so they give up a lot of what you’d describe as privacy. The same here: how important is it?”
Getting yourself hacked
One of Warwick’s former colleagues, Dr Mark Gasson, hit the headlines back in 2010 when he became the first person in the world to be infected by a computer virus. Gasson contaminated a computer chip that had been inserted into his hand, and at the time, he described the self-sabotage of the device as “a glimpse at the problems of tomorrow”.
Using microchips in healthcare
The potential of monitoring implanted devices is an exciting area of research, according to Warwick, to help eliminate infections caused by external monitoring.
“A lot of regular monitoring in healthcare, where it involves either external testing or if you need electrodes on the body for monitoring heartrate and things like that, you can create problems with particularly someone who’s in intensive care because of the way you’re monitoring.”
Cyborg athletes for Tokyo 2020?
While the technology may be there, it seems Miller was just suggesting ideas at the conference. “I’m just throwing the idea out there,” he said.
“I’m gauging reaction from people but we do need to think of new ways to protect clean sport. I’m no Steve Jobs but we need to spend the money and use the latest technology.”
Regardless of what solution is used, there is definitely a need to rebuild athletics reputation as more stories consistently emerge on doping allegations and convictions.
“In this case, if it [doping] is such a critical issue,” said Warwick, “what are you doing hanging around?”.