Why you should care
Because this will take extreme sports to the extreme.
Shooting stars and gamma ray bursts — the opening ceremonies of the Olympics went off with a bang! Throughout the week, pole-vaulters will leap across black holes, and divers will plunge into the gaseous depths of Jupiter. Meanwhile, Russian athletes have been banned for space-roid doping. Earth Olympics are so last millennium.
Let’s rewind an eon or two. Back on our lovely blue planet, nobody wants to host the Olympics anymore. Few countries think it’s worth the billions of dollars in costs; for developing countries, the exorbitant investments can ravage the economy and the environment, and spawn social unrest. Case in point: Beijing’s only competition for its 2022 Winter Olympics bid came from Almaty, Kazakhstan. So as the Rio Olympics draw to a close and we look forward to 2024 bids, let’s choose to light the Olympic torch in the final frontier of space — with rocket fuel.
Sure, the idea is out of this world. But it’s not necessarily light-years away. Playing sports is already a galactic pastime, says Mark Lupisella, an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. A British astronaut recently “ran” the London Marathon on a treadmill inside the International Space Station, finishing in three hours, 35 minutes and 21 seconds — a record for space runs. In 2010, 11 astronauts in orbit took a stab at space skiing, zero-gravity diving and weightless figure skating in a bold plan to re-create the Vancouver Winter Olympics — although their busy schedules didn’t allow enough time for it.
There are certain resonances between space and sports, says Lupisella: Both are about pushing oneself to triumphant feats and one’s body to athletic excellence. On a practical level, that means jetting the Olympics up into the galaxy “would help us learn more about human body performance in space,” Lupisella says. Without gravity, sprinters could technically zoom through the 100-meter dash at the speed of light. “Sign me up for weightlifting! Or for that matter, the long jump, high jump, shot put, javelin…” Lupisella tells OZY.
Of course, the costs would be astronomical. After all, hosting the world’s biggest sporting bash on Earth is already pricey: The 2008 Beijing Olympics clocked in at around $40 billion, Sochi dropped a reported $50 billion on its games and Rio’s Summer Olympics will figure around $4.6 billion or more, about double the predicted costs. And our bodies aren’t well-suited for space: An astronaut immediately starts to lose muscle and bone density once he or she launches, says NASA’s Gail Perusek, who designs exercise equipment for the astronauts to use in space. Beyond the practical limitations, there’s also a more philosophical concern, one more glaring than the sun — world peace. Today, space exists as one of the few bright spots in international collaboration and cooperation. Bringing competition into it might fundamentally change how we view diplomatic relations in space or how countries work together on the next frontier of the human race.
Politics aside, there’s still little doubt that “it would make for the most remarkable Olympic Games ever,” says Morgan Rehnberg, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Just imagine the dazzling opening ceremony — a startup in Tokyo already wants to create a man-made meteor shower for the 2020 Olympics.
How’s that for sticking the landing?