The Champion by Dmitry Voronin

When reading about a possibility of robot judging in gymnastics, I suddenly remembered a short sci-fi story I read as a kid – about robot gymnasts competing in the Olympics in the future. Of course, I didn’t remember any details, such as the author or the title, but after about an hour of furious googling I was able to find it.

The story is called The Champion, by Dmitry Voronin. It’s written in Russian and it was published in an obscure collection of sci-fi and fantasy stories many years ago. After re-reading it I realized that the gymternet must have an opportunity to read it, too – the story is hilarious, ridiculous and scary at the same time. Unfortunately, I don’t have a way to contact the author and ask him for a permission to translate and publish the story, so let’s just hope he’ll be ok with it (I found the Russian version published on the web, anyway).

The Champion
by Dmitry Voronin

Anna Krotova was already finishing her routine. Mere seconds were left until the end and Robert Rothby wasn’t looking at the floor anymore – everything was already clear. So, when the arena burst into standing ovations after the gymnast stuck her dismount cold, he only made a couple of weak claps, more for the sake of the tradition than really appreciating the skill of this Russian girl.

The screen showed the scores. Rothby indifferently glanced at the row of 10s and grimaced slightly. The German judge gave a 9.8 – that was expected, she always gave lower scores to the Russians. But it was clear, his Esti wouldn’t be able to achieve such a result, not even talking about surpassing it. He knew the abilities of his pupil better than anyone else.

The applause was still not stopping. This Russian yet again got almost the perfect score – where do they even find this kind of talent? Sure, the girls are now being prepared for the gymnastics career from 6 months old, but heredity also matters. Whatever they say about Russian carelessness, their endless forests still provide at least a part of the population with relatively clean air and more or less organic food. Hence the results.

The name of the next competitor flashed on the scoreboard. The young Argentinean ran out on the floor and froze, waiting for the music to start. From where Rothby was sitting he could clearly see her starting pose – it occurred to him that a normal, not specially trained for this, a person would have already broken her spine. In three places…

Teresa started her routine. Observing her movements vacantly, Rothby was casually noting the shortcomings of the gymnast. His many years of experience made it possible to state with certainty that the girl had started to train as a 1-year-old, or even 1,5 – she already couldn’t have that serpentine flexibility that this Russian, Anna, has just demonstrated… Of course, the Argentinean coach achieved a lot, more than that – but the coaching mistakes were still visible. And, perhaps, the girl is already old for the Olympic Games. Ten years old already… Another three to four years and the inevitable side effects of the gymnastics training will turn her into a semi-paralyzed ruin. Well, maybe she will compete at the next games if she’s lucky. But she won’t achieve any significant results, arthritis won’t let her. Now is her last chance, she is unlikely to even survive until twenty, this rarely happens to gymnasts. No wonder some sharp-tongued journalist called these athletes ‘candles’ – they shine brightly but burn quickly.

The performance finally ended. Teresa received her share of applause – a rather small share, in comparison to the previous athlete. And the scores were much more modest, perhaps, she won’t even get bronze.

“Well, Rob, looks like Estee has a chance?”

Rothby turned to his neighbor with a pained scowl. Dale Zag, his longtime partner and even to some extent a friend, leisurely sipped a beer while sprawled in an armchair. Right now Rothby was extremely annoyed with him.

“Like hell, she has a chance!” – Robert snapped, glancing at the fat man with contempt. – “I can bet you anything, this Russian bitch will get the gold.”

“Of course she will…” –  Zag waved his hands, pouring beer onto an expensive sports suit that looked out of place on his fat body. – “I’m not talking about that. Bronze is sure ours. Come on, Rob, that’s not bad either, after all, this is our first performance. And there are more to come.”

“As long as Bolotin keeps finding b…” –  Rob struggled to keep himself from cursing, -“girls like that, we do not have any chance. We will never be able to achieve such flexibility and accuracy of movements, at least not with the current technologies.”

“We’ll develop new ones,” – Zag shrugged.

The scoreboard flashed a new name.

– And now, dear fans, you will see a routine that you will remember forever. At our Olympics, for the first time in the history, a robot was allowed to compete!

– Let me correct you, Steve, rather, a robotess

– Oh yes, of course! So, now the robotess, Esty Eight, the product of the newest technologies of the “Rothby Inc”, will show her skills. Here she walks to the floor… Do you think, Bill, that robots … oh, sorry, robotesses, should be allowed to compete with humans at sports?

– Well, Steve, I’d say it’s legal. The precedent was created, as I recall, back in the late 20th century, when computers first took part in chess tournaments.

– I agree, Bill! And yet is it possible to compare a person and a machine?

– Why guess, Steve? I think our esteemed judges will soon say their word. In the meantime…

– Oh, the routine has started! Pay attention, ladies and gentlemen, such a sharpness in Esti’s movements, such precision!

– And yet, Steve, I’ll let myself note that her dance is missing something. I think our audience will also be able to notice a certain … lack of emotion. There is no life, no passion – only the executing the pre-programmed movements. However, this is only my humble opinion.

– And it does not match mine, Bill. Look how beautifully she moves. It seems to me that this … um … this girl is worthy of the highest praise. Of course, Krotova’s performance is beyond reach, but if Esty does not get bronze, I’ll be the first to accuse the judges of chauvinism … Oh, my God!

– Steve, she’s…

– Yes, Bill, there’s something wrong with her! Oh, her leg! It seems that the knee joint has stopped working! But she continues the routine, dear spectators, she continues! What a will to win!

– The final chords are playing, and Steve and I, like you, dear gymnastics fans, are looking forward to seeing the scores.

When the oil pipe in Esti’s knee joint burst, no one noticed it, not even Rothby. The smoothness of the machine’s movements did not change one iota, and only the laptop in Robert’s lap, directly monitoring the state of Esti’s systems, sounded an alarm.

“Should we stop the performance?” – asked Zag, knowing the answer in advance.

“No,” the coach said abruptly, fingers flashing above the keys, passing commands to the robot. “She will continue.”

“The knee won’t hold,” – Zag sighed regretfully. – “Without the lubricant, it’ll hold for only a few seconds.”

“I hope you are, as always, too pessimistic,” Robert пкгтеув. “Esti only has half a minute left in the routine, just thirty seconds…”

Zag shrugged and turned away. When the question of robot design, which in general fell within his competence, was raised at any meeting, the boss simply shut him up. As light as possible, even if it hurts the reliability – that was Rothby’s, which what led to these, frankly, deplorable results. Of course, there, at the meetings, Zag let him win – and not only because the boss, as they say, is always right. In the end, the performance lasts a minute and a half, and then Esty can even crumble to pieces – no one really cared. But he knew too well how light the robot was, so he had no illusions. The knee could withstand a maximum of fifteen to twenty seconds, and then…

The computer spat out another panicking report, but Robert ignored the screams of the diagnostic system. Esti continued the routine. Without the lubricant, the knee joint quickly started collapsing until it finally failed completely. The leg turned out at an unnatural angle, but Esti did not even seem to notice it, her brain, encouraged by the coach’s commands, only downgraded to an easier routine. And everyone immediately noticed it – the audience, commentators, and, of course, the judges. Drops of sweat appeared on Rothby’s forehead, he was shuddering, waiting for the music to stop, hoping for a miracle.

As they say, miracles don’t happen, which was confirmed at this moment. Literally a few seconds before the end of the performance the joint finally collapsed, the knee cracked, the artificial skin burst and a fountain of oil was sprayed onto the floor.

The robot, having lost its balance, fell on her back – the diagnostic system, evaluating the destruction, turned off the engines. The “girl” with the broken leg froze…

– A robot can never surpass a human!

Rothby paced around the office like a furious tiger. Zag, lounging in the armchair, followed the boss with mournful eyes. Behind him, a large screen taking up half a wall showed the laboratory – the technicians dismantled the robot’s joint.

“It was you who persuaded me, bastard! You… millions are invested in this project, and what? Judges did even give her the score, my God, what a shame!

“Don’t be nervous, boss. At the next Olympics, we will catch up.”

“Do you dare to tell me this? Who claimed that no one can compare with this model? And what do we see? Russian kid takes the gold, and your Esty is now dismantled for spare parts… Sport is for human, it’s time for you to understand this.”

“Humans…” – Zag smiled wryly – “No human, I mean Homo Sapiens, is capable of what these girls are doing. They have long been no longer human, they are specially cultivated for this. As turkeys are raised for meat, so are these “girls” raised for sports. Disposable goods, candles…”

“They’re human. You know well that in the 20th century the gymnasts have completely exhausted the possibilities for perfecting their body. Even doping didn’t help after it was legalized. Now, in order to reach new heights, it is necessary to go in other directions. Surgery, maybe even genetic modification…

“Which just proves my words. This Anna you praise so much is no more human than our ST-8. It’s just that Esti consists of plastic and metal, and this champion is made of skin and bones.”

Rothby punched the table hard, his face flushed with anger.

“That’s it! I’m closing your department! Your pieces of metal are useless. Leave the sport to people and in the future focus on designing… maybe, waiters.


“Well, Anechka, you’ve done great today! You’re just a miracle, I’m going to say. Honestly, I expected success, it’s a bad coach who doesn’t believe in his athletes, but I did not think that you would fly so high.”

Bolotin thoughtfully twirled a gold medal in his hands, slowly passing the blue ribbon between his fingers. He fell silent for a long time…

It took them seven years to achieve this. Seven years of continuous, exhausting work, training, a detailed study of all the details of the former champions’ routines. Anna repeated every element of her routines hundreds of times until she did exactly what he wanted to see.

The news that the US team will include a robot, the ST-8 of Rothby’s company, he was quite worried. Especially since it was the first time a robot was officially allowed to compete. This Esti didn’t have a chance even if she hadn’t broken down. Bolotin was well aware of the indignation of the judges and he was absolutely convinced that none of them would ever give this soulless piece of metal the highest score. Rothby made one mistake – people do not like when machines become superior.

So the breakdown was just the right thing. Once again everyone realized that a machine could not compare with a human, but his Anna appeared in all her splendor.

Yes, this Olympics made him famous and, really, a rich man. All these years of hard work were worth it. But life goes one, and new peaks to conquer lie ahead.

Bolotin looked pensively at Anya, who sat silently in a chair.

“But we still have a lot of work to do together…” – he continued, caressing the medal with his fingers – “Perhaps we’ll rest for a couple of weeks, doctors will watch you, and then, perhaps, we’ll resume training. I think that in four years you…”

He looked at the girl again. Yes, in four years… Now hardly any gymnast will venture to compete at eleven years old, or, at least, to compete at the Olympics. This probably can even put some pressure on the judges, they’re too used to 7-8-year-old athletes. Of course, by the age of ten, the side effects of genetic modifications begin to accumulate in the body.

The general public might not be aware, but experienced coaches know that the best results are achieved in only one way: the genetic design allows achieving ideal abilities. Well, the consequences of that… Sports should not stay in place, which means that you can use any means to win. The end justifies the means.

Someone seems to argue that the possibilities of humans have been exhausted… In some ways, they are certainly right.

“What do you think, girl, we will win, right?”

Anna did not answer. When creating the body, the girl’s vocal cords were included in the list of organs that were not deemed necessary for the future star of gymnastics. Teeth and tongue, sense of smell, intestinal tract, genitals – these were all rudiments. An IV with vitamin-spiked glucose will completely provide her with nutrients, and she wouldn’t live through the puberty anyway.

What do the journalists say? That a modern gymnast is no longer human, at least not Homo Sapiens? Well, maybe… But they, these girls, become champions.

And they are still people… well, almost people… Candles.

Homo Sportus.

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