Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Super-enabled" bionic athlete?

A year ago in April, I had a post entitled "Crippling the Competition". Now comes this story from the NYTimes, regarding South African athlete, Oscar Pistorius:
Pistorius wants to be the first amputee runner to compete in the Olympics. But despite his ascendance, he is facing resistance from track and field’s world governing body, which is seeking to bar him on the grounds that the technology of his prosthetics may give him an unfair advantage over sprinters using their natural legs.
Thoughts? Mine haven't evolved much from my previous post; along with comments I made in response to challenges posed to me. Questions to ponder:
What should an athlete look like? Where should limits be placed on technology to balance fair play with the right to compete? Would the nature of sport be altered if athletes using artificial limbs could run faster or jump higher than the best athletes using their natural limbs?
An Equalizer or an Edge?

Still, the question persists: Do prosthetic legs simply level the playing field for Pistorius, compensating for his disability, or do they give him an inequitable edge via what some call techno-doping?
This part muddles the matter, as far as consistency of reasoning and questions of fairness:
Track and field’s world governing body, based in Monaco and known by the initials I.A.A.F., has recently prohibited the use of technological aids like springs and wheels, disqualifying Pistorius from events that it sanctions. A final ruling is expected in August.

The International Olympic Committee allows governing bodies to make their own eligibility rules, though it can intervene. Since 2004, for example, transgender athletes have been allowed to compete in the Olympics.
Do they compete as men or as women? This is getting confusing...might as well disband gender divisions altogether, as well as weight class. I mean, at this point, what's the point?
“With all due respect, we cannot accept something that provides advantages,” said Elio Locatelli of Italy, the director of development for the I.A.A.F., urging Pistorius to concentrate on the Paralympics that will follow the Olympics in Beijing. “It affects the purity of sport. Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back.”

Others have questioned the governing body’s motivation.

“I pose a question” for the I.A.A.F., said Robert Gailey, an associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami Medical School, who has studied amputee runners. “Are they looking at not having an unfair advantage? Or are they discriminating because of the purity of the Olympics, because they don’t want to see a disabled man line up against an able-bodied man for fear that if the person who doesn’t have the perfect body wins, what does that say about the image of man?”

According to Gailey, a prosthetic leg returns only about 80 percent of the energy absorbed in each stride, while a natural leg returns up to 240 percent, providing much more spring.

“There is no science that he has an advantage, only that he is competing at a disadvantage,” Gailey, who has served as an official in disabled sports, said of Pistorius.

Foremost among the I.A.A.F.’s concerns is that Pistorius’s prosthetic limbs may make him taller than he would have been on natural legs and may unfairly lengthen his stride, allowing him to lower his best times by several seconds in the past three years, while most elite sprinters improve by hundredths of a second.
This last paragraph poses quite an interesting dilemma: We are each disadvantaged or advantaged according to our height and weight. I'm not sure if pointing out unfair lengths in his stride is the right argument to be making. In basketball, tall is good; in gymnastics, shorter athletes tend to excel. If Pistorius is allowed artificial devises, regardless of what height advantages it gives him, I think just the nature of being artificial opens up a whole can of worms if he is allowed to compete with those not using artificial enhancements. It just changes the nature of the sport.
I.A.A.F. officials have also expressed concern that Pistorius could topple over, obstructing others or injuring himself and fellow competitors.
I think that's rather lame....competitors sometimes do that anyway. Accidents and injuries are inherent in sports.
Some also fear that, without limits on technological aids, able-bodied runners could begin wearing carbon-fiber plates or other unsuitably springy devices in their shoes.
I've always found rules and regulations to sports to be a subjective, fickle, tricky matter. As it stands, athletes are always using artificial means to gain that 1/100 of a second extra edge over the competition...whether it be in the form of clothing, equipment choice, nutrition, etc.

The rest of the article raises other interesting questions, such as the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Where does it all end?
Among ethicists, Pistorius’s success has spurred talk of “transhumans” and “cyborgs.” Some note that athletes already modify themselves in a number of ways, including baseball sluggers who undergo laser eye surgery to enhance their vision and pitchers who have elbow reconstruction using sturdier ligaments from elsewhere in the body. At least three disabled athletes have competed in the Summer Olympics: George Eyser, an American, won a gold medal in gymnastics while competing on a wooden leg at the 1904 Games in St. Louis; Neroli Fairhall, a paraplegic from New Zealand, competed in archery in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles; and Marla Runyan, a legally blind runner from the United States, competed in the 1,500 meters at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. But Pistorius would be the first amputee to compete in a track event, international officials said.

A sobering question was posed recently on the Web site of the Connecticut-based Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. “Given the arms race nature of competition,” will technological advantages cause “athletes to do something as seemingly radical as having their healthy natural limbs replaced by artificial ones?” wrote George Dvorsky, a member of the institute’s board of directors. “Is it self-mutilation when you’re getting a better limb?”


As far as whether or not Oscar "the Piston" Pistorius should be allowed to compete in what is traditionally a "foot race".....well, I think it would be kind of exciting to see. But I think it changes the nature of the competition. If his artificial carbon-fiber limbs actually puts him on an equal footing with other runners, that's one thing; but if it gives him an artificial advantage, that's something else entirely. Where does it end? What happens when prosthetic limbs become technologically advanced enough to turn you into a bionic man? Now who's feeling disabled?

I have a feeling that Pistorius may end up having his way. After all, it's a "feel good" story. To deny him would be to be mean and heartless; to be made to feel guilty and prejudiced against those with "disabilities". Undoubtedly, he'd be an inspiration for countless others who are physically disabled. But with or without the Olympics, isn't he already that sort of role-model anyway?

I think one difference I have between him and the high school athlete I blogged about last year, is that he is running; whereas, she was wheeling herself against those on two legs (what's to prevent a bicyclist from competing against a track athlete in a track meet, based upon this kind of acceptance?). So I'm a little more open to Pistorius' possibility...

... but with great reservations.

Further reading:
Time Magazine's "Do Disabled Athletes Have an Advantage?"

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4 Comments:

Blogger WomanHonorThyself said...

Hiya Word..I am so inspired by pple like him..irrespective of the issues..thank u!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007 4:04:00 PM  
Blogger TrekMedic251 said...

Two US Army vets with the same prosthetics ran in the Penn Relays this year.

neither won the race.

Case closed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007 7:44:00 PM  
Blogger The WordSmith from Nantucket said...

Update.

Thursday, December 20, 2007 9:56:00 PM  
Blogger The WordSmith from Nantucket said...

In case anyone happens to come across this blog and is interested, my opinion on Pistorius has evolved. I now welcome him into the London Games, based upon hearing that scientists determined his cheetah blades do not give him an advantage; also buttressed by Pistorius' observation in interview that if it was the cheetahs, then why aren't more double-amputees with the same cheetahs also winning races?

His story is an inspiring one and good for the sport and good for disabled athletes and anyone else facing such physical challenges in life.

Sunday, August 05, 2012 8:16:00 PM  

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