Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Differently Abled

The story of Oscar Pistorius is inspiring. Born with a limb development defect, Pistorius had his lower legs amputated at the age of six months. He grew up wearing prostheses, and played rugby in high school. His coach noticed how fast he was, and got him into track and field, where he became a sprinter. Pistorius competed in the 2008 Paralympics and won gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 400m dashes.

This year, he competed in the London Olympics, not the Paralympics, and this brings up the interesting question of whether he should have been allowed to. Because of his double amputation, Pistorius requires prostheses to run. He uses a carbon-fiber "spring" type of prosthetic when competing. Some have complained that these springs may provide an unfair advantage.

His defenders point out that the prosthetic has no computing or power source: it's just a piece of metal. Therefore, they say, he must have no advantage, since he provides all the power. This argument falls flat instantly, though: a bicycle rider provides all the power as well, but the mechanical advantage is so great that he would leave runners well behind. (The world record in the 250m cycling time trial from a standing start is 17.1s; the world record in the 200m dash is 19.2s. It's pretty clear from these times that at 400m a cyclist would be several seconds ahead.)

Scientific study showed that Pistorius actually does enjoy considerable advantage due to his prosthetic, but the study was later found to be wanting by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and he was ruled eligible for the Olympics. While we can all appreciate Pistorius' will and determination to compete with able-bodied athletes, the ruling sets a bad precedent. At this level of competition, the difference between the best runners and those not even qualifying for the Olympics is minuscule. So what happens when the next double-amputee has improved prostheses and wants to compete? If a gold medal were to be won by an athlete using a prosthetic, the whole sport would be overturned. Where could the line be drawn? Would every such athlete have to be tested beforehand to determine whether their particular prosthetic brought a mechanical advantage? The very uncertainty of such testing makes this an unlikely scenario, but the precedent set in this case is to do just that.

It may seem unlikely now, but one can certainly imagine a future in which one cannot compete for the top spots in running events without prostheses. That would be a terrible result for the sport of track and field, equivalent to rampant doping. So let's appreciate Pistorius' achievement, but hope future cases are handled differently.


  1. Actually, James, the whole concept of "fairness" in all this is kind of irrelevant. What is "fair" in this kind of competition? Some people are born with superior genetics that make them better athletes. Some people's life circumstances allow them more time to train and practice than others. Is that "fair" for someone who works a full time job (or even more than one), has to take care of their kids, wasn't blessed with superior athletic prowess genetically.....but still works hard, possibly with greater dedication then the athlete who actually wins?

    Perhaps the only way to make athletic competition "fair" would be to only allow people to compete against clones of each other, with equal amounts of time to train. But that's kind of silly, isn't it?

  2. The concept of fairness in sports is exactly the same as in other fields of endeavor: it means everyone is following the same rules. It is not against the rules to be born with better fast-twitch muscles, and that is not an unfair advantage. Nor do differences in training time constitute a fairness violation.

    In fact, if the rules allowed it, taking steroids would also not be unfair. The reason the rules don't allow it is for other reasons, such as safety. The case here is similar: if everyone were allowed to use any means at all to get around the track, then Pistorius' blades would be fine, as would someone else riding a bicycle. But that's plainly not the purpose of a running competition.

    What we need is a bright-line rule. One that makes sense is to say that you can't use any mechanical aid when running (other than, if you wanted to be pedantic, spikes on your shoes), and that is, in fact, the rule that was put in place in 2007 when this case first came up. There are other possible rules, of course, and as long as everyone abides by them, the competition is fair. What happened with Pistorius was a special exception to the rule, almost as if a runner born with a muscle disorder was allowed to take steroids because it was found not to give him any special net advantage. It's my contention, though, that this way lies madness.