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.