Superabled?

May 15th, 2007at 08:05pm Posted by Eli

I have to admit, I never thought we would ever even be having this debate:

As Oscar Pistorius of South Africa crouched in the starting blocks for the 200 meters on Sunday, the small crowd turned its attention to the sprinter who calls himself the fastest man on no legs.

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.

His first strides were choppy Sunday, a necessary accommodation to sprinting on a pair of j-shaped blades made of carbon fiber and known as Cheetahs. Pistorius was born without the fibula in his lower legs and with other defects in his feet. He had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. At 20, his coach says, he is like a five-speed engine with no second gear.

Yet Pistorius is also a searing talent who has begun erasing the lines between abled and disabled, raising philosophical questions: 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?

(…)

Since March, Pistorius has delivered startling record performances for disabled athletes at 100 meters (10.91 seconds), 200 meters (21.58 seconds) and 400 meters (46.34 seconds). Those times do not meet Olympic qualifying standards for men, but the Beijing Games are still 15 months away. Already, Pistorius is fast enough that his marks would have won gold medals in equivalent women’s races at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Pistorius’s time of 46.56 in the 400 earned him a second-place finish in March against able-bodied runners at the South African national championships. This seemingly makes him a candidate for the Olympic 4×400-meter relay should South Africa qualify as one of the world’s 16 fastest teams.

(…)

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?

Experts say there have been limited scientific studies on the biomechanics of amputee runners, especially those missing both legs. And because Pistorius lost his legs as an infant, his speed on carbon-fiber legs cannot be compared with his speed on natural legs.

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.

(…)

“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.

Hey, if he qualifies, I say let him compete. I would hate to see him caught in a Catch-22 where he goes directly from not being good enough to compete in the Olympics to suddenly being too good.

From a broader perspective, I think anything that expands the definition of physically “normal” is a net positive.

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Sports,Technology


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