When Disability Becomes an Unfair Advantage

No, this isn’t a cue for me to start complaining about how the disabled are so lucky because they get all the best parking spaces and cool motorized chairs and awesome things like that.*

What I’m talking about is this man: Oscar Pistorius,  about whom I’ve written before.

Pistorius was born without fibula in both legs, leading to their amputation below the knees when was still an infant. He never let this slow him down, and was an enthusiastic athlete from a young age. For the past decade, he has been running competitively on a pair of carbon-fibre limbs made by Ossur and called the Cheetah Flex-Foot. He’s racked up an impressive body of victories, but one goal was still out of reach for him: the Olympics. In 2007, the IAAF created special rules barring “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device” in order to keep him from competing.

Since then, under both public and legal pressure to let Pistorius compete, the IAAF has reversed its ruling, and he will be running for South Africa in the 400 meter and the 4 × 400 meter relay squad.

Olympic medalist and commentator Michael Johnson (who holds the current record in the 400) objected, saying the prosthetics may give Pistorius an unfair advantage. “I consider Oscar a friend of mine, but he knows I am against him running because this is not about Oscar. It’s not about him as an individual; it is about the rules you will make and put in place for the sport which will apply to anyone, and not just Oscar.”

Johnson is being mocked and condemned for the comments, which come on the heels of another supposed “gaffe” when he observed that descendants of West African slaves (such as himself) have a “superior athletic gene.”

I’m certainly not going to wade into genetic racial arguements, but as far as his comments about Pistorius go, Johnson is exactly correct. Many of the articles mocking Johnson are waving around the report of a “team of scientists” who studied Pistorius and determined  that his springy limbs offered no unfair advantage, but I just don’t see how they can quantify that and then extrapolate an entirely new mechanism for running, measure it against the standard, and declare it universally fair.

The studies focused on a couple of issues: whether or not the Cheetah Flex-Foot creates less vertical force with each step than a normal leg, and whether this results in Pistorius using less metabolic energy. The legal report summarizing these studies is a bit of a tangle of claims and counterclaims, but they point to key issues that, in my reading, remain unresolved.

For example, a certain amount of energy is lost in a runner’s ankle, which is a problem Pistorius won’t face. The metabolic issue–the idea that energy saved by the absence of his lower limbs gives him metabolism to “spare,” which provides for lower burden on, say, his respiration–is entirely beside the point.

The fact is that not all of Pistorius is running, or at least not Pistorius alone. His feet, toes, ankles, tendons, muscles, and calves are all synthetic. Failure of any of those elements in a runner is disastrous, and must be carefully considered in training and preparation, but Pistorius well never face those physical problems. Certainly, he’ll face other challenges, but the vast difference between his challenges and the challenges of fully able runners are so different as to make it unequal. Other competitors are competing by themselves: Pistorius is competing with an army of technicians by his side, creating a tool (essentially a high-tech spring) that dispenses with almost half of a human leg, which, you may have observed, is pretty much the most important part of a runner. How it is fair for a person who is supplemented, and almost certainly enhanced, by pure technology to compete against traditional runners?

Are the Olympics about the potential of the human body, or are they about the potential of technology? Because they can’t be both and satisfy the requirements of basic fairness.


*Disclosure: since I’m designated as “permanently disabled,” my car has a parking tag, which I try not to use when my symptoms are under control. (Unless, of course, the normal parking is really really bad.)

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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    While I do agree that the Olympics is ideally about pushing the limits of human potential and all that, the fact is that new technology (whether it’s new synthetic fabrics which generate less wind or water resistence, new machines used in training, or using technology to measure performance and better prepare workout routines, etc.) will always be aiding the most affluent members of the current generation of athletes in ways that other competitors didn’t or don’t have access to.

    And I guess if any of the other runners feel really strongly about it, they’re free to amputate their own feet and get their own set of Cheetah Toes.

  • deiseach

    I can see the points of both sides in this.

    If one argument is that the artificial lower legs don’t weigh as much as normal legs, then why not apply the principle of handicapping from horse racing and add lead weights or the likes to make the metabolic stress equivalent?

  • elGaucho

    Technologies are banned constantly, think steroids, the 2008 US Olympic swim suit, the lzr racer, and the UCI bans new technologies frequently. The Pistorius story is plenty inspirational but there is no inherent right to play a sport and technology shouldn’t be sought after in order to provide a more equal chance at success. Professional athletes and Olympians are in part, heroes, because they have something others do not and it is a part of them, be it determination or ability. Pistorius is a brave man but the point of elite sport is to choose the haves from the have-nots and allow them a spot to compete. Spectating really loses its purpose if what athletes have can be bought and I think the sporting bodies realize this and have quite seriously made great attempts to preserve their respective sports which to me is interesting that governing bodies of other things do the opposite. So I disagree with those who say we need not try to stop technology from becoming a part of sport because it is inevitable.

    Aside from this, affluence is not a good predictor of success. Note East African dominance in long distance running, Diego Maradona, ice hockey and soccer teams that are not top tier, and this is precisely what gives sport its point.

  • Oregon Catholic

    I agree completely. The Olympics is about what can be accomplished by the natural body. Mr Pistorius needs to exhibit his phenomenal athletic prowess in another venue. I don’t know if he could even fairly compete against someone with the same disability acquired later in life. Since he has had it since birth and knows nothing else he therefore probably has some advantage in his adaptation to it as well.

    This is the same kind of caveing-in to political correctness that leads to just about every slippery slope issue we face in our race to be so inclusive that nothing remains exclusive and therefore eventually becomes meaningless. Once Pistorius is allowed in competition, there will be endless arguments over who will be the next and the next until any prestense at a level playing field will be lost. We could end up destroying a 3000 yr old event in a few short years. Not unlike what we are doing to marriage.

  • Carolyn

    So, let me get this straight…. Disabled people are “less than” in situations regarding things like employment, schooling, access to public places; so, when we demonstrate that we are equal (like with Disabled athletes), we must have an unfair advantage….. Hmmm It appears that no matter what we are always and already incompetent (even when we display extreme competency). In cane the author is unfamiliar with the English language, that’s called “bigotry.”

  • http://wheelchairlaptrays.com Duncan

    Interesting post. Where does it end? Technology also includes drugs, surgery, other physical enhancements? Food for thought indeed.

  • Mark

    Technology has advanced to the point where prosthetics might be competitive. I am not sure whether, in the end, prosthetics will provide an unfair advantage or simply show that it is impossible for the disabled to compete. However, I am sure that, in a sport where 1/100 of a second is important, those using prosthetics will never be equal with other runners, they will either have a disadvantage, or an advantage.

  • http://decentfilms.com SDG

    I’m sympathetic to Pistorius’s case, Carolyn, but there’s a credible case the other way too, and it’s got nothing to do with bigotry. The question is whether high-tech prosthetics confer an unfair advantage over bone and muscles and tendons. Presumably if his prosthesis were some kind of bicycle you would agree he couldn’t compete against runners.