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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About Thomas L. McDonald

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.