Earlier this year, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that use of "technical aids" was forbidden in competition. The broad interpretation of what constitutes a "technical aid" ultimately disqualified Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee who runs on carbon fiber prostheses. That's right--Pistorius, a 21-year old South African sprinter who was born without fibulae, is so fast on his "Cheetah" blades that he has blown away his competition at the Paralympic level, acquiring the sobriquet "Blade Runner" in the process. For the past year, he had been competing against able-bodied runners, until the January IAAF ruling made him ineligible for these races. In considering Pistorius' case, the IAAF determined that his running blades gave him an advantage over able-bodied runners. Pistorius and his supporters (including Ossur, the company that makes his blades) contested this decision, arguing that more extensive research and tests were required.
Yesterday, taking new research into consideration, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is based in Switzerland, reversed the IAAF's ruling. Pistorius is now eligible to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. In order to do so, he needs to shave at least 3/4 of a second from his current 400m time. If he makes it, expect a great deal more discussion and debate on this subject. It's amazing to me that the relative "advantages" or "disadvantages" of prostheses were never a question or a problem when Paralympic runners came nowhere near the running times of able-bodied runners. Advances in the technology of protheses have helped narrow the gap but it isn't clear if modern protheses represent an improvement on the human body or simply level the playing field between the able and disabled.
Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins participated in a fascinating on line discussion on yesterday's ruling. Many of the questions that she was asked concerned the issue of advantage and "the line between natural and artificial." Is the use of prostheses an "enhancement" equivalent to steroid use? Or is it more like wearing specially designed running shoes? Do Olympic athletes from wealthy countries ever wonder about "leveling the playing field" when they compete against athletes with considerably fewer resources? Is that gold medal any less golden because you had a better swimsuit? Or a personal nutritionist? Jenkins remarks:
There are profound inequities in what athletes from various parts of the world have access to. The first time you go to the Games and see what some athletes have and what others don't, the illusion of a level playing field is lost forever.
Her comment made me wonder if there are debates at the Paralympic level regarding protheses. The blades that Pistorius uses are very expensive, costing anywhere between $15000-18000, the "BMW" of protheses. Arguably, having the best protheses gives a runner an advantage over other disabled runners--is that fair? Or is that like having the best Nike running shoes? (And is that fair?) But what really intrigued me was that the current technology of running prostheses is having trouble keeping up with Pistorius' abilities. In other words, as Pistorius becomes a better, stronger and faster runner, his protheses may need to adapt accordingly. I can see how this line of thinking reveals a potentially slippery slope--at which point do the protheses, which are designed "to restore maximum biological function," actually make him a super-human? This question came up in Jenkins's discussion:
Vienna, Va.: I think this case is extremely interesting. I know that DARPA (defense research agency) is working to develop an exo-suit for soldiers to enhance physical capabilities. Maybe in the future, there will be two types of competition--one for "natural" bodies and one for "enhanced" bodies (mechanical, chemical or any other).
Sally Jenkins: Wow.
Yes. WOW. There are so many ways to approach the story of Oscar Pistorius, but what most fascinates me is how it brings to the foreground the question of what makes us human and how a fear of disability illuminates this question.
In 1998, Aimee Mullins, a bilateral amputee, appeared on the cover of the London magazine Dazed and Confused.
On the cover, her long, athletic legs spliced the question
"fashionable?" in two--"fashion" and "able?" "Able," notably, remaining in question. What the cover and its
accompanying article illustrated provocatively was the "cyborgian
quality" of the disabled body and the extent to which this quality is
both appealing and disquieting (Mullins played the "cheetah woman" in Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3). In her work as a model and actress, Mullins, a former competitive
runner, challenges traditional ideas of disability--the idea that
prosthetic legs should resemble human legs, the idea that disability
should strive toward invisibility. I recommend that you take a look at
the images in "Walking as Art" (which includes the Dazed cover) and "A living sculpture."
I was particularly struck by a picture of Mullins's prosthetic legs.
She has several pairs of varying styles and uses. This range marks one
way that the disabled body challenges loss and absence by becoming a
site of hybridity, change and transformation.
Watching a clip of Pistorius running the 400m with able-bodied athletes, I'm struck by how different his race strategy is. Because of the blades, he actually has to kind of stand up straight at the start in order to continue moving forward. As a result, his start is much slower than that of the other athletes. But halfway through the sprint, he starts to pick up tremendous speed and, while other runners are starting to show signs of slowing down, he sustains this speed across the finish. It's amazing to watch--and not only because Pistorius is doing this on prosthetic legs. In order to accomplish this feat, he has to utilize muscles and techniques that able-bodied runners don't rely on. Why should these things necessarily place him in a separate category? Embracing new kinds of competitors and strategies is how a sport--how anything, really--evolves.
In his tribute to Pistorius, who was named one of TIME's 100 for 2008, Eric Weihenmayer wrote:
When I was learning how to climb mountains as a blind person, I had a lot of encouragement from experts. But after I summited Mount Everest, these people weren't ready to accept what I had done at face value. Some said I must have cheated; one even claimed I had an unfair advantage: "I'd climb Mount Everest too if I couldn't see how far I had to fall."
A disability is by definition a "deficiency," an "incapacity." So it follows that an ability is the opposite, what makes us complete. But does this definition still hold if it's our very abilities that hold us back? For Pistorius, "able" is not in question. "I'm not disabled, I just don't have any legs," he says.
image credit: ossur