Great Debate: Artificial legs unfair advantage?

When South African sprint runner Oscar Pistorius qualified for the London 2012 Olympics, this debate had already started.

The 25-year-old double amputee — known around the world as Blade Runner — finished an impressive 8th place in the men’s 400-meter semifinals earlier this week, finishing in a laudable 46.54 seconds. And critics are still wondering if allowing him to participate using Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs is opening the floodgates for technological aids for Olympic athletes.

But are these artificial legs really an unfair advantage?

His inclusion does clear the way for other amputee runners to compete on this world stage. And while it seems obvious to applaud and even champion such accomplishments, encouraging other amputees to chase this abled-body dream, I can understand the debate.

For starters, I think it’s absolutely absurd to think that this guy — whose lower legs were amputated as a baby after he was born without the fibula bones in his shins — has any unfair advantage. I don’t think he’s consider not having legs as an “advantage,” let alone an unfair one. It infuriates me to think that we can even criticize or accuse someone for doing something that’s already difficult for athletes with two good legs.

That said, the argument may not be about whether double amputees — or any disabled person — should be allowed to compete in the Olympics. (Of course they should!) It’s about the diabolical folks who will try to bend the rules to allow able-bodied athletes to use technology to gain an edge.

At least that’s what I think this debate is about.

Otherwise, I can’t say why anyone would ever think someone without two legs would have an unfair advantage. I wouldn’t trade my two working legs for blades, even pricey, Olympic-quality ones.

Maybe we have to stop thinking the worst of people — that Pistorius wants to cheat to win Olympic gold — and give them the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe all he wants is to be a normal athlete. What’s the harm in that?

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7 Responses to “Great Debate: Artificial legs unfair advantage?”

  1. hawaii2000 August 7, 2012 at 12:57 am #

    I’m not sure there’s any *harm* in it. But the problem I have with letting this athlete compete with everyone else is how can anyone consider it a fair race? He has artificial limbs for legs. Does the fact that he’s an amputee offset the fact he’s using the latest in carbon fiber prosthetics? I don’t know. But that is irrelevant.

    Say, for now, no one perceives his situation–I won’t call it a handicap or challenge or whatever–as a disadvantage. Ok. That’s today. So when they come out with some new technological prosthetic advancement next week, then what? Where will we draw that line between his prosthetics being a disadvantage versus an advantage? The fact a line even needs drawing is what bothers me.

    At least today it’s a non-issue since he came in last. But what would people be saying if he came in first? And how would he feel about having that asterisk next to his name in the record books?

    This isn’t a matter of equality. It’s one of apples and carbon fiber oranges.

  2. M August 7, 2012 at 6:46 am #

    Hello Cat!

    What if he could jump higher than normal because of his high tech prosthetics? Like in the high jump, basketball, volleyball or long jump, wouldn’t that be an unfair advantage?

  3. David Jackson August 7, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    At some point the debate boils down to whether the other athletes think it is unfair. I can see parallels to steroid versus non-steroid athletes. So many guys made it to the major leagues that would not have, we’d have had a different MLB for the last 20 years if all had been non-users.

    The only way to know would be to take an athlete that formerly had limbs, fit them with these prosthesis and see how they compare. Absurd eh? God Bless this guy for racing. It is in the spirit of the Olympics for him to be allowed to race. Should his marks be kept in a separate class? A lot of questions to be answered in time. He is not the last but a pioneer. a pioneer that should be applauded.

  4. jaydee August 7, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    The IAAF in 2007 actually banned him from competion with able bodied participants. That ruling was overturned after research and testimony by biophysicist Hugh Herr, head of the Biomechatronics Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Herr argued that, “if Pistorius’ prosthetics work better than biological limbs, they’d be giving a boost to other amputees, too. But Paralympic athletes have used the same technology for the past 15 years, and no one has achieved Pistorius’s running times. “It’s clearly because of Oscar, not the legs,” Herr said.[Caster Semenya: How Sports & Science Classify Sex]

    The world record for the 400 meters is 43.18 and Pistorious’ best time is 45.07.
    ‘Nuff said.

  5. matt August 7, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    there has to be limits to the amount that technology can help. golf has it with the “springiness” allowed on the golf club face (COR=Coefficient of restittution) and baseball (in the amateur ranks) has similar limitations on baseball bats. as technology makes discoveries, they (bat and club makers) were able to use thinner, lighter, stronger materials resulting in bats and clubs that didn’t deflect when struck (thus absorbing energy that could have been transferred to the ball) or that produced a trampoline effect.
    same thing with the artificial limbs. in running, I’d imagine that a trampoline effect would have tremendous affects on the results. I heard that one of the things that makes Usain Bolt faster than everyone else is that he’s taller with longer legs so he takes fewer strides to cover 100m than the rest of the field does (41 steps vs 44 steps over 100 m). if prosthetics can spring the athlete forward so that s/he doesn’t have to take the same amount of steps to cover the distance, than that would be unfair.
    similarly, if the weight of the prosthetic doesn’t approximate the weight of the lost lower limb, then that could be an unfair advantage. how much quicker could a runner move his/her quads and hams if they didn’t have those pesky calves and feet dragging them down?

  6. Ken August 7, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    The international Court of Arbitration for Sport has the final say on equipment like this. After a lengthy study period, they ruled that these particular artificial legs do not give him an unfair advantage. I’m sure they know a lot more about sports than I do, so I accept the ruling. Apparently all the athletes have accepted it too, since I have not heard of any complaints about this ruling.

    I’m sure that non-motorized artificial legs that do create an unfair advantage are possible (if not now, then in the near future). I trust that the court will rule appropriately if the issue ever comes up.

    • hawaii2000 August 8, 2012 at 11:49 am #

      @Ken It’s likely no one’s complained because no one considers his artificial legs a real threat. You can be sure there’d be complaints if his running times were close to or even exceeded record times.

      Should that time come, it will be interesting to see how the powers that be rescind their decision to allow athletes with artificial legs to complete with the rest. It makes me think the only reason they allowed him to compete is because they think they won’t have to face this issue again for some time. They could be mistaken and they could end up wishing they never opened this potential can of worms. Time will tell.

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