One of the most inspirational athletes in the London Olympics is South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius. Why? Because he learned to run, when even walking should have been impossible for him.
And yet, even though he has no problem with competing against able-bodied athletes, you read over and over, in almost every article about him, people are whining that the carbon fiber legs give him an unfair advantage.
First, I’d like to see a show of hands of how many competitive runners will voluntarily amputate both their legs below the knees so they can presumably run faster? Anyone?
Next, just how big a problem is this? Are there scores of bilateral amputees who are going to qualify for the Olympics? If the entire group of qualifying athletes are running on carbon fiber Cheetahs or similar prostheses, then maybe it should be seriously addressed. Until then, why exclude one guy who has the willpower to have gotten himself to the point that he could possibly qualify? How many years did it take to begin policing the far larger problem of steroid usage when it was pretty clear to everyone that a significant number of gold medals were taken home by folks that clearly looked as though they’d been pumped up by something other than weight lifting?
The Flex-Foot Cheetahs that Oscar Pistorius wears (which are cool in a sci-fi way) demonstrate how far prosthetics have come. It should be a source of inspiration that Pistorius can run fast enough to compete with the able-bodied. Instead of celebrating that fact, everyone got bogged down into whether the prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage.
I’ve got a friend who works in prosthetics and who met the man. I asked him about the “unfair advantage” thing, and, aside from saying that Pistorius is an incredibly cool dude, he became very passionate about the fact that the prosthetics DO NOT give him an advantage. I didn’t know the science; I just thought raising the question sounded like it came from petulant children.
Part of the problem is that the two main studies that have been discussed are the one commissioned by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the one commissioned by Pistorius. On the face of it, that’s a problem because both studies could clearly be considered biased. They also took different approaches, so we end up with apples and oranges.
IAAF is always fighting an uphill battle to level the playing field, sometimes getting bogged down in some truly esoteric trivia. And they seem to assume anything new is an unfair advantage, as reflected in the decision outlawing the full body swimsuits which seem to me to be something that anyone can get, provided they have the money. Oh, wait, the rationale *is* that not everyone can afford them. Qua? Since when have we had any problem with the national budget of any country competing in the Olympics. The ban doesn’t seem to have ended the problem, given that a different swimsuit purportedly may give an edge to the Brits.
But isn’t the entire sports world about doing everything they can to get that slight edge? And let’s face it, the nations with the most money to spend on the Olympics intrinsically have an unfair advantage. Maybe they should consider a spending cap of some sort across the board, instead of just picking on the swimsuits, although policing that would be as much of a headache as trying to keep up with the newest, bestest drug. Even better, perhaps they should just require that everyone in every sport has the same haircut, same height, same weight and, most of all, compete completely in the nude.
On the other hand, the report commissioned by Oscar Pistorius is problematic because it’s hard not to believe that the study was done to prove that there was no advantage. Even if the science was unimpeachable, the fact that it was not independent makes it automatically suspect.
The best evaluation of the information comes, surprisingly enough, from an article published in the Boston University International Law Journal. For those of you not familiar with law journals, they are rigorously scrutinized to verify every citation the author uses. Members of the journal’s staff will look up every citation and make sure not only that it is there, but that the cited material says what the author purports it to say.
Anyway, Patricia J. Zettler examines the Pistorius case in her article “Is it cheating to use Cheetahs?: The implications of technologically innovative prostheses for sports values and rules.” After an extensive discussion of both of the studies mentioned above, she reviews the scientific literature of the Cheetah and similar prosthetics and concludes, quoting Peter Weyand, a biomechanist at Rice University at the time, and now at Southern Methodist University:
In summary, “existing evidence doesn’t prove Pistorius has an advantage, [but] it doesn’t prove that he doesn’t have one, either.”
So, those of you complaining, either chop off your legs to get on Pistorius’s level, or man up and stop fearing the guy missing some body parts.