Past Event

What Should an Athlete Look Like? Disabilities & the Olympics

Recently, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) ruled that Paralympic champion Oscar Pistorius is ineligble to compete at the Olympic Games in Beijing. At 11 months, his legs were amputated below the knee. The now 20 year old South African athlete holds Paralympic world records for the 200m, 100m, and 400m.

Pistorius uses carbon fiber, j-shaped blades in competition. The IAAF decided that his prosthetic limbs give him an advantage over able-bodied opponents. Its ruling is based on a study in which Pistorius and five able-bodied athletes’ performances were compared. The researchers’ data showed that the blades allowed Pistorius to run at the same speed but use 25% less energy than the able-bodied athletes. For this reason, the blades were defined as technical aids.

The IAAF banned “the use of any technical device that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using the device” last year as Pistorius was lobbying the organization to enter into Olympic competitions. However, Robert Gailey, an expert in the study of amputee runners at the University of Miami Medical School, says that “a prosthetic leg returns only about 80 percent of the energy absorbed in each stride, while a natural leg returns up to 240 percent, providing much more spring.”

As advancements in technology and talent intersect in the world of athletics, the lines between able and disabled are eroded. The IAAF argues that allowing the use of technical devices such as prosthetics corrupts “the purity of the sport.” However, Gailey challenges that notion by asking:

“Are they looking at not having an unfair advantage? Or are they discriminating because of the purity of the Olympics, because they don’t want to see a disabled man line up against an able-bodied man for fear that if the person who doesn’t have the perfect body wins, what does that say about the image of man?”

What should an athlete look like? Do prosthetic legs simply level the playing field for athletes with disabilities or do they give them an unfair advantage similar to steroids and laser eye surgery? Where should limits be placed on technology to balance fair competition with the right to compete? How will the nature of athletic competition be altered as technology continues to advance and individuals using artificial limbs are able to run faster or jump higher than the best able-bodied athletes?

Suggested Readings:

Blade Runner’s ongoing battle

Too disabled-or too abled-for the Olympics?

Bionic Pistorius should not be allowed to run

The Bionic Man

Is the world ready for cyborg athletes?

For more informaiton, please contact Kristin Millikan at 312.422.5580.