The True Nature of Sport

Earlier this week, the 2011 IAAF World Championships began in Daegu, Korea. For nine days, top athletes from around the globe will be competing in a variety of track and field events.

By the time this commentary airs, the fate of one such athlete — South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius — may already have been decided. But regardless of whether he fails in the first round, does well enough to claim a berth in the 2012 London Olympics, or even takes the gold medal in the prestigious 400 meters, Oscar’s name will be indelibly engraved into the sporting history books.

That is because Oscar is the first amputee to compete in the World Championships. He was born with fibulas, one of the two long bones that connect the knees to the ankles, and thus had his legs amputated below the knees before the age of one.

To run, Oscar relies upon the use of carbon-fiber prosthetics known as “Cheetah Blades” because of their unique shape. With the help of these prosthetic legs, along with years of intense training, Oscar has been able to clock times in the 400 meters that are comparable to those of top able-bodied runners, thus earning him the nickname “Blade Runner.”

However, many officials in the IAAF — the world’s governing body for track and field — do not see Oscar’s success as evidence that human perseverance and drive can help individuals overcome nearly any obstacle, including being born without legs. Rather, these IAAF officials argue that Oscar shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the World Championships because his artificial legs give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes.

In 2008, in fact, the IAAF specifically enacted a rule that many saw as a direct attempt to prevent Oscar from competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. This rule prohibited the “use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.”

Do his prosthetic legs give Oscar Pistorius an unnatural advantage over other athletes? In one study commissioned by the IAAF, a group of scientists at Rice University concluded that the carbon-fiber blades used by Oscar, being twice as light as normal legs, gave him a nearly twelve-second advantage in the 400 meters over able-bodied athletes.

On the other hand, other studies suggest that these blades do not generate as much force as normal legs. They thus may actually put Oscar at a competitive disadvantage. Because of this uncertainty, the international Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Oscar should be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes in IAAF-sanctioned events. It also chastised the IAAF for misrepresenting its case against Oscar, and overstating the evidence that his Cheetah Blades give him an unfair advantage.

An important question to ask is: Why are some technological improvements and advances, such as the use of Fastskin suits for swimming and Klapskates for speed skating, are acceptable but others, like Oscar’s Cheetah Blades, are not? What is it that the IAAF and its officials fear?

It cannot be because of the biomedical nature of this technology. While it is true that the sporting community frowns on the use of medical drugs or devices that enhance an athlete’s performance, such as anabolic steroids, it has openly embraced other biomedical interventions, particularly when they are used to repair defects that otherwise would prevent an athlete from competing.

No PGA officials have argued, for example, that the use of LASIK surgery to correct incredibly poor eyesight has given Tiger Woods an unfair advantage over other competitors. Tiger has been quoted as saying he would be “legally blind” otherwise, and that his eye surgery enabled him to compete in golfing events. We might ask, therefore, how Oscar’s use of carbon-fiber legs is any different. They are simply medical devices that enable him to run.

It is also ludicrous to think that, should Oscar’s carbon-fiber legs be considered an allowable use of medical technology, that other athletes will be driven to amputate their legs below the knees in order to better compete. Such a slippery slope argument has been put forward by some IAAF officials, but it seems highly unlikely able-bodied individuals who have worked so hard to develop their bodies in order to compete would irrevocably destroy them.

In the absence of clear evidence that Oscar’s prosthetic legs give him an unfair advantage, the only rational explanation for the IAAF’s reluctance to let him compete is discrimination. Perhaps to them Oscar does not fit the traditional image of a champion athlete, as illustrated for millennia on Grecian urns and Wheaties boxes.

I would disagree. If anything, Oscar represents the true spirit of athletic competition. I hope he kicks some serious butt in Korea this week, and look forward to seeing him on my cereal box sometime soon.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on September 1, 2011 (and recorded earlier, before Oscar was finally eliminated in the semifinals of the Men’s 400 meter). It is also available on the WAMC website.]

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About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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