man, machine, and the future of sport

As South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius attempts to become the first Paralympian to compete in the Olympic 400m I thought it might be time to delve into this debate which is a goldmine for sports ethicists. Indeed, Pistorius’ eligibility is the the topic of my Masters Thesis so for my latest post I have adapted a section that I doubt will make the final cut (no, not because it’s shit, because it’s a bit off topic). Enjoy.

Will Pistorius inspire a new generation of amputee athletes?

One of the key arguments levelled at Pistorius by those who believe that he shouldn’t be allowed to compete at the Olympics is that the carbon fibre blades he runs on give an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners. This, so those who argue this position would have you believe, is because none of the other athletes he will be running against have access to the same technology. This is due to the fact that they have legs that are intact. But is this really the case? Is he unique in having access to prosthetic limb technology?

Certainly those he runs against at the Olympics (should he qualify) will not have prosthetic limbs, but that does not mean that they couldn’t. There is nothing to stop an athlete having their legs amputated and then running on a pair of carbon fibre blades. It might seem ethically questionable for someone to get a perfectly healthy limb amputated and there is some precedent for it. Apotemnophilia is a condition whereby individuals wish to have perfectly healthy limbs amputated as they do not identify them as being part of their body. Many surgeons are reluctant to perform such surgeries and it is possible that top athletes would encounter similar problems. However, top athletes also are probably better resources than most Apotemnophiles, and may have the money and means that they do not. Whilst it may be difficult to obtain, there is still and argument that athletes do indeed have access to running prostheses if they are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get them.

Aside from whether or not athletes would be able to get access to prosthetic limbs, there is the more ethically pressing issue of whether or not they should be allowed to get their limbs amputated in the pursuit of improved sporting performance. I’m sure the knee jerk reaction of many people would be: “No, definitely not.” But why not? It does seem like there is a difference between some suffering Apotemnophilia and someone who wants to shave a second off of their personal best. Apotemnophiles do not believe that the limb in question is a part of their body, presumably most athletes are perfectly happy with their bodies and would rather keep their legs if they could achieved the desired results.

Is this the future of sport? The future of humanity?

To get an answer to this question then we must first answer the question of what it is to be healthy. Unfortunately I don’t have the space to go into such an in depth topic here. But it would seem far to simplistic to define health in terms of an intact body. On a hedonistic view of health it would seem that happiness should play an important part. Apotemnophiles are not happy with their bodies and something can be done to remedy that: amputation. I mentioned above that most athletes who might consider amputation as a method of performance enhancement would probably be perfectly happy with their bodies if they were able to run more quickly. But the fact is they are not able to run as quickly as desired. It would be like saying Apotemnophiles would be perfectly happy if they believed their limbs were part of their body. Of course they would, but that is not case.

It might seem unlikely that any athletes would be willing to sacrifice their lower legs for the hope of running faster, but an athlete risking their health for glory is nothing new. You only need to look at all of the people willing to take performance enhancing drugs with little regard for the side effects. But maybe most athletes would be rather keep their legs even if it were shown beyond certainty that carbon fibre blades would allow them to run faster. But for any who do their decisions should be respected. Just as those who wish to have gender reassignment surgery have the opportunity to do so. A man wishing to become a woman has a key part of his anatomy removed in order to give him a more fulfilled life; some people are fulfilled by running as fast as they possibly can, so they should have the same opportunities. It would certainly make sense for there to be comprehensive psychological analysis in place for prospective patients, just as there is for those who wish to receive gender reassignment surgery. Rather than have the decision be available to anyone on a whim, like the most popular case of surgery on healthy parts of the anatomy: circumcision.

There will likely be a point in the future where a person will wish to radically alter their otherwise healthy body in order to become more advanced by merging with technology. This may not be to run faster, but it will be for selfish reasons. As a society we should support them in this goal, and allow them access to technology even if it does not fit with traditional notions of what is to be a healthy human being.

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2 thoughts on “man, machine, and the future of sport

  1. I take your point on the comparison between apotemnophilia and the drive that elite athletes have to succeed in their sport, and I agree that it is conceivable that some athletes might experience a feeling akin to alienation when faced with the fact that some of their physical characteristics are not conducive to achieving at the highest level. However, an apotemnophile’s obtaining an amputation of a healthy limb doesn’t markedly alter the incentive structure of limb amputation (if we allowed “no questions asked” amputations I don’t think we’d see a big increase in people’s desire to lop off their healthy arms), while in the case of elite athletics I think there is a danger there. How should we view athletes who are perfectly happy with their natural arms and legs, but feel they have to “upgrade” in order to stay competitive? Would this be a reasonable demand to make of aspiring Olympians in the future?

    Also, I wonder how to square your seeming acceptance of this type of performance enhancement with your condemnation of Lance Armstrong on the basis that PED use (not necessarily by him) contributed to his TdF victories. Is your objection to PEDs in competitive cycling just that it happens to be against the rules as they are now written, or does it go deeper than that?

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