From 27 July until 12 August 2012 the games of the 30th Olympiad took place in London. The 4 August was a particularly special day. On this day Oscar Pistorius became the first athlete to compete at the Olympic Games while running on prosthetic limbs. Pistorius is a double below the knee amputee (T43 under the Paralympic classification system) who runs on J-shaped carbon fibre blades. He represented a fusion of humanity and technology that will become an increasingly pressing issue for the sporting arena in coming years.
Pistorius is the only amputee in history to have run at an Olympic Games. He is also a pioneer. Like all pioneers he lead the way for others to follow. The next paralympian who looks capable of running at the Olympics goes by the name of Alan Oliveira. He is a Brazilian who garnered attention when he dealt Pistorius his first ever defeat in the 200m at the 2012 Paralympic Games leading to Pistorius, somewhat ironically, questioning the legitimacy of Oliveira’s prostheses. In July 2013 Oliveira ran 20.66 seconds over 200m, taking 0.64 seconds of the previous world record time. Running 0.64 seconds under a world record time is an impressive achievement in an event that is traditionally decided by fine margins. It is also 0.01 second outside of the Olympic B qualifying time, and there is ample time until the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to improve on this. Furthermore, Oliveira is only twenty years old, given that sprinters often peak in their mid-to-late twenties it seems that there is a good chance he will surpass Pistorius’ achievements in able-bodied, and Paralympic sport. For the purposes’ of this paper, Oliveira importantly shows that Pistorius is not a once in a lifetime athlete; there are others who are as good as, if not better than him.
In this paper, using Oliveira and Pistorius as a case study, I will build on the arguments made by other philosophers with regards to Pistorius: arguments that question whether amputee athletes are doing the same thing as able-bodied athletes when they compete. I will argue that, under current the current system for measuring performance, the reliance of amputee athletes on exploiting technical aids means that what they are doing when they run is not comparable to what able-bodied athletes do when they run. Given that sport is designed to compare the ability of athletes to perform particular skills, the fact that able-bodied athletes and amputee athletes are displaying different skills when they run means that they should not be measured against each in the same competition.
I will then apply the same reasoning to argue that single and double-amputee athletes should not compete against each other at the Paralympic Games. Rather than concluding that the only reasonable course of action is to separate these different categories of athletes, I will offer an alternative solution: change the method of measuring performance. I will suggest that, by adapting a scoring system already used in some Paralympic swimming events, otherwise incomparable performances can be measured against each other. Such a system, whereby athletes are measured against the world record time in their particular category, rather than the traditional first-past-the-post system, would allow top amputee athletes to fairly compete against each other.
In this section I will argue that the most important consideration when deciding whether amputee athletes should be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes is whether the likes of Oliveira are different to the extent that they are not competing in the same sport (van Hilvoorde & Landeweerd, 2008; Jones & Wilson, 2009). This is a simple consideration. Sports are designed for athletes to display certain skills and test themselves against one another. If two athletes are not competing in the same sport then a direct comparison loses meaning. If I were to challenge a friend to a race where he must run but I am allowed to use a bicycle then merely comparing our times over the agreed distance does not reveal anything meaningful about our comparative athletic ability. I will argue that the same applies to a comparison between athletes running on natural legs and athletes running on prostheses.
Some people have expressed their worries that performance-enhancing technologies will lead to past records losing all meaning. David Wasserman points out the scepticism that greeted Barry Bonds breaking Major League Baseball’s homerun record given that Bonds’ exploits had been tied to use of anabolic steroids (Performance-Enhancing Technologies and the Values of Athletic Competition, 2008). It is possible that there will always be an asterisk next to Bonds’ name in the record books. I think the reason for this asterisk’s existence can tell us something important about sport. We want there to be some manner of consistency, this is why we enjoy keeping records. We like to compare the past with the present, and we need to make these comparisons within the same sports for them to make any sense. It is interesting to look through the javelin record books and see how the world record has developed; you can compare 2013 with 1913. What is less interesting is to compare the world record in javelin to the world record in shot put. This is because it does not make sense to compare the two different sports. Throwing a long, thin, spear, and throwing a round, heavy, ball, are different activities. There are certain aspects that need to be present for an athlete to be competing in a certain sport. Sometimes enhancement technologies can fundamentally change a sport to the extent that those using the enhancement technologies are no longer displaying an important skill relevant to the sport.
A recent example of how technical aids can alter or remove an important aspect of sport can be found in swimming. In the lead up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing there was controversy swirling overhead of the swimming pool, as a new type of swimsuit threatened to aid swimmers in breaking all records. The Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit was accused by some of being a form of technological doping. The suits reduced drag, making swimmers more hydrodynamic, allowing them to move faster through the water. Importantly, they also increased buoyancy by trapping air beneath the suit, which meant that swimmers were higher in the water allowing them to focus more on propulsion and less on staying afloat.
As predicted, nearly all records were broken in Beijing. After much debate in the months that followed the suits were banned by swimming’s governing body, FINA. The new rules stated that swimsuits could no longer cover the entire length of the body, as the previous high-tech suits had, and that they must be made from textile fabrics only. This meant that suits would no longer increase buoyancy or reduce drag, restoring traditional obstacles that swimmers had to overcome. In a statement released by FINA when the ban on high-tech swimsuits was announced, swimming’s governing body made it clear that their decision was undertaken because FINA wanted to ‘to recall the main and core principle in that swimming is a sport essentially based on the physical performance of the athlete’ (BBC, 2009).
Sports are defined in certain ways and those competing in them must meet certain criteria. If a competitor does not meet those criteria their performance may no longer be comparable to others competing in the same event. For swimmers in 2008 some were forced to over come drag in the water and keep buoyant using their swimming technique, whilst others had suits that helped do this for them. When I mention specific criteria one must meet in order to be competing in a sport I am not talking about all rules. For example there is a rule in football that all participants must wear protective shin guards, and that those shin guards must be fully covered by the wearers’ socks. If a player has his socks pulled down, or is not wearing socks at all, that does not mean that they are not participating in the sport of football. However, if the same player were ride around the field on a horse using the horse to kick the ball into the goal, regardless of how well his shins were covered, they would not be playing the sport of football. It may be an exciting new sport that has many aspects that are the same as football, but it would not be football. To allow someone to participate in a sport even if they were not meeting the requirements of that sport would be disrespectful to those who are correctly participating in the sport. This is because they have entered into competition on the assumption that their opponents will be doing something comparable, and can be measured by the same criteria. The same is true for the spectators. They have come to see an event on the assumption that they will be viewing certain performances that are associated with their chosen sport. To offer something different would be unfair to them and their interests. It is true that such incongruous spectacles may provide entertainment; athletes have a tradition of being pitted against animals in exhibition events. Pistorius himself raced a horse in Doha in 2012. There is a reason that such spectacles remain occasional events used mainly for publicity purposes.
One might object that if the above statement about the interests of competitors and spectators wasn’t applicable to Pistorius in the lead up to the London Olympics. This could be seen by his status in the media. The way he was embraced by fans and his fellow competitors. One of the enduring images from the London Games was eventual gold medal winner, Kirani James, swapping numbers with Pistorius after their race. Though the embrace from his fellow competitors was not universal With questions from athletes sceptical over Pistorius’ inclusion, former Olympic champion, LaShawn Merritt, being amongst those showing concern (Kessel, 2012). If it were true that spectators should be upset by something altering the sport that they watch, and Pistorius was participating in a different sport, then it would be expected that there would be public outcry over his inclusion. Yet he was one of the most popular athletes in the world. This objection can be answered by looking at the incongruous, and non-threatening nature of Pistorius competing. Pistorius was still new and exciting. He was something unique, so people found him interesting. In addition he was not a threat to the established order of things insofar as he was extremely unlikely to win a medal. As it happened he failed to reach the final. Oliveira on the other hand could be a threat to able-bodied domination. Given the drastic improvements he made in July 2013, and his young age, it is possible that he will be a realistic medal chance when the Olympics come to his home country in 2016. Should this happen it will be interesting to see if he is met with the same general positivity as Pistorius was shown in 2012, or if the narrative will change from that of a heart-warming tale of overcoming adversity.
The Use of Technical Aids
In the previous section I argued that if amputee athletes can be shown to be competing in a different sport as able-bodied athletes they should be barred from competing against them. In this section I will argue that the use of technical aids is what makes the exploits of amputee and able-bodied runners significantly different. When answering the question of whether amputee athletes are running in the same way that able-bodied athletes run it may be tempting to turn to science for an answer. Just as cricket used biomechanical testing to determine what it is to bowl a legitimate delivery, similar tests could be devised for running (Jones & Wilson, 2009). I will demonstrate below with a simple thought experiment the extent to which the use of prosthetic legs alters what amputee athletes are doing when they run when compared to able-bodied athletes.
When able-bodied and amputee athletes compete, they both use their bodies to propel themselves around a track. They both have technical aids on the end of their legs: shoes for able-bodied athletes, prosthetic limbs for amputees. What differs is the amount of assistance that these technical aids provide the athletes. Consider other sports where competitors race around a track using with technical aids at the end of their legs: cycling, and car racing. There is no denying that exploiting technical aids is vastly more important for Formula 1 racing drivers, and track cyclists than it is for runners. Similarly, the ability to use their body to propel themselves around a track is more important for Olympic Runners than it is for Formula 1 drivers. This is not meant to belittle the important skills that runners use when pushing out of the starting blocks and getting a good grip on the track. Nor is it meant to undersell the physically exhausting task of driving a high performance race car. Oliveira uses his body to propel himself around the track. His prosthetic limbs are not battery powered. Without considerable input from his upper legs and the rest of his body he would not move. Similarly, if Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel did not use his body his million-dollar car would be stationary. The same is true of multiple Olympic champion track cyclist, Victoria Pendleton, and her bicycle. As mentioned above, it is also true that able-bodied athletes exploit technical aids. When Usain Bolt defended his Olympic 100m and 200m titles by taking gold in London he was not only using his body. He was wearing specialised track shoes, and clothing. The key question is to what extent each competitor uses their body to propel themself around the track as this reflect important features of what it means to be competing in each sport.
If I were to line up at the start of an Olympic running event in a car, or on a bike, I should not be allowed to compete, as the competition would no longer be testing the same skills, I would be doing something incomparably different. My ability to exploit my technical aid (be it a car or a bike) would be more important that my running ability. This is because my technical aid would be doing so much more work in the race than the technical aids of my fellow athletes (their shoes). The excellences on display would be so different that it could no longer be said that we were competing in the same sport. Below I will show that the same is true of amputees competing against able-bodied athletes.
It does not take extensive scientific testing to measure the different extent that an able-bodied runner, and amputee athlete, a cyclist, and a race car driver are using their bodies when they go around a track. All that is required is some imagination. Consider the following:
- Alan Oliveira running around a track, on his black, J-shaped, carbon fibre legs, wearing the green and blue spandex of his native Brazil. Victoria Penalton, her aerodynamic, red, Team Great Britain helmet glistening in the bright lights, cycling round a velodrome on a carbon fibre bike. Sebastian Vettell driving round a track in his dark blue, Red Bull sponsored, Formula 1 car. Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, in his yellow Jamaica singlet and gold chain, sprinting in his white Puma track shoes.
- Now consider the same scenario again, but this time Oliveira does not have his carbon fibre blades, in fact he does not have any form of prosthetic legs. He is merely propelling himself around a track using only his amputated limbs. Pendleton without her bicycle, she is now moving herself around the cycling track the best she can with the tools at her disposal: she is running. Vettel too has been stripped of his technical aids, his multi-million dollar race car, and is also making his way on foot. Finally consider Bolt, without shoes, like the Olympians of ancient times, running around a track.
The disparities between scenario A and scenario B illustrate the different extent that each athlete is using their body to propel themself around a track, and the importance of the role that their chosen technical aids play. What Oliveira, Pendleton, and Vettel are doing in scenario B differs greatly from what they are doing in scenario A. Whereas what Bolt is doing in the two scenarios is barely any different. This shows that Bolt is using his body to propel himself around the track in a far different way than what Vettel, Pendleton, and Oliveira are doing. This illustrates the importance of each athlete’s ability to exploit technical aids in their chosen discipline, and the skills that those contests are designed to measure.
As well as showing the different ways that each of the four athletes discussed use their bodies to propel themselves around a track, the above scenarios show the extent to which each athlete relies on technical aids. When Oliveira, Pendleton, and Vettel are stripped of their technical aids in scenario B, what they are doing becomes completely different. The same cannot be said about Bolt, because the ability to exploit technical aids plays such a comparatively small role in able-bodied running. While Oliveira may not rely on exploiting technical aids to the same extent that Pendleton or Vettel do, they are still extremely important to him. Without his blades he is doing something completely different. If you watched Bolt run with shoes then run without shoes the difference would not be drastic. Indeed you might not notice any difference at all, and it’s not unheard of in the history of running for athletes to compete bare-foot. This shows that amputee athletes’ reliance on exploiting technical aids is far greater than any able-bodied athlete. As a result it cannot be said that the two groups are doing the same thing when they are running. The ability to exploit the running prostheses is a key part of amputee running. It is an important skill that plays an important role in determining the outcome of the race. The same cannot be said about able-bodied running. The feats of the two sets of athletes are different, so different that they are not comparable. Just because some amputee athletes can currently run similar times to able-bodied athletes should not cloud this judgement. I might be able to cycle 200m in a similar time to Usain Bolt running 200m, but that does not make such a contest meaningful, nor does it make our times over the distance comparable. We would be exhibiting very different skill sover the race, just as an amputee runner and an able-bodied runner are.
In the previous section I argued that amputee athletes should not be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes at the Olympics. This is due to the different weighting that the ability to exploit technical aids has for the different sets of competitors. This is the key point: what able-bodied runners and amputee runners are doing is different. So different that it is not comparable. When an amputee runner like Alan Oliveira is running one of the key abilities he must display is a mastery of his prostheses. This is not an ability that is sought in able-bodied running. It is the same reason that an able-bodied runner should not be allowed to compete at the Paralympics. Able-bodied runners do not display the relevant excellences that are at the core of Paralympic running. The two are not comparable. The above conclusion has the consequence of raising questions about the Paralympics. If we are to assess whether double-amputee athletes should be able to compete at the Olympics on grounds of the role that exploiting technical aids plays, then it is only fair that we apply a similar assessment to the discipline in which they compete at the Paralympics: T43/44. In this section I will argue that, like double amputee and able-bodied runners, the feats of double and single amputees are not comparable.
According to the Paralympic classification system Oliveira is categorized as T43: double below the leg amputation. However, due to lack of competition from other T43 athletes he and his fellow T43s run against athletes in the T44 category. T44 athletes have a single below the knee amputation. It may seem like an advantage to have one intact leg as opposed to no intact legs. But those in the T44 class have complained about having to compete against double amputees because double amputation allows a more even stride (Bainbridge, 2012). In T44 running, the ability to maintain an even stride between your prosthetic leg and your intact leg is clearly an important aspect of competing. Double-amputees do not have to worry about such considerations. Undoubtedly they encounter difficulties from having a double amputation that those with a single amputation do not encounter. Nevertheless, the fact they face different difficulties when running implies that T43 running is not the same as T44 running. The fact that the two sets of athletes are categorised differently also points to the fact that there are disparities between them.
If the thought experiment from the previous section is altered to include a single amputee you can clearly see that what double and a single amputee were doing without their technical aids are very different. Consider the following:
- 2012 Olympic 100m champion in the T43/44 category, Great Britain’s Johnny Peacock, running with one biologically intact leg and one carbon fibre prosthetic leg attached just below the knee of his right leg. World Record holder for the 100m in the T43/44 category, Brazil’s Alan Oliveira, running on two carbon fibre legs, attached just below his knees.
- Peacock travelling 100m without his prosthetic leg, presumably hopping. Oliveira travelling 100m without his legs.
These comparisons are in no way meant to belittle or humiliate either athlete by removing an important contributor to their mobility. What scenarios C and D show, as with scenarios A and B, is that the different athletes rely on their technical aids to a different extent. By removing their technical aids we can see how important they are to their achievements, and the importance of the mastery of their technical aids in their respective discipline. Double amputees should not be competing against athletes with a single amputation for the same reason that Pistorius, Oliveira, and any other amputee athlete who can meet the qualifying time, should not be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes. The balance between body and prostheses when they run is different. They are effectively competing in different sports, and as a result single and double amputees ought to be separated.
There may be an important practical reason that makes the separation of single and double-amputee athletes unsustainable. This reason is numbers. Or lack of numbers to be precise. In the introduction of this paper I discussed the possibility of Oscar Pistorius being the first of many amputee athletes with the potential to cross over to able-bodied events. However, the number of T43 (double amputee) and T44 (single amputee) athletes has not increased to the point whereby there are enough of either to justify having their own events. Only five T43 athletes, and seven T44 athletes, entered the 400m in London. Until these numbers increase it may be better for the Paralympics if they combine the two categories, rather than have an event where three out of the five competitors get a medal. In the next section I will discuss a potential solution to this problem. This solution would make the exploits of double and single amputee athletes more comparable to one another, allowing them to justify competing against one another.
A Solution From Swimming
I ended the previous section by stating that even though double and single amputee athletes are not comparable when they run it may be in the best interests of the Paralympics to have them compete against each other until there are significant numbers to justify stand alone events. If this is to be the case then something must change in order to make their performances comparable. This is not a change in terms of the extent to which they rely on their technical aids, but a change in the system of measuring their performances so that those different qualities can be compared. The best way to do this is to adopt methods that already exist at the Paralympics. These methods can be used to measure the performances of differently abled competitors in order to compare what would otherwise be incomparable. I will conclude that, while such a system could also be adopted to allow amputee athletes to compete at the Olympics, it should only be seen as a last resort to be used where athletes have nowhere else to compete. It is also a system that is better suited to the Paralympics because measuring athletes using different systems in the same event would change the nature of the Olympics, but it is a practice that is already established at the Paralympics.
If athletes are to compete against those that they are incomparable to how should we measure their performances? S. D. Edwards (2008) points out that if we are obliged to let amputee athletes compete against able-bodied athletes there is a case for implementing some sort of handicapping system to allow a level playing field. Nevertheless, he concludes that any such system would be doomed to failure. Edwards starts by pointing out that no two competitors are identical therefore if we were to make adjustments for one athlete, we would presumably have to do the same for all athletes and assign them different handicaps. He then concludes that to do this would lead to farcical results. He imagines a system whereby competitors start a different distance from the finish line based on their ability to finish the race the fastest, with the least equipped starting ‘perhaps a metre or less from the finish line’ (2008). Certainly such an approach would be farcical. This is due to the importance of ensuring competitors are competing in the same sport. By altering the distance in a race the sport is certainly being altered. By definition a 400m race should not be run over 254m, regardless of how impaired a competitor is.
Measuring athletes with different levels of impairment against each other is not a new problem. It is a common phenomenon at the Paralympics. Swimming in particular often sees athletes with a variety of different disabilities competing against each other in the pool due to a lack of competition from those in the same category. This does not mean that they are each competing in their own race, and several medals are handed out after each race to the winners in each category. All the differently-abled swimmers are competing for a single set of medals. The differently-abled swimmers who compete against each other are timed differently to the traditional first-past-the-post method, by using a points system.
The points system is a rather simple and ingenious way of measuring the performances of athletes with different disabilities against each other. Each swimmer competing is assigned a category according to their disability and event, just as Oliveira is a T43 and Johnny Peacock is a T44. They are then measured against the world record time in their category for the event they are competing in. If a swimmer wins the race by a clear margin but is five seconds short of the world record in their category, they will lose to a swimmer who is three seconds short of the world record in their own category. The swimmer who wins the race will not necessarily be the swimmer who finishes the race first, but who shows the best performance relative to the history of the category in their event.
A similar system of measurement could be applied to double amputees when they compete against others who do not share their status as T43. If they were measured against the world records in the T43 class as opposed to being directly measured against T44 athletes it would be a fairer way of measuring the achievements of all involved. For an example of how it would be fairer one only needs to look at the T44/43 200m final in London where a South African amputee runner set a new world record. The name of this record setter was not Oscar Pistorius; it was Arnu Fourie. Unfortunately for Fourie his world record was set in the T44 class and there were three T43 athletes in the race who were faster than him. He finished fourth. If a points system were adopted similar to the one used in Paralympic swimming Fourie would have taken home the gold medal. If double and single amputee athletes are to continue competing against each other then such a system would be a way to compare their otherwise different achievements,
One last thing to consider is whether such a system could be adopted to allow amputee athletes to compete at the Olympics. If the system that I have argued for can make the incomparable comparable then it could be a way of justifying the inclusion of amputee athletes in able-bodied competition. The reason that this system is better suited to the Paralympics than the Olympics is that similar systems already exist in other Paralympic events. I have spoken in this essay about the importance of maintaining the integrity of sporting competitions. The Olympic Games is not an occasion where competitors compete against each other but are measured according to different systems. The Paralympics is such an event; its categorisation system is a key part of its existence. While there are events at the Olympics that have different categories, for example weight categories in boxing, there are no events that have different categories competing against each other; you do not see a lightweight competing against heavyweights. The fact that both single and double amputee athletes are displaying a mastery of their prostheses and have a reliance on similar technical aids also seems to point to there being more similarities than between able-bodied and amputee athletes. Furthermore, this system is a last resort. It is a way of giving a place to those who have nowhere else to compete. Amputee athletes have ample competition at the Paralympics and do not need to compete against able-bodied athletes as the Paralympics allow them to compete against those that they are more similar to. Ideally single and double amputee athletes would be able to compete in separate categories but as numbers do not allow this, the alternative measuring system is a way of bridging the gap.
Head of the Biomechatronics research group at the MIT, and inventor of the prostheses that Pistorius and other top Paralympians run on, Hugh Herr predicts that within thirty years advances in technology will allow amputees to outperform able-bodied runners (Phillip, 2012). If Herr is correct then it is imperative that we decide how to assess what technology should be allowed and what should be prohibited in sporting competitions. We cannot predict exactly what such technology will be. However, by using Pistorius and Oliveira as case studies, we can establish a framework to use when making such decisions if and when they arise. In this paper I have argued that when investigating technical aids we should assess the extent to which they alter the sport that an athlete is competing in. I have shown that this does not have good implications for amputee runners like Pistorius who wish to compete against able-bodied athletes. Furthermore, there are implications for combined single and double amputee events at the Paralympics. If the argument is to be consistently applied then double and single amputee athletes should not be measured against each other in the traditional sense. Given that there are not enough athletes from each classification to justify separate races, I have suggested that the Paralympics should take the system used to measure athletes with different disabilities used in some swimming events and apply it to track and field events. Such a system would allow the otherwise incomparable to be compared, allowing differently abled competitors to compete fairly against each other on the world stage.
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