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Should The Blade Runner Compete In the Olympics? July 29, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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As you have no doubt heard by know Oscar Pistorius, the South African 400 meter runner who also happens to be a double leg amputee who runs on a pair of specially designed prosthetics, will be competing in the 2012 Olympics against able-bodied athletes.  To say that this story has caused some controversy would be an understatement (though it hasn’t exploded the way I though it might) and if nothing else it raises some interesting questions about fairness and the use of technology in sports.  As such I’d like to take a moment to break down some of the arguments for and against his inclusion and see what we can learn about our (changing?) views.

1: His prosthetics give him an unfair advantage.

This is probably the most common criticism brought out.  The idea is that because his legs are specially designed for running they must offer him an advantage over plain old flesh and blood runners.  Unfortunately a review of the evidence finds either no support for this idea or contradictory.  Studies have shown that he uses less energy to run because of the lower weight of his legs, that due to their design he is not able to grip the track as well as other runners and so on.  The problem is that due to Pistorius having prosthetics since he was young we have no way of comparing his running before and after.

An interesting side note is that with the degree of technological enhancement already present in the Olympics Pistorius question mark shapped prosthetics aren’t actually that strange.  Think about it.  Swimmers wear specially designed swim suits modeled after sharkskin.  Discuss’s, javelins and other field equipment is constantly being redesigned for greater or lesser performance.  Even other runners run on rubberized tracks using specially designed shoes with cleats on just one side.  Technological enhancement is no new thing to the Olympics and unless we decide to go back to the days of naked athletes it is here to stay.

2: He shouldn’t compete because he’s disabled and the Olympics are for able-bodied athletes

Ironically this rather superficial argument is actually one of the stronger ones against Pistorius competing.  The Olympics are defined by the rules of the IOC as a competition between able-bodied athletes and since Pistorius does not fit that description he should not be allowed to compete.  If you think that sounds like a completely arbitrary rule then you would be correct but that it fact is the source of it’s strength.  The rules of sport are and always have been completely arbitrary.  Why aren’t you allowed to use you hands in soccer?  Because then it wouldn’t be soccer.  Shouts of unfairness from the other side of the debate are often met with the argument that there already exists a competition format for athletes like Pistorius in the Paralympics.  This leads to a rather more interesting argument…

3: He shouldn’t compete because he already competes in the Paralympics.

Not only has he competed in the Paralympics but he will be competing in them this year after he runs in the Olympics (incidentally, both games are held at the safe venue this year).  If Pistorius is able to jump back and forth between them it begs the question of what the purpose is of having the Paralympics in the first place.  This is also a decently strong argument and again it rests on definitions; the Paralympics is defined as an event for disabled athletes while the Olympics is for non-disabled athletes.  If Olympic athletes are banned from competing in the Paralympics, which they are, then it stands to reason that the ban should apply visa versa as well.

Why I think this question is more interesting is that it raises the possibility of other specialist athletic events in the future.  If prosthetics are determined to give runners an unfair advantage and if the solution is to ensure they have a field in which they can compete against other similarly enhanced athletes then what of the possibility of a competition for gene-enhanced athletes.  Or for that matter, drug enhanced athletes.  All joking aside this could be the solution to the problem of doping in sports though of course problems would still exist with ensuring that enhanced athletes do not compete in non-enhanced events (something which already happens today.)

So we come to the end with two rather strong if completely arbitrary reasons for excluding the Blade Runner from the Olympics.  To be honest I didn’t expect to find myself in this position when I first started writing the piece being the technophile that I am.  I love Oscar Pistorius and his story.  I think what he is doing is not only a testament to the vision of transhumanism but more importantly to the very Olympic spirit that many feel, quite strongly, he is transgressing.

That’s probably the most interesting part of this story.  Reading through the comments of various articles it’s hard not to notice an undercurrent of fear running through many of the negative remarks.  The idea that a man with no legs can, with the help of technology, out do not only most of the average shlubs of the world but actually compete and challenge the best that baseline humanity has to offer is downright threatening to a lot of people.  It not only calls into question our (rather outdated in my opinion) notions of the purity of sport and the values of achieving greatness through nothing but hard work and determination but also challenges our view of the Olympics as a demonstration of the pinnacle of human athletic achievment.  Will we someday watch the Paralympics to see the fastest or strongest human?  The day is coming sooner than you think.

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