“Yes, the Man with No Legs has an Unfair Advantage”

January 11th, 2008

The flap over Oscar Pistorius is fascinating on several levels. It seems totally absurd on first blush that a double below-the-kneePhoto courtesy AP amputee who runs on carbon fiber “blades” is likely to hear a ruling from the international governing body of track & field (the IAAF) that he can’t compete in the Olympics because his prosthetics give him an “unfair advantage”. As a lawyer I can imagine being the guy who has to present the argument with a straight face in front of an IAAF panel- the quote in the heading is me imagining how that would go.

A gut reaction to the case says “if the man is fast enough to qualify then let him run”. A moment’s more thought leads me to wonder why the IAAF really cares that much. How many amputees are there who can compete at an international level with able-bodied athletes? I have to think there is a fear in the back of someone’s head that if Pistorius is allowed to run using his blades, then someone else is going to use some other kind of device and it’s a slippery slope straight downhill to full-cyborg competitions. Someday.

Especially in a week when Marion Jones was sentenced to six months in prison for lying about taking steriods, it is understandable that governing bodies want to draw deep, dark lines in the sand wherever they can on performance-enhancers.

At the same time, it sounds like the IAAF is relying on a mechanical analysis of the blades compared to human legs to reach its conclusion. Does this suggest that the blades might be redesigned not to offer any (alleged) performance advantages? Oops, where’d that line just go?

Final note: the NY Times article says that Pistorius was born without femurs and his lower legs were amputated when he was 11 months old. As a parent I can scarcely imagine what a tough decision that was for his parents. Yikes.

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