Transhuman equality? Athletes with a prosthesis do not have an unfair advantage

Remember all the fuss last year about Oscar ‘Bladerunner’ Pistorius, the amputee athlete who was banned from competing against able-bodied runners in the Olympics because the authorities were concerned that his prosthetics might give him an unfair advantage? Well, it turns out that the authorities guessed wrong – recent research suggests that, far from conferring a performance edge, Pistorius’ blades are more likely to be putting him at a disadvantage:

Simon Choppin, a sports engineer at Sheffield Hallam University, said the Pistorius controversy rested on whether his prosthetics increased the efficiency of his limbs, allowing him to achieve higher speeds for less effort.

“So, simply, you can move the prosthetic quicker and you’re ready for the next step faster than someone who has a leg,” said Choppin. Another possible advantage was that the prosthetics might allow the athlete to get back more of the energy they put into the track compared with able-bodied athletes. “But this [Grabowski] paper suggests you’re at a disadvantage if you’ve got one of these blades.”

We can hope that the competition authorities will look at research like this and allow transhuman athletes to compete alongside everyone else, at least until more advanced prosthetics confer a genuine and insuperable advantage (which is bound to happen eventually). But given competitive sport’s strong role in maintaining the mythology of the perfect conformist human body image – think back to the disgusting treatment of Caster Semenya, for example – I suspect they’ll find some other reason to keep the Olympics “pure” and “fair”.

3 thoughts on “Transhuman equality? Athletes with a prosthesis do not have an unfair advantage”

  1. Although Mr. Pistorius might not have an advantage now, athletes in (n) years will have, as technology progresses. And eventually the quality of the athletes prosthetics would become the major factor in determining the winner. That way it’d be a race between prostehics manufacturers and not athletes. (Considering what some athletes are willing to do to win, it seems plausible they might actually choose to have their natural legs replaced)
    But you wont be able to just ban them for being too good, if there’s a precedent of allowing athletes with prosthetics at the games. So you have to forbid Mr. Pistorius’ participation, however unfair it might seem at the moment.

    Wait for the first athlete with a limb regrown from stem cells which are not 100% his own (either genetically enhanced or someone elses), it’ll be the same argument all over again.

  2. People with implants, prostheses, and other technological aids will eventually be far superior to those without, of course. And if everyone has these advantages, or only the rich have them, how do we regulate sports so that competition is fair?

    The truth is, sports aren’t regulated enough right now. Children with certain genetic predispositions, cultural backgrounds, or socio-economic statuses are often conferred a benefit that gives them an edge over the competition. These aids are allowed, even though they represent no inherent superiority of the athlete. In order for competitions between individuals to be fair, those individuals have to have independently generated the skill with which they participate in the athletic activity.

    From a reductionist standpoint, this is impossible, given that a person can’t control his genetics (or, if he can, the intelligence he’s been gifted with from his genetics and environment will allow him to better control his genetics, which would be unfair). So, from a certain perspective, you really can root for a country in the Olympics or a sponsor in NASCAR and have it make some sort of sense. It’s all of the background that goes into making an athlete who he is that matters, and not just the athletes only capabilities.

    The only fair possibility that will exist in the future is for athletic competitions to exist within very limited contexts. This is a tennis tournament for three-legged humans with no more than a 50% increase in their reaction times due to nootropics, and ocular sensors limited to the infra-red and visible light spectrums, etc.

    The alternative, of course, is to go with George’s idea and get rid of athletic competitions being about individuals at all. They could actually, formally be a race between prosthetic manufacturers, implant designers, and pharmaceutical companies as to who could build the best athlete for a particular sport. That’s actually a pretty neat idea for a story, I think.

  3. The prosthetic is not the only thing that makes the athelete a competitor though. A person cannot strap one on and expect to win a race, even if it was actually superior in the future. The prosthetic in question is not doing the work for the person running.

    If it is possible to know how much of a disadvantage/advantage this person will possess by utilizing this prosthetic, would it be fair to only allow the runner to level up with it to the point she is equal with her peers? What would the basis of equal be? If the runner would still be at a disadvantage now, why bar her at this point? Why not reassess as the technology evolves or assess the prosthetics individually?

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