When Is a Disability an Advantage?

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Oscar Pistorius is an 18-year-old sprinter from Pretoria, South Africa, whose ambition is to compete for his nation in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. His best time in the 200 meters is 21.97 seconds, about two and a half seconds off the world mark. To compete at the elite level, he obviously has quite a lot of work ahead of him, even to qualify as his country's representative. But he doesn't lack the will to do so. Pistorius was born without feet and has fought hard--with the help of skilled prosthetics engineers--to get into a position even to consider running against the world's best able-bodied athletes.

In "Born to Run," a Web-only feature on IEEE Spectrum Online (/nov05/2189), author Marlowe Hood, of Agence France-Presse, writes that Pistorius's quest has touched off a huge controversy in the world of track. The high-tech solution to Pistorius's disability has drawn criticism as being an unfair advantage.

High-end 21st-century prosthetic devices are marvels of technology and feature sophisticated human-machine neural interfaces and muscle-like actuators. Electronic knees with microprocessors are now able to recalibrate 1000 times per second.

"To what extent can Pistorius's jaw-dropping performance be attributed to his innate talent and determination, and to what extent is it a by-product of technology?" Hood asks. "Even on technical grounds, there is no clear answer. Factor in the fundamental issue of fairness, and the waters get even muddier."

Hood spoke with a number of athletes, sports officials, scientists, and engineers to investigate the matter. His account is an insightful and thought-provoking look at a phenomenon that most of us have never heard of--or even imagined was possible.

The editorial content of IEEE Spectrum does not represent official positions of the IEEE or its organizational units. Please address comments to Forum at n.hantman@ieee.org .

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