Is there an Olympic event in Shortsightedness?

Blade Runner ruled ineligible for Olympic qualifying events

We're living in weird times when someone can compete in the Paralympics but be overqualified for the Olympics.

Earlier today the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field's world governing body, handed down the decision that 21-year-old Oscar Pistorius is ineligible to compete in qualifying events for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Pistorius, generally known as the Blade Runner, was born without fibulas and had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. But with his state-of-the-art carbon fiber prosthetics-- called Cheetahs-- he has set Paralympic world records in the 100, 200 and 400 meter events. His best times have him nipping at the heels of the 2004 women's races gold medalists. His next stop was supposed to be Beijing.

But in uniquely un-Olympian spirit, the I.A.A.F. has promptly dispatched that lifelong dream. In their statement, the I.A.A.F. said that the Cheetahs "should be considered as technical aids which give him an advantage over other athletes not using them." The Cheetahs, they say, are in "clear contravention" of the rules."

Unwittingly, the Blade Runner has unearthed a whole bunch of people's darkest and most irrational fears.

In a related Times article from 2007, I.A.A.F. director of development Elio Locatelli was quoted saying, "With all due respect, we cannot accept something that provides advantages." He suggested that Pistorius concentrate on the Paralympics. "It affects the purity of sport. Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back."

I can't get over the condescension in the "purity of sport" handwringing-- especially when, in the same breath, Locatelli urges the man with the contraptions to take his game to the Paralympics. Because that's not really sports.

Lest there aren't enough Chicken Littles pecking at poor Mr. Pistorius, the Times unearthed another precious gem:

A sobering question was posed recently on the Web site of the Connecticut-based Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. "Given the arms race nature of competition," will technological advantages cause "athletes to do something as seemingly radical as having their healthy natural limbs replaced by artificial ones?" wrote George Dvorsky, a member of the institute's board of directors. "Is it self-mutilation when you're getting a better limb?"

Shouldn't a member of the board of directors of something called the "Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies" have some passing acquaintance with emerging technologies?

I posed the question to Dean Kamen, the inventor of multiple assistive technologies including the iBot and a new prosthetic arm: Will people start chopping off their legs and replacing them with fake ones?

"It'll be a long, long, long time before most people would want to substitute for the original equipment with anything engineers can make," Kamen says. "That's not to say we might not all be lining up for engineering solutions when what we have is old or broken."

"But the original equipment," he says, "the natural capability of muscles and tendons, driven by energy coming from chemical reactions moving through blood-- it's pretty hard to beat what nature did."

"The I.A.A.F. has got no clue about disabled sport," said Ampie Louw, who has coached Pistorius since 2003, to the Times.

After a cumbersome start, [Pistorius] needs about 30 meters to gain his rhythm. His knees do not flex as readily, limiting his power output. His grip can be unsure in the rain. And when he runs into a headwind or grows fatigued, he must fight rotational forces that turn his prosthetic devices sideways, said Louw.

To recap: Letting Pistorius compete in the qualifying rounds will lead neither to Olympians hacking their legs off, nor to James Bond-style jet packs.

If you take the longer view, it's quite good news that technology is now so advanced that it causes problems with the "able-bodied" versus "disabled" dichotomy. The only problem is that real people like Pistorius have to deal with the subconscious fears of a bunch of hysterical bureaucrats. Can't we get some engineers into the I.A.A.F.?


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.