Where Do We Draw the Line on Performance Enhancement?

All I can say about this is that it is an interesting story, and I can’t decide how I feel about it.

The Olympic aspirations of Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, may end soon. Track and field’s world governing body is expected to announce that he is ineligible to race against able-bodied athletes because his state-of-the-art prosthetics give him an unfair advantage.

Pistorius was born without the fibula in his lower legs and with other defects in his feet. He had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old but has gone on to set Paralympic world records in the 100, 200, and 400 meters. He has defeated some able-bodied runners in his pursuit of attaining an Olympic qualifying time, touching off international debate over what constitutes disabled and able-bodied and how limits should be placed on technology to balance fair play with the right to compete.

The ruling by the International Association of Athletics Federations, track’s governing body, was informed by a scientific examination of Pistorius’s j-shaped, carbon-fiber blades, known as Cheetahs, and his biomechanics. In November, he was tested for three days in Cologne, Germany, under the supervision of Peter Brueggemann, a professor at the German Sport University.

“The I.A.A.F. has a rule which states that any technical aids which give an athlete an advantage over another are prohibited,” Nick Davies, the organization’s director of communications, said in a telephone interview from Monaco.

George Vecsey discusses the issue and brings up Bert Shepard, who pitched one game with a prosthetic leg in 1945.

6 Responses “Where Do We Draw the Line on Performance Enhancement?”

  1. Mac says:

    Well, you just know that people are going to be lining up to get their lower legs chopped off if they can win Olympic medals for it. I know that I’m planning to get my left arm removed at the elbow and replaced by a jai alai stick, then try out for the Devil Rays.

  2. JC says:

    I doubt many athletes will begin sawing off their limbs soon; although, there is some evidence that beggars do this in India to increase their income.

    I talked to a colleague of mine who has written a textbook on biomechanics, and he says the issue of these prosthetics has been discussed for a while. They have devices now that allow athletes to perform at Olympic levels with much more efficiency than the human body. As a result, these devices do more than return athletes to an equal level. I am impressed that governing bodies are developing objective tests to find out how much help an artificial device can give. It seems that they would allow a prosthetic if it functioned with equal efficiency as the human body.

  3. tangotiger says:

    What if it allowed to perform with equal efficiency to Gretzky, Jordan, or Ruth? My opinion is that once it becomes a part of you, it’s you, and you can’t be discriminated on that basis.

  4. JC says:

    Efficiency refers to the ability to transfer oxygen into output. It does not mean being able to perform on the same output level as an athlete. From the article:

    Brueggemann said this did not necessarily translate to a general advantage. But he did establish that this “different kind of locomotion” was also more efficient from a physiological standpoint.

    “In the 400 meters, he was able to run at the same speed as the control subjects, but his oxygen intake was much lower,” he said.

  5. Marc Schneider says:

    The issue is whether these devices give the athlete skills he or she did not have before. If the Bionic Woman is suddenly a world class sprinter after never having been able to run fast, that’s a problem. If it simply allows the athlete to compete in the way he or she would have before the loss of limb or whatever, I have no problem with it. It’s similar in a way to when Adam LaRoche started taking ritelin to address his ADD and his performance improved. I have no problem with that because it didn’t really enhance his ability, it simply allowed him to compensate for a physical disability and enabled him to perform at the level to which he was capable. It didn’t give him an unfair advantage because he was no better than he would have been had he not had ADD.

  6. Hizouse says:

    So: what about eye surgery giving a player 20/10 vision? And we’ve already heard of kids trying to have TJ surgery because they think it will add a few mph to their fastballs. Are these things any less artificial than the prosthetics? I guess those don’t introduce or attach any outside materials, but what if instead of using a tendon from the leg they used a state-of-the-art plastic tendon (if such a thing exists)? And Nike already makes some type of special contact lenses for sports; what if these were permanent implants?