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Outsourced athletes

A sprinter's artificial legs help pose questions about fairness – and personhood.

June 2, 2008



In one sense the case of bionic sprinter Oscar Pistorius is a feel-good story. He has overcome unusual limitations as a disabled athlete. But his bid for the Olympics with artificial legs also raises fresh questions about what it means to be human.

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Mr. Pistorius, a young South African who competes in the 400-meter sprint, can run very fast using prosthetic legs made of springy carbon fiber. After excelling in track events for the disabled, he's now trying to land a spot on his national team for the Beijing Olympics.

Earlier this year, his goal seemed unlikely after the International Association of Athletics Federations ruled that his prostheses gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners. But the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland, overturned that decision May 16, saying that no evidence of an advantage could be proven.

Now, if he can lop about one second off his best time of 46.46 seconds, he will qualify for the Summer Games. If that happens, it will be the first time that a disabled athlete has competed in the Olympics.

Opinions about his historic bid seem to rest on whether this technology has allowed him to compete fairly (in which case, hurrah for him), or whether it has "enhanced" him with an unfair advantage.

During World War II, Pete Gray was able to play Major League Baseball briefly even though he had only one arm. He earned widespread admiration for his courage and skill. Would his fans have felt the same way about him had he been equipped with a bionic arm capable of throwing a ball at 100 m.p.h.?

The possibility may be coming: Scientists recently equipped two monkeys with brain sensors that allow them to control a mechanical arm with just their thoughts.

Athletes and others, of course, already are "enhancing" themselves. Pro golfer Tiger Woods underwent eye surgery that has left him with better-than-normal vision. Many college students take drugs to increase mental alertness and endurance. Steroid use by athletes may look crude in coming decades if expected advances in genetic muscle "improvement" take place.

With more enhancements ever available, the meaning of "restoring to health" becomes murkier. When does a hearing aid, for example, become a superhearing device?

While regenerating someone's usefulness and wholeness is beneficial, augmenting their capabilities beyond normal is to treat humans like lab rats.

But if enhancements become routine, will they become the new "normal"? Will "faster, higher, stronger" soon be the motto of the genetic engineer as well as the Olympian? If so, the idea of "natural" talent in athletics, as well as the efforts put into good training, could be lost.

Transhumanism is an idea that welcomes "upgrades" of the body and views even healthy people as candidates for artificial "improvement." But it also poses problems: Will people unwilling to use such enhancements face discrimination in their line of work? Will parents try to enhance a child in the womb? Will people who now rely on many digital gadgets someday have tiny versions of them implanted into their brains?

Pistorius's new legs are a public forewarning about the need to define new concepts about personhood without losing sight of the qualities of character that are the essence of being human.