Pistorius: a hero, yes, but not an Olympian

Allowing the remarkable ‘blade runner’ to compete against able-bodied athletes goes against the true spirit of competitive sport.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee athlete who runs on prosthetic carbon fibre blades, should be given every word of praise going and celebrated as an outstanding example of human resilience and prowess. The one thing he should not be given, however, is the chance to compete against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Pistorius’s selection as part of the South African athletics team for London has been praised as epitomising ‘the Olympic spirit’. It would be fairer to say that this decision goes against much that top-level competitive sport is supposed to be about. It removes the level playing field and gives one competitor a potential advantage that others cannot replicate. It brings closer a situation where the race goes not to the swift, but to the best-engineered.

Let’s try to put this controversy in some wider perspective, to be clear about the issue of technology and sport. In general, there is nothing new and nothing wrong with sportsmen and women trying to gain an advantage over their opponents through technological and other innovations. Recent decades have brought huge changes and improvements in almost every sport – as just one example in Wimbledon week, think of how the speed and power of tennis has been transformed by the move from wooden racquets to aluminium and now graphite ones.

I recently chaired the ‘Materials for Winners’ conference at the Danish Design Centre in Copenhagen, a day of discussion that provided some fascinating insights into how new materials, technologies and designs are enhancing sporting experience and performance – everything from revolutionary ceramic bearings in racing bikes and rowing boats to the innovative science of how to spin a tennis ball.

The ‘moral’ question such developments raise is: how far is too far? Does the focus on technological innovation risk undermining the ‘true spirit’ of sport and fair play? The elite motor sport of Formula One, for example, has arguably already become a contest that is at least as much between the engineers and mechanics as it is between the drivers.

But in most areas there is no necessary contradiction between technical innovation and sporting competition. We often hear about ‘the Olympic spirit’ as defined by Baron de Coubertin, credited with founding the modern games, which says that it is not the winning that matters, but the taking part. However, de Coubertin – an aristocrat who imagined the Olympics as a way of forging a new martial spirit within the French elite – was also associated with the other great slogan of the games: Citius, Altius, Fortius – Swifter, Higher, Stronger. In other words, it is the winning that counts in the end, and has been since the Olympiad of Ancient Greece, where there were no medals for coming second or third and the defeated might be more likely to commit suicide than celebrate taking part.

Sport is ultimately a social, not a natural, activity. It has always been subject to political and cultural pressures and there is always a drive to do whatever it takes to win, whether for yourself, your city-state, your sponsors or your national team. Athletes will use whatever technical means are available to give them the edge (and sometimes whatever pharmaceutical means are available for the same purpose, which is another, though related, issue).

It is important to try to get the right balance on these matters. Technological innovations in sport are not magic carpets. There is no new material or design (or for that matter, drug) that could turn the likes of me into an Olympic athlete. But they can make the marginal difference to a top athlete in winning a contest or breaking a record – especially as it becomes harder to shave that microsecond off the best times. Usain Bolt would have been an extraordinary sprinter in any age. But he would not have set his astonishing 100-metre world record of 9.58 seconds without the assistance of modern training techniques, running shoes, and the new material Olympic running tracks designed in Italy.

There have been occasions in recent times when the sporting authorities have sought to draw a line and hold back the tide of technological and design innovation. In 1984, for example, the East German Uwe Hohn threw his new aerodynamic javelin a distance of 104.8 metres, shattering the world record by five metres. That javelin was soon banned, partly on the ground that it could pose a health hazard to people on the other side of the stadium! More recently the introduction of new designs in non-textile full-body swimsuits helped competitors break no fewer than 43 world records in eight days at the 2009 world swimming championships. The authorities moved to ban such suits, which were described as ‘technology doping’. But did they really give anybody an unfair advantage? As the battle between the innovators and regulators continues, I am generally on the side of the former.

However, one case where the authorities have been forced to allow a dramatic development in sporting technology concerns Oscar Pistorius. The Paralympian was originally barred from competing against able-bodied athletes when the International Association of Athletic Federations ruled that his blades gave him an unfair advantage. That ruling was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2008. Pistorius ran in the 400 metres at the 2011 World Championships in South Korea, reaching the semi-final, and as part of South Africa’s silver medal-winning squad in the 4 x 400 metres relay, though he was omitted from the team for the final. He has now been selected for the relay squad at the London Olympics, having narrowly failed to make the qualification time for the individual event.

Many observers have welcomed Pistorius’s entry into the Olympics as a big step forward for disabled rights and sporting equality. But this is one area where the authorities were surely right to rule him out in the first place. Allowing the remarkable ‘blade runner’ to compete at the Olympics is a serious infringement of the true spirit of competitive sport, which says that every competitor must have the same chance to win – whether they have the ability to do so is another matter entirely.

The point is that, while encouraging innovation, the playing field has to remain level for all. In other words, all must have the opportunity to benefit from the new developments. Of course that does not mean everybody will be handed the latest technologies and designs on a plate. Sport is a fiercely competitive market where athletes, engineers, designers, corporations and states will fight to get a technical edge on their opponents – and where some will, inevitably, have far more resources to throw at the problem than others. That’s sporting life in the real world, as opposed to a fantasy one where all athletes run in an old army vest and plimsolls, like ‘Alf Tupper of the Track’, British sporting hero of a war comic of my distant youth. But the rules and the opportunities must remain the same for everybody.

That is not the case with Pistorius and his blades, which appear to give him a potential advantage that other athletes cannot replicate. I bow to the scientific expertise of the Sports Engineering department at Sheffield Hallam University, the leading researchers in the field. Dr David James, a senior lecturer there, observes that ‘the blades are made of carbon fibre and have a lower mass than muscle and bone; they are also elastic and allow the runner to “bounce” with little energy cost’. As a result, Pistorius, unlike able-bodied athletes who have to cope with the build-up of lactic acid in their muscles, can run the second half of a 400-metre race considerably faster than the first. Dr James says that, after extensive studies and debate, ‘the scientific community have largely overcome their differences and reached a consensus view that running blades provide a significant advantage to a bilateral amputee, particularly over the longer distances where the acceleration phase is not so important’. He concludes that, with the prospect of fusing a prosthetic blade directly into the bone and thus eliminating tissue damage, ‘the first human to run a sub two hour marathon could very well be a bilateral amputee’ (‘Fair Game?’, Ingenia magazine, Issue 47, June 2011).

The fact that Pistorius himself is currently not quite fast enough to win an Olympic gold medal is neither here nor there. The technology gives him a clear potential advantage over able-bodied athletes – it has been compared to allowing a marathon runner to wear roller skates – and that gap is only going to get worse with time. We are faced with the extraordinary situation where a disabled athlete can actually have an inbuilt advantage which other runners cannot match.

It seems that the decision to allow Pistorius to compete against able-bodied athletes must have been based more on political correctness than a clear view of what is right for sport. As such it sets a potentially dangerous precedent.

And what if, as I suggested half-seriously in a debate last year, an athlete prepared to do anything to win (such athletes apparently do exist) were to opt to have his feet replaced by prosthetic blades? Would that be allowed? Or would the authorities try to rule that it was ethically acceptable to be a naturally disabled runner, but not a voluntarily disabled one?

The question of technological innovation in sport is not a black-and-white issue and does not readily lend itself to the striking of moral poses on either side. Each case should be judged on its sporting merits. And on that basis, the remarkable Oscar Pistorius should be restricted to winning gold medals at the London Paralympics this summer. He is a sporting hero, yes – but not an Olympian. Otherwise we run the risk of creating a track on which some athletes are more equal than others.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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