Does amputee runner Oscar Pistorius have an unfair advantage?

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius training in Italy this month. Pistorius, whose legs were amputated below the knee due to a birth defect, will run the 400-meter dash in London using carbon-fiber blades. PAOLO GIOVANNINI / Associated Press
South Africa's Oscar Pistorius training in Italy this month. Pistorius, whose legs were amputated below the knee due to a birth defect, will run the 400-meter dash in London using carbon-fiber blades. PAOLO GIOVANNINI / Associated Press
Posted: July 27, 2012

One of the biggest stories of the London Olympics concerns South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, the "Blade Runner." Pistorius, whose legs were both partly amputated when he was a baby, will run the 400-meter dash and the 1,600-meter relay with flexible, carbon-fiber prosthetic blades.

Ironically, some say Pistorius has an unfair advantage and should be disqualified. But he and other disabled athletes should be allowed to compete.

For years, Olympic officials attempted to deny Pistorius the chance to run in the Olympics. He was declared ineligible for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport eventually lifted the ban. In the end, his times weren't good enough to qualify.

This year, Pistorius' 45.20 in the 400 is the fastest time for a South African runner. He is unlikely to medal or even make the finals, though, since there are 25 runners worldwide who have run faster in 2012.

Still, CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel has argued that Pistorius should not be allowed to compete because it would be unfair to able-bodied athletes. While Pistorius won't win this year, Doyel says, blade technology could improve enough to give him an unfair advantage by 2016.

The issue is not new. Similar arguments were made against Anthony Robles, the Arizona State wrestler with one leg who won the NCAA championship in his weight class last year in Philadelphia. Robles was said to have an advantage in upper-body strength over others in his class because of the weight "saved" by his missing leg. And Casey Martin, a professional golfer who suffered from a disease that hindered his ability to walk, had to sue the PGA so he could use a golf cart to get around the course.

Experts are divided as to whether Pistorius has an advantage. On the one hand, as illustrated by a recent Washington Post article, he is at a disadvantage in starts because his artificial legs require more balance than the human ankle, making acceleration less efficient. On the other hand, once he gets going, he has an advantage because his blades are lighter than human legs, weighing a little more than a pound each.

In a recent column in a British newspaper, Pistorius wrote, "There are tens of thousands of people with the same prosthetics I use, but there's no one running the same times."

Decisions about whether disabled athletes should compete with able-bodied athletes have to be made on a case-by-case basis. While athletic officials shouldn't be insensitive to those with disabilities, there are legitimate concerns about unfair advantages.

Where do we draw the line? Should athletes with hip or knee replacements be allowed to compete in the Olympics? Perhaps if technology advances to the point where accommodations for disabled athletes routinely give them unfair advantages, we will need another category of Olympic competition — an "enhanced human" Games. This is a question, to paraphrase Game of Thrones, for Wise Men With Skinny Arms.

One hopes such technology would not tempt able-bodied athletes to have their legs amputated and replaced with carbon blades or other devices. Pistorius' legs were amputated below the knees after he was born without fibulae, or calf bones. Athletic governing bodies should treat people with such natural disabilities favorably, but not those who choose to enhance their bodies for competitive advantage.

Even though Pistorius is unlikely to medal in London, he is an inspiration to people with and without disabilities. That's another reason he and other disabled trailblazers should be encouraged to compete.

Larry Atkins teaches journalism at Temple and Arcadia Universities, as well as social and ethical issues in sports at Arcadia. His website is www.professorlarry.com.

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