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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When overcoming disability becomes liability

This article shares the story of an Olympic hopeful, a man who has been running for years and who hopes to travel to China in 2008 with the South African Olympic team. There's one significant difference between Oscar Pistorius and your typical sprinter, however. He's got two prosthetic legs.

Despite the incredible feat of overcoming the loss of both his legs from a birth defect, the international track and field organization (IAAF) are now considering banning him from competition, because they postulate that his prosthetic limbs may give him a competitive advantage. However, the facts suggest otherwise:

According to Gailey [an associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami Medical School], a prosthetic leg returns only about 80 percent of the energy absorbed in each stride, while a natural leg returns up to 240 percent, providing much more spring...

...There are many disadvantages to sprinting on carbon-fiber legs, Pistorius and his coach said. After a cumbersome start, he 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 Ampie Louw, who coaches Pistorius.

In other words, Pistorius is actually at a disadvantage. The arguments get steadily more inane:
Foremost among the I.A.A.F.’s concerns is that Pistorius’s prosthetic limbs may make him taller than he would have been on natural legs and may unfairly lengthen his stride, allowing him to lower his best times by several seconds in the past three years, while most elite sprinters improve by hundredths of a second.
His legs aren't getting any longer, dummies. And Pistorius is hardly a giant, standing 6 feet, 1.25 inches with his prosthetics. Despite the science of the prosthetic and the inanity of the IAAF complaints, the typical slippery slope arguments follow:
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?”
How about this rule. You can only compete in prosthetics that are used to replace bum legs (or no legs). And you can only sit on the IAAF if you've had your brain removed. So far we're batting .500.

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