Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Oscar Pistorius, an inspiration and a question

By Paul Root Wolpe, Special to CNN
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue August 7, 2012
South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, the first amputee to compete in the Olympic Games, will race a horse in Qatar on Wednesday. The one-off event is to show case the contributions made by disabled people. South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, the first amputee to compete in the Olympic Games, will race a horse in Qatar on Wednesday. The one-off event is to show case the contributions made by disabled people.
HIDE CAPTION
Horse power
Paralympic ambassador
Gold rush begins
'Blade Runner'
Triple gold in Beijing
Man of honors
Able body
Sporting inspirations
Proud South African
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oscar Pistorius is running in the 2012 Olympics on prosthetic legs
  • Paul Wolpe: Is it fair for amputee athletes to compete with able-bodied athletes?
  • He asks what would happen when prosthetic technology becomes even more advanced
  • Wolpe: Decision to let Pistorius participate in the Olympics raises many ethical issues

Editor's note: Paul Root Wolpe is director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University.

(CNN) -- Oscar Pistorius, the South African amputee who is running in the 2012 Olympics on prosthetic legs, might be surprised to learn he is part of a history that traces back 3,500 years.

Many ancient civilizations used prosthetic limbs made of wood and metal to get soldiers back into battle. They were also used for basic health reasons. For example, archaeologists have found two very old Egyptian artificial big toes that had been skillfully crafted. One toe was still fastened onto the right foot of the mummy of the daughter of an Egyptian priest, who may have suffered from diabetes. How good were the Egyptian prosthetics? Modern volunteers with similar amputations tried them on and reported the toes were both comfortable and highly efficient during walking.

For most of history, prosthetic limbs were used primarily to restore function and secondarily to mimic the human form (one of the Egyptian toes even had a false toenail). In the 1980s, prosthetic limbs underwent a radical evolution when high-tech materials, sophisticated electronics, hydraulics and even microprocessor-controlled joints began appearing.

Paul Root Wolpe
Paul Root Wolpe

Today, Pistorius' "Cheetah" legs are made of sophisticated curved composite carbon fiber that can handle fast running.

There is no doubt that Pistorius, dubbed "Blade Runner," is a world-class athlete. Born with missing fibulas, his legs were amputated below the knees as a baby. Pistorius holds the double-amputee world records for the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes, and he has performed well against able-bodied athletes in international competitions. He is also courageous and determined.

In 2007, however, the International Association of Athletics Federations banned Pistorius from competing in able-bodied competitions after tests at the German Sport University showed the Cheetah blades allowed him to expend less energy than able-bodied runners.

Human to Hero: Oscar Pistorius
Pistorius' Olympic ambition
Oscar Pistorius' fighting spirit

Pistorius assembled his own legal and scientific team and successfully appealed to the Court of Arbitration in Sport. Further tests showed that Pistorius uses energy at the same rate as other elite runners, and that the Cheetah legs are not more efficient than human legs. Also, while his artificial limbs are lighter than human legs, he must push off the ground harder to get the same thrust, which cancels out any advantage. The International Association of Athletics Federations decision was overturned.

However, the story is far from over. The ruling only applies to Pistorius, and right now there is no general decision nor any guidelines about the future use of what the court called "adaptive sports equipment." The issue will have to be revisited by each new athlete who wants to use artificial mechanisms in competition.

What happens if one day prosthetic technology advances past the able-bodied athlete? The biophysicist Hugh Herr of MIT, himself a double amputee and one of the scientists who tested Pistorius, suggests that athletes will simply have to use less advanced technology to keep them on par with able-bodied athletes.

But such a standard is clearly untenable. We do not ultimately know the degree to which technology mimics true physiological function. What if an amputee high jumper wants to use Cheetahs; what level of springiness is "fair" against able-bodied athletes? What about a swimmer who wants to use prosthetic hands or legs? Or an archer whose prosthetic arm does not tremble like an arm of flesh and blood? We do not have metrics that can determine true equivalence with able-bodied athletes.

Then there is the issue of fairness. In this year's U.S. Olympic trials, Dathan Ritzenhein, the two-time Olympian and 5k American record holder, was eliminated from the marathon team because of leg cramps. Pistorius cannot get cramps in his calves because he does not have any, and so he can never be eliminated based on this criterion.

The Pistorius case confronts us with two important questions. What is a disability? And what is the rationale for elite sport?

Defining "disability" is a notoriously slippery enterprise.

In 1997, Casey Martin, a professional golfer with a circulatory disorder, sued under the American with Disabilities Act to be allowed to use a golf cart to play in the U.S. Open. The PGA argued that walking the 72 holes while playing world-class golf was a significant factor in tournament play. Who determines what components of a sport are part of its competitive fabric? In the Martin case, it was the U.S. Supreme Court, who overruled the PGA and allowed Martin to use a golf cart.

The world is not divided into the disabled and the able-bodied. "Disability" is a medical term, but it is also a legal and a social term; one can have a disability according to medicine but not law, or be considered disabled by social convention but not law or medicine. "Normal" refers to a range of functioning, and a good case can often be made that those at the lower end of the "normal" range have a disability. Where we draw the line can be arbitrary.

What is the purpose of sport? Sport is an artificial world. The rules of a game, the distances we run, the criteria for inclusion are all made up, and we change them regularly. We can either have pitchers in professional baseball bat, as in the National League, or have a designated hitter as in the American League. Neither is "right," no matter how passionately some feel about it. Sports work through convention. The great symbolic power of the Olympics is that we all agree on the same rules and then abide by them.

Many opposed to Pistorius' inclusion in the Olympics argue that fair competition requires people who start with the same basic physiological equipment. Pistorius' supporters argue instead that fairness in sport means allowing all qualified people to compete, even those born without fibulas.

Pistorius did not advance to the men's 400-meter final, but he is still an inspiration. The decision to let him compete in the Olympics is the beginning of this conundrum. More and more, our powerful technological achievements will butt heads with our sense of naturalness and fairness. A lot of the debate and controversy around biotechnology will be played out in athletic competitions. Let the games begin.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Root Wolpe.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT