SHIFT: Why the Olympics should say no to cyborgs like Oscar Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius isn't competing in this year's Olympics, and that's a good thing. In case you missed it, Pistorius is the double-amputee sprinter who occasionally has carbon-fiber artificial limbs stand in for his missing lower legs. His amazing Cheetah Flex-Foot legs, made by Icelandic orthopedics company Ossur, are specially designed for running and have enabled him to achieve heretofore-unattained running speeds for an amputee. This year, after a lot of hand-wrenching by various global athletics organizations, he was finally allowed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics (he didn't).

A triumph of one man's spirit over ingrained prejudices? Hardly. More like a close call that could have upset the entire notion of fairness in sports. While it's fantastic that technology has made it possible that a disabled person can, in effect, perform as well as if not better than an "abled" one, machine-enhanced athletes have no business competing against the regular variety. Why shouldn't they? Hit the Continue jump for more.

No Oscar Gold, Man
First, a recap. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) gave Pistorius the green light to try out for Beijing 2008. It did so relatively recently, in May, a few short months after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) forbade him from doing so on the basis that any device that provides an advantage should be banned. The CAS reversed that ruling and let him try and qualify, reasoning that it hasn't been fully demonstrated the Cheetahs actually give him an advantage. Essentially, as William Saletan observed in Slate, the ruling allows Pistorius to compete until he starts winning.

Separating Limb from Limb
Obviously, if Pistorius wore huge pogo sticks on each leg or rocket boots, he would be disqualified. My question is: where's the line? Already scientists have looked at how Pistorius runs in the Cheetahs and concluded they have advantages over human legs and feet, and Ossur has engineers working on even better versions. All this discussion makes me wonder what the goal is here: creating the best possible running limb or simulating a real foot as closely as possible?

The latter seems more fair. The problem is, short of a transplant or a regrown limb, simulating a real foot perfectly is impossible with machines. A regular athlete trains her legs to be more efficient and durable, strengthening muscles and organs with exercise and diet (and sometimes illegal drugs). Pistorius can do that with the rest of his body, but to improve his legs he has to go back to the lab.

The Cyberlimpics
But why not go back to the lab? Why hold Ossur back? How about we let them create the best running legs technology can make? As prosthetics engineering improves (and crosses over into bionics), amputees like Pistorious will sooner or later be able to run faster than any human ever could. In this case, the only fair solution is for them to compete in a separate event. Fortunately, there's already one tailor-made for them: the Paralympics.

Traditionally, Olympic competition among disabled athletes hasn't gotten anywhere near the attention the regular games do. That could change, however, as technology starts enhancing the disabled instead of simply making them capable. In 100 years, the Paralympics might have to change its name to the Cyberlimpics, featuring not just runners with robotic legs, but weightlifters with hydraulic arms, and synchronized swimmers with webbed hands and feet. The spectacle of seeing cybernetic humans doing things far beyond the abilities of "normals" already draws lots of eyeballs to movie screens — why not real life?

Human Race
But regardless of how many people watch, enhanced humans have no place in a competition against normal ones. Saying prosthetics are OK unless they provide an advantage isn't a solution — results of training and gifts of genetics are also advantages, but at least in those cases athletes are playing with the same rulebook: being human. Add machine into the mix, and you have a whole new ballgame.