Faster than normal isn’t really normal July 26, 2012Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV205 , trackback
In honour of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, I thought I’d try to take note of a few relevant stories from the games over the next few weeks.
First, I’ll note that the Oscar Pistorius, aka the “Blade Runner” qualified this year to run in the 400m dash event. Somehow, we’ve never discussed him on this blog, but Pistorius is something of a high-profile and controversial track athlete because he was born without any bones in his lower
legs. Shortly thereafter, his lower legs were amputed, and he walks on regular leg prosthetics and he runs on advanced carbon fiber prosthetics that look nothing like a human leg.
There are some interesting issues worth discussing here. The most obvious question most people ask is he gains an unfair biomechanical advantage. The science, as best as anyone can determine, suggests not, to the best of our limited understanding of the science of running. He might swing his lighter legs faster, but he has to push harder to maintain the same thrust as his competitors so it appears things even out with his prosthetics. And, it must be said, he only barely qualified in the event, as the last person added to the South African team; he only runs as fast as other 400m runners, not faster. These are prosthetics that bring him up to normal, not beyond.
If it wasn’t clear, we aren’t talking about Pistorius running in the Paralympics (although he did win gold in 100m, 200m, and 400m in the Beijing Summer Paralympics). In 2012 he qualifed for the, uh, “regular” or “normal” Olympics. This is what seems to be causing the controversy because no-one complained about his Paralympic presence, but could also be load of hogwash because an Olympic track athlete is not normal. They are just a few thousand people who were blessed with “unfair” genetics, or “unfair” social or economic advantages that allow them to train and compete at the highest levels around the world. That’s not normal. Almost by definition, they do things that normal people can’t: “faster, higher, stronger” is the Olympic motto, is it not?
The question I’d ask is faster, higher, stronger at what exactly? There is no 400m backward-hopping-on-one-leg race, for example. But why not? Each Summer and Winter Olympics sees some events added and others dropped, and for a variety of reasons the female events are not the same as the male events. In 2012, women’s boxing is new, and softball is out. Ultimately, each event at the Olympic games is a socially selected test of some arbitrary human ability. What’s normal actually changes from from time to time, and may, in time, come to include virtually any prosthetic.
In any case, pointing to his prosthetics hardly seems fair given other amateur sports have been employing high-tech devices for years to give themselves a known biomechanical or fluid-dynamic advantage. Remember when clap-skates were introduced? Or the full-body swimsuits? They both provided technological advantages to some athletes and not others. Not to mention the many professional athletes have had elective eye surgery to improve their visual acuity. I’d wager than Pistorius will be running next to athletes wearing a variety of expensive and optimally selected track shoes. No Olympic event, to my knowledge, takes place in a technology-free zone. Unlike the original Ancient Greek games, modern athletes do not compete nude.
Somehow, I doubt that Oscar Pistorius, aka “the fastest man with no legs”, will be the most controversial aspect of this years games.