Technological Doping/ Cyborg Athletes

The International Paralympic Committee have today released a news item on their website stating that their President, Sir Philip Craven, is asking for athletes to be given full credit for record breaking performances at London 2012. It states that he is concerned that “some people prefer to give credit to the role of technology in an athlete smashing a world record over their actual performance”. This appears to be a continuance of the issues raised over Paralympians, and particularly leg amputees, who have attempted to qualify for the Olympic Games. With the massive improvements in performance standards currently occurring in disability sport some athletes have reached a standard that might allow them to qualify for the Olympic Games. However, the technology they use in terms of adapted equipment in order to enable them to compete has raised questions regarding advantages such equipment might give them over their non-disabled counterparts. This has led to the coining of such terms as ‘technological doping’ or ‘cyborg athlete’. The most notable example of this is, of course, Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-below the knee amputee who uses carbon fibre blade prosthetic limbs to allow him to compete. It is probably unnecessary to go into detail regarding the Pistorius case as it has been covered heavily by both the media and academics worldwide (see Wolbring, 2008; Howe, 2008), However, in brief, Pistorius, a Paralympic Gold medallist and world record holder decided he wished to compete against non-disabled athletes in open competition and if possible qualify to compete in the 400 metres at the Olympic Games in Beijing. He came within half a second of the qualifying standard, when in March 2007 the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) introduced a rule regarding ‘technical aids’ that brought into question the use of such prosthetic limbs within the Olympic Games as it was felt they gave the user an unfair advantage when compared to the capabilities of the human leg. Following an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which challenged the veracity of the tests carried out by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the IAAF it was decided by CAS that Pistorius should be allowed compete (but only using the technology which he used in the original tests). In the end Pistorius failed to reach the qualifying time for the individual event, but still hoped to make his country’s relay team, at which point the IAAF Secretary General Pierre Weiss is cited as saying ‘we’d prefer that they don’t select him for reasons of safety . . . Pistorius will risk the physical safety of himself and other athletes if he runs in the main pack of the relay event’ (CBC Sports, 2008). In the end Pistorius was not selected for the South African team as four other athletes posted faster times. Another South African, swimmer Natalie Du Toit, a single leg amputee, did qualify to represent South Africa in the 10 km open water swimming event at the Beijing Olympic Games and there was no such reticence to her participation by either the IOC or the International Swimming Federation (FINA), as she does not use any kind of prosthetic when she swims, although she does for daily living.

 It would appear then that the fear, in the case of Pistorius, for the IOC and the IAAF, was not the usual prejudice most people with disabilities have encountered at some point in their lives of being considered ‘less than human’, but in fact the complete opposite – the fear of being ‘more than human’. The very devices society has devised to allow individuals to walk in the upright position like everyone else and to compete in running events in a similar style and manner as their non-disabled counterparts are now considered to give an unfair competitive advantage. Pistorius has gone from a fine Paralympic athlete whose achievements were to be applauded (although perhaps by some in a slightly patronising manner) to a kind of ‘Robocop’ of the track who might not only have an unfair advantage over athletes not wearing his prosthetic limbs, but also might reap danger and injury upon both himself and his fellow relay competitors. Swartz and Watermeyer (2008) ascribe this reaction to the fact that Pistorius is effectively challenging one of the key underlying ethics’ of sport – that of bodily perfection. He is challenging culturally ascribed definitions of bodily perfection based around non-disabled conceptions. To have someone whose body is less than perfect (i.e. missing limbs) potentially beating athletes whose bodies far more readily meet the requirements laid down for bodily perfection is a challenge to the virtues of those who hold power, especially when that body has been ‘technologically accessorised’ with prosthetic limbs. It is somewhat ironic that the term ‘prosthetic’ is derived from the Greek meaning ‘an addition designed to remove physical stigma’ (Howe, 2008, p. 127), when in Pistorius’ case it appears to have resulted in removing the stigma of being disabled and adding the stigma of being ‘more than human’ in athletic ability, but ‘less than human’ in physical appearance i.e. some kind of cyborg. This then begins to raise numerous questions around the difference between being human and being a machine. Pistorius is once again hoping to compete in the Olympic Games, this time in London. Whether he will be successful or not remains to be seen, but what is certain is that the questions raised by the issues related to his attempted participation will be far reaching and will continue to be debated for a long time to come. What is clear from the IPC statement mentioned at the beginning of this piece is that it also appears that these questions are also now being directed at athletes within the Paralympic Games and the ‘value’ of record-breaking performances where technology is involved.

Swartz, L. & Watermeyer, L. (2008) Cyborg anxiety: Oscar Pistorius and the boundaries of what it means to be human. Disability and Society, Vol. 23(2); 187-190.

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