Friday, August 19, 2011

Super Legs

Over two years ago, I wrote a post about two extraordinary women who spoke at TED.  These women were living without limbs.  Of the two, Aimee Mullins made the biggest impression on me: she was not just tolerating her prosthetic legs, but reveling in them.  There are some great pictures in that post if you want to revisit it here.  Among them is a picture of Mullins showing off her 'Cheetah legs';  she raves about the running power they give her. 

Now I've just happened across an article on Singularity Hub about Oscar Pistorius, known as the 'fastest man on no legs'.  He had the same problem as Mullin, having been born with congenital absence of fibulae and having amputations below the knee in both legs at an early age.  And now Pistorius, also known as the Blade Runner, has qualified for the London 2012 Olympics on the South African team, running with Cheetah Flex-Foot, as shown below.  

Oscar Pistorius
In my original post, I posed the question of whether disabled athletes, empowered by prosthetics such as the Cheetah Flex-Foot, would eventually be considered to hold an unfair advantage over their two-legged competitors. 

Cheetah Flex Foot
The Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fibre devices by Ossur of Iceland are designed to absorb shock and transfer energy into forward momentum.  That sounds on the surface like a considerable advantage and has sparked considerable controversy, but then, on second thought, that's exactly what feet do for us.  So, is it just a matter of degree?  Where does a double amputee athlete stop suffering a disability and start enjoying a competitive edge?

Pistorius was originally banned from competing in the 2008 Olympics on the grounds that he had an unfair advantage, a decision later reversed.  But he failed to make the time requirement to join the South African team, so that was a moot point.  This time, he has a favourable ruling from the Olympic committee and he's made the necessary time cut-off.  So he's off to London next year.  If you think that Pistorius is not a true athlete, just a guy trying to take advantage of these fabulous prosthetics in the one sport where they pay off, think again.  Pistorius participated in athletics all through high school, at the provincial level in water polo and tennis, as well as in wrestling and rugby union (ouch).

I sit on the board of West Park Healthcare Centre in Toronto, a preeminent rehabilitation and complex continuing care hospital (this post talks about one of West Park's innovative programs).  I get so excited about what we'll be able to do in the future through the use of powerful prosthetics and movement-assisting robots (see the post about the TED talk about exo-skeletal robot enabling a paraplegic to walk). 

But what if you're an athlete targeting the 2020 Olympics and you start to imagine what such prosthetics could be like by then?  Would you start to feel it was unfair?  Will some determined but misguided athlete in the future voluntarily undergo amputation so s/he can enjoy such prosthetics?  Science fiction certainly foresees such possibilities.

What do you think?  Should Pistorius be allowed to compete?  Or is this acceptance just a slippery slope to the time when Olympic winners will all have such prostheses? 

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