Blade Running and the Meaning of Sport

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The Court of Arbitration for Sport has ruled that double amputee Oscar Pistorius can try to qualify for the Olypmics. Pistorius runs using carbon fiber Cheetah Flex Foot prosthetic legs.

The image

In his latest column, University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan wonders if allowing him to compete undermines the meaning of sports. Caplan writes:

Defining an unfair advantage
Tiger Woods is probably one of the greatest golfers of all time. But, his vision was so poor that he was almost legally blind without contact lenses or glasses. In 1999, he had laser surgery on his eyes and his vision improved to better than 20/20. He had another procedure performed last year leaving him not only with improved vision, but better vision than most humans. Does laser-eye surgery that improves vision past 20/20 confer an unfair advantage on Tiger? And what's the difference between superhuman legs and superhuman sight?

When a modern American Olympian benefits from training at high altitudes, counseling from a sports physiologist and psychologist, expert physical therapy and a finely tuned diet, these steps could just as easily be seen as conveying an unfair advantage.

Continuity with history
Pistorius' amazing drive to compete may cause an even more troubling problem.

Sport demands continuity with its own history. If you make technological changes in the equipment — swimsuits, pole vaults, running shoes, skates, skis, baseballs, bats, playing surfaces, etc — then you undermine the ability of today's athletes to be compared not only with their peers but with their predecessors.

Similarly, if people with artificial legs, artificial eyes that permit exquisite focus, pharmacologically enhanced muscles or emotions, or brain implants that permit unprecedented concentration or endurance enter into competition, then you no longer have a sport. The athletes are not comparable to those who attempted the same feats in earlier times.

We don't expect to compare the performances of today to those of the ancient Greeks, but we do expect some ability to compare what happened today to be compared with what happened yesterday, a year ago, a decade ago or even 50 years ago.

It may be fascinating to see who can go the fastest on rocket-powered legs or throw a heavy weight the farthest using performance-enhancing drugs, or genetically engineered muscles. But what you have then is an exhibition or a show, not a sport. In some ways, this is what the World Wrestling Federation and no-rules body building already are.

To be a sport you need something approximating a fair playing field, some boundaries on the attributes of those who compete so they are comparable to one another and some ability to compare today's performance with those in the not-so-distant past.

It is interesting to note that "technological changes in the equipment" are pervasive. Modern athletes use different tennis rackets, golf clubs, swimsuits, running shoes and on and on. And why not create various types of sport—enhanced and unenhanced—and let people decide which to watch?

Anyway, whole Caplan column to ponder here.

NEXT: Salty Fears

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  1. Its like letting women with fake breasts into beauty contests.

  2. The suggestion I’ve heard umpteen million times is to have two leagues; one in which all enhancements are fair game, and one in which none are.

    People would undoubtedly watch both because the first would exhibit awesome feats combined with skill (who doesn’t want to see footballers get hit and go flying as if they were hit by a train, and then get up like nothing happened?) and the second would highlight the natural potential of human beings.

  3. Its like letting women with fake breasts into beauty contests.

    How *terrible*!

    LOL.

  4. What’s the matter? This guy fail to qualify in the Special Olympics trials?

    *ducks*

  5. I made the arguments years (15-20?) ago that Bo Jackson shouldnt be allowed to play baseball with his artificial hip. While I was being silly, I saw the future.

  6. There are, supposedly, high school pitchers getting Tommy John surgery to make their arm stronger, despite not having anything wrong with their arm.

  7. Tiger has better than 20/20 vision? I’ve gotta get me some of that! Actually looking forward to have my eyes blasted with laser beams.

  8. Sport demands continuity with its own history. If you make technological changes in the equipment – swimsuits, pole vaults, running shoes, skates, skis, baseballs, bats, playing surfaces, etc – then you undermine the ability of today’s athletes to be compared not only with their peers but with their predecessors.

    So what? In most cases, these changes are available to all current competitors, so the playing field remains even. It’s not like Nadal is using a wood racket while Federer is using an O3. Other golfers can get the eye surgery that Tiger got if they want.

    With Pistorius, it’s doubtful that anyone would choose to have their legs cut off in order to gain his enhancement, but they can, theoretically.

    So this argument is quite weak. If fairness is what matters, well, unless you make new technologies available to only some competitors, then it’s still fair.

  9. So should it make more sense to rename Tiger to Hawk?

  10. Actually looking forward to have my eyes blasted with laser beams.

    Well, my eyes can shoot laser beams, so maybe I can do the surgery on you.

  11. Also, modern athletes accept money for competing, which is ungentlemanly and a travesty.

  12. No thanks, Frylock. With a little bit of luck this routine procedure will go horribly wrong giving me laser beam shooting eyes as well.

  13. With Pistorius, it’s doubtful that anyone would choose to have their legs cut off in order to gain his enhancement, but they can, theoretically.

    Why do they have to cut off their legs? He sticks those prosthetics on the end of his legs. Why shouldn’t runners with feet be allowed to stand eight feet high and run on them?

    Sports should be allowed to make whatever rules they want. But the rules should be applied equally. Allowing this guy to run in Track and Field is like allowing short players to wear carbon fiber springs in the NBA

  14. Well, my eyes can shoot laser beams, so maybe I can do the surgery on you.

    Obi-Wan: Use the Force, Luke.

    Luke: Do I have to? I mean…

    Obi-Wan: Just use the Force.

    Luke: Ok…

    [patient impaled through eye with lightsaber, screams]

    Luke: See, look! You happy now?

    Obi-Wan: I’ve never been happy.

  15. This guy needs to breathe into a paper bag until he stops hyperventilating.

    My solution to the “problem” is simple; I quit caring about the Olympics about thirty years ago.

  16. My solution to the “problem” is simple; I quit caring about the Olympics about thirty years ago.

    I usually agree, but I think this year might be different. I have a feeling China’s going to fuck something up in a big way, and some horror will be exposed…

  17. Elomenope!!!! You beat me to the Family Guy skit!

  18. You know what is unfair? On The Running Man, people with chainsaws and lightning bolt flingers and explosive hockey pucks are forced to go up against Arnold. Now that’s not fair.

  19. Tiger has better than 20/20 vision? I’ve gotta get me some of that! Actually looking forward to have my eyes blasted with laser beams.

    I used to have 20/10. It’s most useful for reading street signs when in an unfamiliar neughborhood. And girl watching. Alas, time marches on. Like most at 50+ vision correction is now required.

  20. I usually agree, but I think this year might be different. I have a feeling China’s going to fuck something up in a big way, and some horror will be exposed…

    Sure. I expect the same. But I’m still not going to pay attention to the athletics: it’s the sideshow that will be interesting, and I’m sure anything interesting will make youtube. 🙂

  21. Not so Episiarch. For example, if I were going up against Arnold HE would be at the disadvantage. Mainly because I sucker punch people whenever I get a chance. Fucked up I know, but thats how I roll.

  22. Wait…are we suggesting that the DOUBLE AMPUTEE has an unfair advantage? Does he have to run on his stumps to make it fair?

  23. Elomenope!!!! You beat me to the Family Guy skit!

    Sorry. 🙂 Saw the opportunity, and moved quickly.

  24. I have a feeling China’s going to fuck something up in a big way, and some horror will be exposed…

    I’m waiting/ hoping for five thousand earthquake victims to move into the “bird’s nest” and refuse to vacate for the opening ceremonies.

  25. I propose a return to some of the original Greek traditions; all athletic competition should be done nude with no special equipment beyond what is fundamentally necessary for the particular sport.

  26. Hell, the FIE and USFA list caffeine as a performance enhancing drug. My typical morning routine puts me in non-compliance pretty much every day. I’ll probably be violating USFA rules in a couple of weeks, because fuck if I’m gonna get up and fence at 9AM on a Sunday without a massive infusion of coffee.

  27. The suggestion I’ve heard umpteen million times is to have two leagues; one in which all enhancements are fair game, and one in which none are.

    It worked for auto racing. I don’t know how many people get all that worked up over track & field since maybe the sixties but if it’ll stop the bullshitting and let the competitors compete, why not?

    Or maybe we need a series of breathless congressional hearings on the terrible scourge of prosthetics in sports. With luck Oscar Pistorius could find himself playing on a prison team.

  28. because fuck if I’m gonna get up and fence at 9AM on a Sunday without a massive infusion of coffee

    Dude, you fence? I fenced for Johns Hopkins from ’90 – ’92. Saber.

  29. “Why do they have to cut off their legs? He sticks those prosthetics on the end of his legs. Why shouldn’t runners with feet be allowed to stand eight feet high and run on them?”

    Because the physics of the leg swing would be screwed up. Human musculoskeletal structure developed with bone lengths at certain proportions to others ie. upper and lower leg bones (the latin is eluding me). Unless one wore 3.5 ft carbon fiber stilts all the time and one’s muscles adapted, the runner would be slow and awkward, not faster.

  30. Note to self: when lunchstealer rattles saber, PAY ATTENTION!

  31. Oh, great- episiarch, too.

  32. In recognition of the fact that bowling center operators do everything possible to make it easy for people to make strikes, the United States Bowling Congress has created “Sport Bowling,” where lanes are prepared to purposely make them more difficult to bowl on; thus putting a greater premium on skill.

    I don’t think it’s catching on, though. People like easy strikes, and they like to watch someone make a perfect 300 once in awhile.

  33. Clearly, to preserve the true meaning of sports, all sports should be played by naked individuals who were raised on nothing but organic foods.

  34. Zeb,

    I agree. And bring back the Pankration!

    Pankration, as practiced in the ancient world, combined elements of both boxing (pygme/pygmachia) and wrestling (pale) to create a broad fighting sport similar to today’s mixed martial arts. A match was won by submission of the opponent or if the opponent was incapacitated. A contestant could signal submission by raising his finger, but sometimes the only form of submission was unconsciousness or death. Joint locks and choke holds were common techniques of accomplishing this. In fact, there were only two rules: contestants were not allowed to gouge eyes or to bite.

  35. Tiger has better than 20/20 vision? I’ve gotta get me some of that! Actually looking forward to have my eyes blasted with laser beams.

    By the time he was 21, Tiger had won 3 straight Jr US Amateur titles, had won 3 straight US Amateur titles, and was the youngest player to ever win the Masters (as set the scoring record at the same time). All these things were done while wearing contacts.

    Tiger has said that he reads green better now that he had is eyes fixed. But that is not why he is the number one golfer in the world.

  36. I’m glad they’re letting the guy run. If I were his PR guy though, I’d use a different brand name of prosthetic legs. There has to be some out there that aren’t called the “Cheetah.”

  37. We don’t expect to compare the performances of today to those of the ancient Greeks, but we do expect some ability to compare what happened today to be compared with what happened yesterday, a year ago, a decade ago or even 50 years ago.

    What? Why? Seriously, why should we expect that? And why should we accept this distinction as a criterion for whether or not an activity should be considered a “sport”?

  38. Sport demands continuity with its own history.

    Oh, and sport demands no such thing. Unless you believe in 61(*). Any sporting fan will concede that various eras making historical comparisons difficult. You always need to evaluate a competitor in the context of their competition.

  39. Episiarch, I think this has come up a couple of times in the past. The number of fencers/former-fencers on H&R is pretty close to the number of Rush fans. Scary.

    Epee, Wofford College ’92-’94, then grad-school hiatus, followed by fencing on my own about ’00-present.

  40. I worked with a guy whose favority hobby was sport fucking. Chemical enhancement was a necessity.

  41. Fencers are wimps. Full-Contact rattan, that’s the ticket.

  42. I thought Pistorius was dead.
    LOVED his work with Weather Report, though.

  43. Neither Rush fan, nor fencer.

    I do own a sword though. One of those cheap Highlander samurai sword replicas. It was left in the house we bought by a former owner. I found it behind paneling in the basement. I hope one day to use it on a burglar.

  44. Tiger has said that he reads green better now that he had his eyes fixed. But that is not why he is the number one golfer in the world.

    Tiger is the most naturally prodigious golfer/athlete in the world. He also works out constantly, eats tons of fish and greens (no, not collard greens) and hits thousands of golf balls a day.
    So the fuck what if he got laser surgery on his eyes? I could do the same thing and still remain the mediocre hack that I am. Getting your vision adjusted will not shave one stroke off your game.
    Now, if he got mechanical arms that were programmed to hit a golf ball within 2 inches of its target from 180 yards, THAT would be unfair.

  45. You fencers are no doubt aware of the Bruce Dickinson law, where an activity that may seem uncool is automatically given “cool” status if Bruce Dickinson does it. Thus, fencing is cool. Q.E.D.

  46. Tiger was never “almost legally blind”. Legally blind means that even with correction your eyesight is terrible. My eyes are 20/200 normally, with contacts they are 20/10.

    @Taktix

    The Special Olympics are for the mentally challenged. It’s the Para Olympics that are for amputees.

  47. What other posters are (or were) fencers?

    Epee, Wofford College ’92-’94, then grad-school hiatus, followed by fencing on my own about ’00-present.

    Epee, huh? Are you tall or just very good? Our coach (Dick Oles) assigned the very tall people to epee, the small people to foil, and the insane/violent ones to saber. He assigned me to saber after I ran partway up a wall.

  48. the insane/violent ones to saber. He assigned me to saber

    I need some smelling salts to get over the shock.

  49. Getting your vision adjusted will not shave one stroke off your game.

    Putting dude — being better at reading the greens is good for a few strokes each round.

  50. You fencers are no doubt aware of the Bruce Dickinson law, where an activity that may seem uncool is automatically given “cool” status if Bruce Dickinson does it.

    This is especially true because Bruce does foil, and foil is normally the faggiest weapon of all, but it’s cool when Bruce does it.

    I saw Iron Maiden on their US tour in 2006 at the Dodge Music Center in Hartford. It was their first US venue of the tour.

  51. I’ve got no problem using prosthetics in sports. But are those “Cheetah Flex Foot” prosthetics equivalent to human legs? I want to see the prosthetics that have the same flex, weight and other characteristics of human legs.

    Imagine if they had springs on them. Or roller blades. Or little rockets. Imagine he went out for olympic swimming events and his prosthetics had flippers.

  52. Putting dude — being better at reading the greens is good for a few strokes each round.

    I’ll grant you that, if you’re going from 20/100 to 20/20. But improvements after 20/20 — say, to 20/10 — won’t matter at all.
    If we accept that 20/20 is the standard for “good” vision, then improving your eyesight to that standard can’t be seen as an unfair advantage.

  53. I’m tallish, but also Epee just seems to match my personality. I find right-of-way rules tedious (I’m libertarian even in my sporting events). Actually, though I was recruited by my roomate, who’d seen the entire rest of the Epee team graduate and needed somebody who wasn’t preoccupied with parrying to train with.

    Sabre was especially violent in those days, as it was basically two guys running at each other yelling at the top of their lungs. Foil and Epee were scored electronically, but Sabre was scored acoustically. Now that they’ve banned the fleche in Sabre and added electronic scoring (and ditched the damn capteur) you’d be suprised at how much skill is required for sabre now. It’s kind of the R&D ground for footwork, these days. I’m actually incorporating some sabre footwork into my epee game. It’s weird.

  54. BTW, Tiger can drive a ball 220 yards from his knees and with only one arm.
    That’s the kind of athlete he is, and that’s why he’s the greatest golfer ever.

  55. Sure. I expect the same. But I’m still not going to pay attention to the athletics: it’s the sideshow that will be interesting, and I’m sure anything interesting will make youtube. 🙂

    And be unavailable for viewing in the PRC.

  56. Tiger made comments that 20/10 after lasik was noticeably different than the 20/whatever he had while wearing contacts. It’s about subtle differences in the ability to detect slope and grain on the greens.

    So you’re probably right that 20/10 after lasik is not that much different that 20/20 natural. But lasik versus contacts is a big deal.

    Like J Sub D above, I was about 20/15 as a youth. Now that I am 51, I need both distance and short vision correction. Glasses suck when playing golf, but I’m not desperate enough to try contacts. One of my golf buddies has contacts to correct both distance and up-close. This is accomplished by correcting for distance in one eye and for reading an other eye. It is quite a challenge to learn to see all over again.

    When I’m in my sixties, they’ll have a body of “test subjects” that are approaching 20 years after surgery. If there are no problems cropping up with those folks, I will probably consider lasik. It’s basically a “comes for free” now when they start doing cataracs.

  57. But are those “Cheetah Flex Foot” prosthetics equivalent to human legs? I want to see the prosthetics that have the same flex, weight and other characteristics of human legs.

    Imagine if they had springs on them.

    Those prosthetics are, functionally, springs (as are the arches in your foot). The prosthetics are controversial because the spring action allows force to be saved rather than dissipated, leading to greater efficiency versus a human foot and thus potentially greater speed and endurance.

  58. What other posters are (or were) fencers?

    I studied kendo as part of my aikido training, if that counts.

    And I have a samurai sword set. Very nice replicas, with the proper tempering (but not, alas, folded steel – now those are expensive). I keep it handy in case I run out of bullets.

  59. Sabre was especially violent in those days, as it was basically two guys running at each other yelling at the top of their lungs.

    You betcha. Great stuff. Haven’t done it for years, though.

  60. Epi,

    It’s not like Nadal is using a wood racket while Federer is using an O3.

    Actually, Nadal could use a wood racket (in practice, of course) to improve his serve. Then he might be able to finally dispatch Federer on grass.

  61. Tiger can drive a ball 220 yards from his knees and with only one arm.

    But how far can he drive with a club made of four hinged sections?

    (see: Fields, W C)

  62. “Modern athletes use different tennis rackets, golf clubs, swimsuits, running shoes and on and on.”

    This may provide advantages over prior generations of athletes, but rarely does it offer a sustainable advantage over one’s contemporaries. One perceives very little in the way of technological disparity in the equipment employed in head-to-head competition.

    On the other hand, advantages obtainable from risky or ethically troubling conditioning practices (or even less incremental changes to the human physique) are difficult to reconcile with the notion of sport.

    In professional cycling, the world has witnessed very clearly the advantage doping confers on stage racers willing to partake.

    Perhaps less ethically dubious, altitiude training provides an advantage to those who can afford to pursue it. (This holds true for all manner of conditioning regimens. Money can help.)

    Recent home run record setters have highlighted just how effectively steroids enhance performance.

    The alteration or misrepresentation of a competitor’s gender has been a factor in certain Olympic competitions.

    What’s being proposed here is an entirely new sport, more like speed skating or cross country skiing than any existing track event. The logic permitting the inclusion of this competitor in a traditional foot race would seem also to permit any competitor to don roller skates before “toeing” the line.

  63. I’m happy as long as the competitors each have access to the same equipment.

    Surgical (and chemcial) enhancements are problematic to the extent they have health risks. People go blind/die from these treatments.

    Then again, NFL linemen die in their ’50s.

  64. Saber in High School! Butler High Bulldogs, ’83-’87. Tried the club in college but ran out of time.

  65. “What other posters are (or were) fencers?”

    I did a lot of fencing. Helped my grandma pit up a picket job a few years back, and I put up a privacy fence in my own yard about a year ago.

  66. “Recent home run record setters have highlighted just how effectively steroids enhance performance.”

    One of the three who broke Maris’ record has yet to have any actual evidence produced against him (Sosa). The totality of evidence against Sosa is that he wasn’t as skinny as he was when he was 20 and he hit a lot of home runs.

    Whether you believe Sosa juiced or not, I think since the government is involved (stupidly), it’s pretty unfair to lob accusations at him without more than that.

  67. I hate how people are focused on this guy’s “competitive advantage”. He has no legs, and he can run! This is a good thing. The fascists can sort out what’s “fair” with regards to their arbitrary games, I don’t care.

    Once again, he has no legs, and he can run. Nuff said.

  68. I guess my question is: if you call what Pistorius is wearing “shoes”, would those shoes meet the requirements set aside for all runners?

    If not, then I don’t think he has much of an argument. If so, then I think he does and other runners should get their equipment sponsor to design something similar (though obviously geared to someone who isn’t an amputee) to give them a similar edge.

  69. Perhaps some scientists can get on creating artificial legs that try to equalize the advantage with some physics?

  70. Perhaps some scientists can get on creating artificial legs that try to equalize the advantage with some physics?

    The decision was covered in more detail over at Slate a few days ago.

    The prior analysis of the artificial legs only covered the “spring” advantage that would occur during the steady-state part of the sprint. The legs are expected to provide a disadvantage during the break out from the blocks.

    The decision stated that no one had completed a total analysis of all the possible advantages and disadvantages through the entire race. Since there was no evidence presented that the artificial legs provide a NET ADVANTAGE over the course of the race, it was not acceptable to prohibit their use.

    So the burden of proof is on opponents of artificial legs to show the produce net benefit, not on the proponets of artificial legs to show they do not produce net benefit.

    It is not known by anyone at this time whether or not there is a net advantage to the guy using the artificial legs.

  71. One of the aspects of sports that give it meaning to many speectators, are the individuals who overcomes difficult odds to compete.

    The advantages that may be there with this man’s artificial legs and shoes pale in comparision to the odds he has had to overcome to get that far. It is amazing that he could even qualify.

    Most people will find the meaning and interest inherent in that particular race enhanced, if he is allowed to compete.

    He will most likely not medal, but I’d love to see him in the race.

  72. i don’t know why you all are so quick to dismiss the boost Tiger has received from eye surgery. The best part of Tiger’s game is his mental toughness, his putting is second. Everything else is a distant third.

  73. “i don’t know why you all are so quick to dismiss the boost Tiger has received from eye surgery.”

    Because he was already the best player in the world before it?

  74. Does this mean I can enter the wrestling and weight lifting competitions? Because if it doesn’t I’m going to get angry and the Olympic judges wouldn’t like me when… oh, never mind.

  75. One of the three who broke Maris’ record has yet to have any actual evidence produced against him (Sosa).

    There’s no evidence against McGuire either…other than his guilty face in front of Congress.

  76. “It is interesting to note that “technological changes in the equipment” are pervasive. Modern athletes use different tennis rackets, golf clubs, swimsuits, running shoes and on and on”

    There is absolutely no comparison between the equipment you cited above and this guy’s legs, unless you think it is feasible for leg amputations to be widely available to all competitors for the purpose of having carbon fiber blades installed as replacements.

  77. “maybe we need a series of breathless congressional hearings on the terrible scourge of prosthetics in sports.”

    Yes, please! It will prevent congress from doing something more destructive.

  78. Expression of the author’s thoughts and feelings rich, vivid and specific.

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