Blade Running and the Meaning of Sport


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.

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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.