Black Belt Brain

Musings on movement and the mind.

The Olympic Games And The Disappearance of Disability

Technology is erasing disadvantages in sports and life.

Oscar Pistorius is a South African sprinter with nicknames like “Blade Runner” and “the fastest man on no legs.” The thing is, Oscar has no lower legs—he’s a double-amputee. He’s been a perennial champion at the Paralympics. Despite that, he will compete as a track athlete in the 400 m and 4 x 400 m relay at the 2012 London Olympics.

Prosthetics can help people who have had an injury or lost a body part gain back function. This has been going on since the Egyptian prosthetic toe from 1500 BC. Nowadays, a hand amputated in an accident can be replaced by a prosthetic mechanical hand fit over the stump.

We can have neuroprosthetics controlled by the nervous system commands to the muscles that would act in the body part lost.  Neuroprosthetics and performance enhancement was a main theme of my book “Inventing Iron Man”. Prosthetics can restore function, and produce superhuman abilities in the comic books. But can they also give an unfair performance enhancement in real life?

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Oscar Pistorius was born without fibulas—those bones running down the side of your lower leg and finishing as your ankle.  This meant that he would likely be unable to stand and walk. So, when he was about 11 months old Oscar’s parents allowed surgical amputation of his lower legs. This allowed Oscar to use prosthetics that could carry his weight for standing, walking and running.

And, when he eventually got very specialized prosthetics, to do what he does very well now. Running exceptionally fast.

Oscar Pistorius has become the most accomplished and dominant double-amputee sprinter the world has ever seen. He won gold medals at the 2008 Paralympics in the 100, 200, and 400 m but was always set on the Olympics. Part of that vision included competing in the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) championships.

Oscar’s prosthetic legs are called “blades” because the physical shape of the carbon-fiber prosthetics looks like a blade. (The full name is the “Ossur Flex- Foot Cheetah”.) And some thought Oscar could actually run too fast and that his special carbon-fiber legs actually gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners.

The combined result of these prosthetics—wonders of modern engineering—with the superb sprinting biomechanics—a wonder of his genetics and training—created considerable controversy when Oscar competed in a Rome IAAF event in 2007. He did so well that claims were made that his “blades” gave him an unfair performance advantage over runners who had to use their own legs.

In 2007 the IAAF amended its bylaws to prohibit the use of performance-enhancing technology, included the use of the “blades." Rule #144.2 prohibits “any technical device incorporating springs ... that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device ...” and ended Oscar’s hopes for the 2008 Olympics.

Could someone with something that should be an obvious physical barrier to sprinting—no lower legs—actually exceed able-bodied runners by using special equipment? If technology can amplify human performance and play an important role in outcomes, what about the problem of equal access to all competitors?

Understanding how walking works will help understand the issue of the blades. When we walk or run it is basically like we are constantly falling forward and then continually catching up to our falling bodies by taking our next steps.

While this is happening, your center of mass (a theoretical point roughly behind your belly button) each step vaults over the point on the ground where you put your foot. But it isn’t a clean vault. There is instead a kind of “springiness” to this vaulting. Almost like your knee is a kind of “pogo stick." We make use of these properties when we walk and run.

When you think about walking and running in this way, it becomes pretty clear why there has been so much controversy over a device that changes the mechanical properties of the legs. Basically the prosthetic “blades” used by Oscar Pistorius increase that springiness. The outcome is that it can make for much better performance than what an ordinary able-bodied runner could achieve with his or her legs.

Scientific analysis showed that the carbon fiber “blades” could significantly enhance performance by improving the efficiency of the running. Because the blades are actually much lighter than the lower legs they replaced, they can be moved about 15 percent faster than in the highest performance of sprinters with intact legs. But the mechanics used in this kind of running isn’t the same as that for intact runners. Can we compare them directly? Possibly more importantly, should we?

Based on legal challenges, the IAAF recinded its ban on use of the blades.  Without much more study on the physiology and mechanics of using the blades, it is difficult to form a clear cut opinion on this issue. What is clear, however, is that the recent decision of the South African to qualify Oscar Pistorious 2012 London Olympics brings us that much closer to considering what separates enabled from super-enabled?

The story Oscar Pistorius represents a true tale of human inspiration, perspiration, and achievement. Including him in the full Olympic schedule has at a single stroke completely altered our understanding of ability and disability. And that is a welcome stroke indeed.

Additionally, though, the use of prosthetic limbs to enhance performance raises the rather surreal idea that a barrier to performance can be turned into a performance enhancement. It brings forth important philosophical questions that will have huge implications for the future and are ever advancing abilities to enhance the human body.

Technology can restore ability that is normally part of the body, like having legs to run with, and enhance performance beyond the level of those with intact bodies. Where is the line between what are acceptable human abilities and what are not? And what happens to that line if we can use technology to change the human inside as well as out?

This theme of technology inside was recently explored in the excellent novel Amped: A Novel by Daniel H. Wilson. Amped: A Novel explores the effects near future technologies of brain machine interface have on society. It explores the corollary of using prosthetics to restore function. Instead it focuses on the idea of brain implants in those with “neurologically normal” nervous systems to provide a new “normal” of super-enabled thinkers.

When it comes to the human body, technology really is the ultimate equalizer. The exploration of this theme in “Inventing Iron Man” extends all the way to a complete brain-machine interface with a robotic suit of armor. While the fictional Tony Stark is clearly super-enabled, I preferred to focus on the use of technology for restoration of function and rehabilitation.

Clearly the same solutions can both “restore” and “amp”.  It remains for all of us to consider this while we move towards a near future where real distinctions between abled, disabled, and super-enabled are blurred completely.

© E. Paul Zehr, 2012

E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., is professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria and author of "Becoming Batman" and "Inventing Iron Man."

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