It is great to see that technology has caught up with the hard work and determination of physically challenged athletes. This is the first Olympics where an amputee has competed alongside able-bodied athletes. *
Oscar Pistorius of the Republic of South Africa had both legs amputated below the knees when he was 11 months old because he had been born without fibulas. He made history earlier this week when he ran on blade prosthetics (called Cheetahs) in a preliminary heat of the 400 meters. Putting aside his physical challenge, Pistorius’ road to the Olympics was still more difficult than most. The International Amateur Athletic Federation ruled he was ineligible for international competition, out of concern that the prosthetics actually gave Pistorius an advantage. He appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which conducted tests and found Pistorius became physically fatigued at a rate similar to other athletes. (Numerous articles on the Web discuss the balance between the advantage of lighter weight “legs” and the disadvantages due to lack of leg muscles and differing energy generation/release.)
Pistorius ran fast enough to qualify for the semi-finals of the 400 meters, where he finished last in his heat. The South African 4×400 relay team, with Pistorius in the anchor position, was initially disqualified from their qualifying heat after a collision with a Kenyan runner in the second leg. But it was ruled that the Kenyan was at fault and South Africa was given a spot in today’s final. South Africa came in last, but it appeared Pisotrius closed the gap between himself and the next runner during his 400 meters. He will run in the 100, 200 and 400 meter races at the Para-Olympics, which begin on August 29.
The Para-Olympics are a great idea for motivated, sports-minded individuals with various physical challenges. But the determination of challenged athletes and modern technology have erased many of the differences between disabled and able-bodied athletes in certain sports. (Pistorius’ prosthetic legs can compete with able-bodied runners, but likely could not keep up with able-bodied swimmers.) It is understandable that sports federations would want to thoroughly investigate any medical devices to be sure competition remains fair. But from the accounts I have read about challenged athletes, the mental and physical discipline they possess is what might give them an advantage.
We may see a day when prosthetics and other devices will be customizable for athletic competition. That will bring up other considerations, such as for what level of fitness is the prosthetic adjusted? The rules will need to keep evolving as technology advances.
Women are now included in sports once deemed acceptable only for men, such as wresting and weightlifting. It is time to include physically challenged athletes when possible. Most of us are not motivated to participate in any sport at a competitive level (probably why so many are fascinated by the Olympics). Physically challenged athletes stand as an encouragement for us to get off the sofa, get fit and stay healthy. They are a positive example in a world where kids increasingly say their favorite pursuits are shopping and video games. When possible, physically challenged athletes should be encouraged by rules that allow them to participate as fully as possible.
* Marla Runyan of the US was the first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympics. She developed Stargardt’s Disease (juvenile onset macular degeneration) at age nine. Marla won 5 gold medals and a silver in the 1992 and 1996 Para-Olympics, then competed on the US track team at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.