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Updated Monday, 7th November 2011

Oscar Pretorius is nicknamed "the blade runner". But where does assistance for disability end and cheating begin?

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Oscar Pistorius Creative commons image Icon Elvar Freyer under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license Oscar Pistorius, the white South African double amputee sprinter, who lost both legs below the knees when he was a baby and runs on shock absorbing carbon fibre prosthetics, has won the right to be eligible to compete at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Pistorius be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes.

Thousands of athletes rely upon prosthetic limbs but few have achieved such success and high speeds as Pistorius which is why his case raises such important questions. He has competed in two able-bodied athletics meetings, but  the IAAF, ruled in January 2008 that his prosthetics qualified as technical aids, which are banned in IAAF-governed sports because they were seen to afford an unfair advantage to the athlete. He did not qualify for the South African team but did go on to achieve three gold medals in the Paralympics at Beijing. The debate has carried over in light of Pistorius’s aspirations to compete in both the Paralympics and the Olympics.

What is seen as unfair here is the advantage of an athlete with a disability over those who are classified as able-bodied. This is an unusual reversal of the more familiar media discourse of disability which constructs disabled athletes as vulnerable victims, albeit ‘victims’ who are courageous in defying the physical disadvantages they have experienced.

The language through which the debate is constituted also invokes science fiction. He has been re-named Blade Runner and, although there is limited discussion of the enabling possibilities of cyborgs, it is the promise of cyborgification which underpins the more positive take on Pistorius’s own achievements and the hope that his experience might offer other athletes with disabilities.

Technology and ethics elide in a debate about the use of prosthetic blades described as the ‘Cheetah flex-foot’; not only fast but it sounds like cheating. It was technoscience that the IAAF deployed to assess the limbs with a team of scientists used high-speed cameras, special equipment to measure ground-reaction forces, and a three-dimensional scanner to record body mass, prior to the IAAF decision to exclude Pistorius in Lausanne in 2007.

On the one hand the interventions of technology might afford unfair advantage, but on the other science provides the measure by which fair standards are judged and maintained. Don Riddell of CNN described the 2008 ruling in Pistorius' favour as "groundbreaking but his success might devalue the Paralympics Olympics, asking ‘Does it cheapen the Paralympic Games?’. Some of those commenting of the BBC Sport 606 website are more realistic, asking if spikes will be banned next.

In 2011 the debate has shifted slightly. Pistorius achieved qualifying status for the 2011 World Championships and the Olympics in the 400m and the 4X400m relay but was restricted to the first leg of the relay’ for safety reasons’. Although Pistrorus helped his team to get through it was felt he-or more specifically his blades might cause harm to himself or to others competing in the race. There is a shift from concerns with gaining unfair advantage to the vulnerability of the disabled athlete whose exclusion is justified on grounds of risk

What is, however, most interesting about Pistorius’s experience is the challenge it offers to the parameters of the natural body and to what might be legitimate means of increasing body competences and achievements in sport and how and who judges what we can do and what we can’t.





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