31 May 2007

It's Two Legs Or Bust For Olympic Athletes

The message has been sent today by International Association of Athletics Federations: the Olympics are for authentic bipedals only.

The proposed rule by track and field's governing authority would keep a South African amputee sprinter from competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympic games. The athlete in question, Oscar Pistorius, 20, had both of his legs amputated below the knee when he was an infant. With state of the art "blades" attached just below his knee, Pistorius is able to run nationally competitive times in the 100, 200, and 400 meter races.

But the IAAF believes the blades to be an "artificial aid," and the organization moved to outlaw them. The spirit of the proposed rule is good in theory - no athlete using some sort of device should be given an advantage over another athlete not using it. And in that sense it makes sense to ban gadgets or other things that people could add to their shoes to run faster. Yet the case of Pistorius is different, and brings up an interesting debate.

In the past there has been a clear divide between the Olympics and the Paralympics games. Athletes with disabilities participated in the Paralympics games, and those without were in the Olympics. But what if there were more people like Pistorius who had the ability to compete in both? On a human level it seems that Pistorius is at an inherent disadvantage: he doesn't have any legs! Yet the IAAF contends that his sprinting prosthetics give him an unfair advantage by making his strides longer. Pistorius counters of course that its his sprinting talent that makes him so successful.

All of this debate could be for naught, as Pistorius' times are still short of being Olympic-worthy. Yet his actions as well as the IAAF open the door to constant debate over who is really welcome to participate in the Olympics.

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