Racing On Carbon Fibre Legs: How Abled Should We Be?

Racing On Carbon Fibre Legs: How <em>Abled</em> Should We Be?

One Olympic swimmer has a D-cup breast size. From a physiological standpoint, she’s at a disadvantage to a swimmer who’s an A-cup. If she amputated her breasts to become more streamlined, would we consider her crazy, or worse, a cheater?

The Amazons, after all, amputated their left breast so it wouldn’t impede their skill in archery. Though athletes have taken some truly crazy stuff to have an advantage, nobody’s gone so far as elective amputation.

I’ve spent the better part of my lifetime trying to get out from under an idea of being “disabled”, and the baggage that comes with that label. (Look it up in a thesaurus if you want a taste of what I mean.) As of yet, the best prosthetic available is not as efficient and not as capable as what Mother Nature gives us — or, what she was supposed to give me and South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. The revolutionary design of the woven carbon-fibre Cheetah Leg, nicknamed for its design inspiration, has been in existence for nearly 15 years — and after my initial triumphs with them in the mid 1990s, it has been the leg of choice for nearly all elite amputee sprinters. But in one instant, after Pistorius entered a summer 2007 track meet in Rome and placed second in a field of runners possessing flesh and bone legs, he and I were deemed too abled.

Commence the comical nightmare of being told that we now possess an “unfair advantage” in wearing prosthetic limbs to run. The scores of amputee sprinters who had competed with the limbs for the previous 13 years — and were still comfortably categorised as “disabled” — were virtually ignored. What is fascinating is the immediate shift in society’s regard of a disabled athlete as an “inspiration” (cue the patronising “awwwww”) to a legitimate threat to other athletes (“Uh, what the hell do we do now?”).

The first obvious issue for me was the deliberate ignoring of the truly excellent athletic feat performed by Pistorius and the insistence that if he could beat able-bodied athletes, “it must be the legs”. Look, I also beat a few able-bodied athletes when I ran Division I track in university, and so have plenty of other well-trained amputees in the last decade. The difference is, none of us have ever posted his times. Bottom line: If it were just the legs making us super-fast, I would have done a decade ago what he’s doing now and so would others. Oscar’s not running with any different technology than what I ran with 14 years ago.

The modern sports ethos that we’ve constructed is based upon increasing advantages. Because certainly, in so many sports, we have pushed past natural human function to facilitate a more exciting game — better times, better performance. But where does an advantage become unfair? The crux of that question lays under the umbrella of ethics, which should indeed govern our rule structure within the competitive arena, but there’s something in this story which specifically points toward a deep-seated fear, one we don’t want to talk about in polite conversation, one which parallels historical instances of racial integration of sport and gender integration of sport. If we allow a person, one who we view as our inferior (in whatever way), to play with us, and then that person beats us what does that say about us?

In the 1930s, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis blew the lid off common thinking of how “capable” an athlete of African descent was compared to an athlete of European descent, although the beginning of league integration took a decade more to achieve, and in some sports another three decades. It was as recent as 2003 when some members of the PGA balked at Annika Sorenstam’s quest to compare her talent to the best men in the world, admitting their fear of how it might feel to have a woman beat them, an embarrassing display of archaic thinking.

In 2001, golfer Casey Martin, who played with a degenerative circulatory leg condition that made it nearly impossible to walk an 18-hole course, successfully won a Supreme Court decision allowing him to use a cart as an acceptable assisted medical device. The PGA Tour fought Martin for years, saying all pro golfers must walk because uniform rules are essential for the integrity of the sport. “Accommodating Martin with a golf cart will not fundamentally change the game,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for a 7-2 majority.

What keeps percolating for me is this perceived discrepancy between advantage and “unfair” advantage. It’s absurd to look at a star line-up of athletes and think that they all have an equal shot. We don’t cry foul play when an athlete from the United States, with the best access to training facilities, coaching staffs and nutritional science is up against someone from say… Uzkbekistan. It’s tough luck that 180cm Tyson Gay has to line up against a 195cm Usain Bolt.

It makes me twitch when we talk about “a level playing field”. No two athletes are the same genetically and environmentally, and the mental and emotional factors they’ve endured in their life are relevant in their performance, too. The only reason athletes today are better than those of decades ago is because of science and technology: We know exactly what and when to feed our bodies for maximum energy, we have lighter shoes and better bikes and new rubberised track surfaces and (legal) supplements and altitude training. We are upping the ante each Olympic year with “smarter” design of an athlete’s tools, both inside and outside the body.

A whopping 74 world records were broken last year between March and November with the Speedo Fastskin LZR Racer suit. Do you wonder if Mark Spitz is annoyed that his times are compared to those of athletes using something he didn’t have the opportunity to use or wear?

Very, very few writers brought up any kind of ethical concern of such a tool like this suit until after the Beijing Olympics, choosing to focus on the race between swimwear companies to develop their own supersuit. Even then, the majority of articles on swimming were marvelling at how Michael Phelps says he “literally felt like a rocket coming off the wall” using the device. Jason Rance, the lead designer on this Speedo suit, commented, “It’s part of the evolution of the sport, and it’s really exciting for swimmers. They say they feel like Superman.”

After the ensuing arms-race to outdo the performance of the Speedo, the Americans and Australians led a protest to FINA, the governing body of swimming. In July of this year, FINA banned the full-length suit, having the suit stop at the knee instead, and mandated that all must be constructed of a “textile”, which is in itself an incredibly ambiguous, vague rule. The ban will take effect in January 2010, and — most intriguing — FINA will allow all records set with the suits to stand.

Let’s think about Tiger Woods having not one, but two LASIK surgeries to achieve 20/15 vision, when what we consider the best of natural vision to be is a mere 20/20. Before his first LASIK surgery, Woods had lost 16 straight tournaments. Immediately following the surgery, he won seven of his next 10. Advantage through technology, or not?

For years I played golf with an invisible handicap, invisible to everyone but me. It was my contact lenses. My eyes would sting burn and water all the while I was trying to concentrate on championship golf. I had the Lasik procedure with a TLC laser eye centre surgeon and the results were fabulous. I’m 20/20 with no contacts. My vision is so crisp I feel I can read all the subtleties of the green and look down the fairway hundreds of yards and focus perfectly on the fly. I’m very happy with the results, and grateful for my TLC centre experience.

The first remarkable aspect of this is that for him, the “handicap” was the ineptitude of the contact lenses, and not the fact that he was visually impaired. (He suffered from -11 nearsightedness, considered the worst 1 per cent, legally blind without corrective glasses or contacts.) The second is his own literal description of being able to now clearly see — without the impediment of burning, stinging eyes — hundreds of yards down the fairway thanks to his technological altering. He himself declares the advantage.

Advantage is just something that is part of sports. No athletes are created equal. They simply aren’t, due to a multitude of factors including geography, access to training, facilities, health care, injury prevention, and sure, technology.

I really don’t know how we compare world records of today to those of 50 years ago. A modern climber’s ascent to Everest has innumerable inherent differences than an ascent of a climber who didn’t have access to lighter tanks, comfortable breathable fibres against the skin, medical support at base camp, etc. The competitive benchmarks in that sport have changed from simply being, “Can you climb the mountain?” to “Can you climb it with oxygen, or without?” A wooden tennis racket isn’t the same thing as the graphite ones used now. We wholeheartedly accept titanium golf clubs, LASIK surgery, the invention of new pitches, better injury prevention and repair, titanium knee and hip replacements, and a notable shift in the size of the average footy player.

Where do we draw this ethical line on performance enhancement? I’m not sure I can answer that right now. What I will say is that I don’t think it’s useful to have this discussion around the existing Cheetah Leg, confusing the current non-enhanced technology with future prosthetics that will indeed provide augmentation. As with all evolution in sport, let’s decide the parameters of competition when the technology actually exists, when we have metrics that inform us as to what extent augmentation is a certainty. Conjecture has no place in this discussion.

Maybe our acceptance of Tiger’s LASIK super vision is really answered in the question, “Can everyone have access to it?” In other words, perhaps because the average citizen out there on the street can get laser surgery, it’s OK for Tiger to get it too, whereas the nature of a bionic prosthetic is still viewed as exclusive, and having to wear one isn’t exactly a position the average citizen covets.

his new design

In the not-so-distant future, designers will be able to build a prosthetic leg with a chip in it that they can program to accurately simulate human performance thresholds. (Since we know that no two “able-bodied” athletes have the same bodies, and therefore what they can achieve with their bodies are different, will they average out individual “able-bodied” thresholds to get those metrics? Will they cap how fast they imagine the fastest man on earth to be at 9.58? That time was unimaginable even 18 months ago, when Bolt then set the new WR at 9.72.)

The chip used in a prosthetic that will dictate “acceptable human” metric-based output is what will be allowed in the Olympic standard; meanwhile, the Paralympics will be no holds barred. In an ironic, amazing cultural flip, you will see runners in the Paralympics going faster than those in the Olympics. Now won’t that be an interesting comment on “dis”ability?

Aimee Mullins is an athlete, speaker, actress and model we met at TEDMED. She’s also the guest editor for our theme week This Cyborg Life. Read her bio here.

[LASIK image: Stefan Zaklin/Stringer/Getty; Tiger image: Lucas Dawson/Stringer/Getty Images; LZR image: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images; Aimee image: Greg Kadel]

This week, Gizmodo is exploring the enhanced human future in a segment we call This Cyborg Life. It’s about what happens when we treat our body less as a sacred object and more as what it is: Nature’s ultimate machine.