I read recently (broadly speaking) that it has been decided (by some committee somewhere, I suppose) that a man with artificial legs will be allowed to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a sprinter.
This just seems absurd to me. On the surface, yes, it might appear fair – why shouldn’t a disabled person be allowed to compete alongside able-bodied people? But that, I think, misses something extremely important: running, as a competitive activity, is something that depends on both the mind and the body. You can’t separate the runner from his body – you can’t be a “good runner” in the abstract, without part of that good runner-ness coming from the fact that your legs are longer, you have a lot of muscle, you don’t weigh much, etc.
And so, if you don’t have natural legs, but rather artificial steel legs, then whatever you’re doing when you move really fast using them, you’re not running, at least not in the sense that competitive runners are running. You’re not using your body to go fast, you’re using something that is not part of your body to go fast.
I think the idea that this man should be allowed to compete because it has not been proven that his legs give him an advantage misses the entire point and tends towards a flawed gnostic view of the world. It says that the legs of a normal runner are just tools that he uses to run quickly, and if the artificial legs give roughly the same capability as natural legs, then they’re equivalent tools, and so a man with artificial legs should be able to compete in a contest normally performed with natural legs, no problem.
The thing is, the “tool” that natural legs supposedly are is of a power determined by the skill of the runner, and a good runner has better legs than a bad runner. Which of these is the artificial legs supposedly equal to? Are the steel legs specifically calibrated to be just as useful as the legs of your average Olympic sprinter? If so, a runner using these artificial legs will finish in the middle of the pack, and what’s the point of them competing? Are they calibrated to be as good as the best Olympic sprinter? Then a runner using them who wins the Olympics will be considered to have won because of his more powerful legs, not because of any achievement on his part. Either way, there is no point to a person with artificial legs competing in the Olympics. The Olympics, and sports in general, are to find who is the best whole person – mind and body, not divided – at the given activity.
Put simply – there is no way to nerf or buff artificial legs so that they put a runner using them on a level playing field with the other runners. They are fundamentally unbalanced. They take a part of the contest – the quality of the runner’s legs – and remove that from the control of the athlete, instead arbitrarily giving him legs of a given quality. It would be like having a contest to paint the best picture where one person was given an outline to work from and the rest were not – it doesn’t matter how good or bad the sketch would be, it wouldn’t be fair because it would remove any skill from that part of the contest, but from that person only.
I don’t mean to take anything away from what Oscar Pistorius has done – he is clearly a great athlete, and I have nothing against the disabled – but the fact remains that what is doing is not running, but something else. That’s why they have separate contests for it – the Paralympics, which he competes in. If the Olympic committee wants to add a sport where you use a standard-size, standard-quality metallic extension to the legs to move quickly, fine, do so and let this guy compete in it. But if they don’t, then this man should not be allowed to compete in the Olympics.
P.S.: This is somehow related, I think, to the discussion of performance-enhancing drugs in professional baseball and other sports, but I’m not sure how yet. It is mostly, I suppose, a clear example of something that does too much to alter the body and make it so you’re not competing with the other players in the same way – I think it would be unacceptable in baseball, just as in running, for one of the players to have artificial legs. But where the line is drawn, I don’t know. I tend towards saying performance-enhancing drugs fall on the other side of it (and this applies even if they posed no danger to the user and were not illegal, neither of which are true), but I’m not sure.