As a nation the British love supporting the underdog and we especially love a good story. At this summer’s Olympic Games, South African athlete Oscar Pretorius gave us both – defying the odds to get through to the 400m semi-final despite being a double amputee since the age of 11 months.
We all agree it was a phenomenal achievement to see him compete in the Olympics, but the question still niggles…is it fair? What if he had won, would we be taking a different stance?
The decision to allow Pistorius to race in able-bodied games was taken in 2008 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport and was based on the fact that there was not “sufficient evidence of any metabolic advantage in favour of the double amputee using the Cheetah Flex-Foot”.
It’s all about proving advantage. But surely it is incredibly difficult to directly compare one athlete against another when they have such different anatomies, different physiological processes and consequently different ‘advantages’. Most of these are outside of our control but what about when they are, to some extent, within our control?
Many medical products such as joint replacements and heart valves are designed to take the place of an existing anatomical component and replicate its function, but their ability to do so varies. The lifetime of most implants is nowhere near their ‘natural’ counterparts, although we hope for at least a temporary performance improvement. As designers and engineers we strive to create medical products that allow patients to regain their natural function but what if we go beyond this and increase performance? Sporting authorities come down hard on using chemical and biological aids, but what about physical…where will they draw the line?