Are High-Tech Prosthetics an Unfair Advantage?

GeekMom Technology

Seven years ago I chose to have my leg amputated because I was confident that the technology in prosthetics could give me a much better shot at an active life than my deformed foot ever could. Now that I’ve entered the world of amputees, I’m seeing more and more people making the same decision. New ways to use metals and plastics creates constant upgrades to an amputee’s options.

Photo: Time Magazine

I’m always interested in amputee runners, since I’ve never known how to run. I chose not to ‘learn’ after I got my artificial leg, because of complications with my sound foot. But there’s something about those amazing Cheetah legs that captures my attention (The curved spring loaded legs that serious amputee runners use are called Cheetah legs).

An amputee runner named Oscar Pistorius made international news recently by qualifying to run at the World Athletic Championships – against all able bodied runners. It’s the first time an amputee has run a professional race against competitors who have two sound legs.

In 2007 the International Association of Athletics Federations decided that it wasn’t fair to the able bodied runners to let Oscar compete with them, because he had an unfair advantage, since he runs on spring loaded feet. My feeling on that point is, if the other runners want that ‘advantage’ they’re welcome to cut off both of their legs and make things more fair.

Oscar’s gait is very different from that of an able bodied runner and he’s spent years perfecting his technique, to get where he is today. The technology and advancements in prosthetic legs can only take you so far. The rest comes down to persistence, dedication and hard work. Oscar put in the work, now he’s going to run the race.

I doubt the race will be televised, although I think they could attract a significant number of viewers. But I will be keeping an eye on the internet, checking up on my man Oscar. Even if he doesn’t win the race, the fact that he’s in it is a victory for all amputees.

I realize I’m a bit one sided when it comes to this debate, because I know firsthand what it takes to just walk correctly with a prosthetic leg, much less run in a race. And run it very fast. But I’m curious – do any of you able bodied runners out there feel like it’s not fair to let an amputee with Cheetah legs run against two legged competitors? I’d love to hear your perspectives and opinions.

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18 thoughts on “Are High-Tech Prosthetics an Unfair Advantage?

  1. Speaking as an experienced, amateur, long-distance runner – OF COURSE IT’S FAIR!

    Why should these be considered any differently to the hi-tech stability-control shoes I wear? Or the “sharkskin” suits worn by top-class swimmers? Or the ultra-light and aerodynamic carbon-fibre bicycles?
    Scientific developments have always meant change in sport – even modern nutrition and training techniques would give an enormous advantage to contemporary athletes against their historical counterparts.

    If technology can be used to allow someone with the necessary level of dedication, drive and ambition to compete, who would not otherwise be able to do so, then I’m all in favour.
    In fact, I hope he kicks their butts!

      1. Hah. Oops. Caught not checking my facts *shame*
        Guess that blows my argument out of the water? 🙂

        I’ll still be cheering him on though!

  2. at what point does the prosthetic become unacceptable.
    its somewhere between and a wooden peg and bolting a segway to your knees.

    if they allow it this year and next year the design modifications increase his stride by 6 inches. do they ban him then? or if the materials allow for more reclaimed force.

    the ruling body of the sport decided to not deal with it. should they be responsible for keeping track of all advances in materials and design for these as to come up with a “this is a human” standard.

    “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” is a pretty fair rule as far as i’m concerned.

    i applaud Oscar’s efforts and will to keep up with something he clearly loves.

  3. Technology and sports is always hard to pin down what is fair. As a family that owns two tennis rackets from the early 1970’s (wooden with small, oval net) and two modern rackets (light aluminum with large rounder net) the difference is ridiculous. The hardest part is NOT hitting the tennis ball hard with the new racket because it will soar over the court. I can’t imagine what it was like when they first switched over to these.

    Anyway, Oscar’s admission into the race will be the start of a very, very interesting change in sports. At what point will technology so advanced that a mere human body cannot compete?

    Of course Oscar should be allowed to compete. He’s a human being using all the skills he has to run fast. Saying a competitor can amputate their own legs if they really want to, isn’t fair though. But what if strap-on legs, like Oscars, are available for legged runners? Will that be considered fair?

  4. I would object to this in the same way I’d object to an able-bodied athlete strapping spring loaded “Cheetah Legs” to the bottom of his running shoes at the Olympics.

    This is not to say I wouldn’t like to see special events staged pitting Oscar against all comers – able bodied or not.

    1. That’s what I was wondering: how do people feel about the idea of shoes for footed persons that have small Cheetah springs on them (so it doesn’t increase their height much.)

  5. The problem is this…he is NOT doing what the other runners are doing…

    I feel as though he has an ADVANTAGE through his disadvantage, although he has no legs (cheetah legs only) he is able to experience no fatigue in his prosthetic legs. Theoretically this would allow him to run for a longer period of time as long as he has mastered the speed.

    Obviously he will never reach the top speeds of able bodied runners but the fact remains in long distance that as long as he can go relatively fast (for a long race) he should win.

    With him not having legs his heart (being in amazing shape I’m sure) does NOT have to supply oxygen to his legs which means it can be conserved for other places, particularly the lungs, or it will just slow down his heart rate in general which allows him to be more efficient when running. As long as he has a better lung/heart efficiency than the runney next to him, in theory he should win long races because he will have no fatigue below his thighs.

    Besides the race his training is also “easier” :
    Because he does not have his full leg he does not have to recover as much, he is MUCH less prone to injuries that affect his running if he can even experience any and he is probably lighter.

    Overall its just not “fair”, fair means “equal” ground for everyone and its just not fair. He may have similar arguments the other way, but there is no way to compare really. Give him his own league and let it be separate.

    1. It is absolutely ridiculous to say that because he has no lower legs his heart has less work to do. As a single below knee amputee apparently I use 25% more energy than the average person just to walk so I can only guess how much extra energy Oscar uses as a double below knee amp running.

      And to say training is easier really demomstrates how little you know about amputees and the wearing of prostheses. The interface between the human skin at the end of the stump and the hard, cold, unyielding plastic/titanium is seldom totally comfortable. Amputees struggle constantly with issues like blistering, bruising, sweating. I’m sure Oscar deals with those problems all the time and training is at best uncomfortable and at worst painful.

      Of course he should be allowed compete.

  6. “’ they’re welcome to cut off both of their legs and make things more fair.”

    Your tounge in cheek statement is quite disturbing.
    Technology moves at an incredible and somewhat unpredictable pace and human beings can be ultra competitive.
    Just knowing that some athletes today are willing to take performance enhancing drugs regardless of long term health risks,
    social stigma etc. leaves no doubt in my mind that should prosthetic legs be developed to the point where they give a decisive advantage
    there will be people willing to cut their legs of for that advantage.

    Cyborgs are prevalent in sci-fi literature and it may be that at some point in the future society might welcome enhanced limbs/functions as an alternative for “normal” functioning parts
    and not just as replacement for non-functioning parts but I hope such a change will be guided by debate in ethics and not just technological development.

    1. This is exactly the sort of argument that should be made against doping in sports. Does society want to promote a kind of sport that practically forces people to damge their bodies in order to be able to compete? IMHO the answer to that question is NO.

  7. What if Oscar took up swimming instead and put on prosthetic legs shaped like giant fins – should he be allowed to compete with other swimmers? If his legs had wheels a la rollerblades, would we let him enter the marathon?

    At some point, I think equipment can become an unfair advantage. Especially if that equipment is not available to all.

    I’m not sure Oscar’s Cheetah legs are crossing the line, but stating that there is a line somewhere and working to define it is not a pointless exercise.

  8. Seriously?!? So it’s fine if he wants to run just not with others. I hate that we are such a competitive group. Where does it stop?

    Is it his fault that he is an amputee?

    Should he be punished because of advances in technology?

  9. I am reminded of the debate a few years ago surrounding the MaxSight contact lenses developed by Nike/Bausch & Lomb. Despite the fact that the lenses were available both with and without a prescription, I am told that the governing bodies of most major sports refused to allow them, largely on the grounds that the lenses gave wearers an unfair advantage — and they did, in a way. The lenses, which as a person with imperfect vision I considered a revelation, were discontinued (as I understand it) because a product marketed at athletes won’t sell if it is banned by various sports governing bodies. At the time I was baffled as to why the lenses were forbidden as “installable body modifications”, but prescription sunglasses were still allowed.

    MaxSight lenses were so cool. Here’s a Wired story on them from a few years ago, prior to their discontinuation:

  10. If you are interested in the scientific aspect of the debate and how the CAF made their ruling on Oscar, there is a great article here:

    The studies I have read lead me to believe that he does have an advantage with the Cheetah prosthetic but it is a very complex situation. I would love to see him compete with the “able” bodied sprinters but I don’t know how you can determine what’s fair and what isn’t. It reminds me a bit of the situation with gender issues of the runner Castor Semenya as there is no easy answer.

  11. Yes, I feel that his prosthetics make the competition unfair. You need to take the emotion out of it… there’s an element of “well it’s ok because we pity him not having real feet”.

    When it comes to competitions and races where *professional* athletes are competing, the ground must be level. It simply isn’t level because the person with the prosthetics has an enhanced ability to perform. That’s one reason drugs are banned, they enhance performance.

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