Sports engineers never seem to be that far away from a controversy. Just as one ‘issue’ is put to rest, you can be sure that a new hot potato is on the horizon. I’d argue that this is no bad thing; it is just a symptom of people’s natural resistance to change, and as long as sport continues to evolve, it’s probably in good health. Of far greater concern is the issue of stagnation, when nothing new is happening and your sport slowly but surely fades away into obscurity. The list of sports that were once in the Olympics but now only reside in amusing archive footage is surprisingly large. I am sure that in its day, underwater swimming was a highly competitive and exciting event, but can you really see it making a comeback anytime soon?
Perhaps the hottest of all sporting potatoes at the moment concerns the tricky case of athletes with a below the knee amputation and their use of Cheetah running blades. The name is quite unfortunate here as over the past year or so, the prosthetic has been unfairly linked to that most unsporting of notions, cheating. As controversies go, they don’t get much bigger than this. Prosthetics have the potential to challenge the accepted norms in sport, and this makes people feel anxious. It is therefore perhaps a little surprising that given my pre-amble and belief that change is generally a good thing, I too have my concerns about the future use of this particular piece of technology.
I have been fascinated by the use of running specific prosthetics ever since seeing Oscar Pistorius run on a rain drenched track in Sheffield in 2007. Even though this particular race was a bit of a disaster for Pistorius, he showed the world that disabled and non-disabled athletes are able to run together in the same race. A year later, I was very fortunate enough to be able to spend a week at the Paralympics in Beijing. There is something very remarkable about seeing a disabled athlete compete at the highest levels, and the majority view is that governing bodies should not create any barriers to stop disabled athletes competing against non-disabled athletes if they so desire. The exploits of these stellar individuals embodies the very best virtues of sport, and to suggest that there could be a problem seems unsporting to say the least. However, our desire to see disabled and non-disabled athletes competing together is primarily an emotive response, and when one digs a little deeper the issue becomes far less clear.
Last week, researchers from MIT published findings from their study on the use of running specific prostheses (Cheetah et al). As was reported in the Guardian and commented on by our very own Dr Simon Choppin, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/nov/04/prosthetics-athletes-oscar-pistorius, this study adds further support to the view that the current use of prosthetics does not give disabled athletes an unfair advantage and that they should therefore be able to compete against their non-disabled counterparts. There have been two other studies that have considered this same question, and broadly speaking, the score now sits at two nil in favour of athletes like Pistorius. What are we all so worried about then?
At the moment the technology that disabled athletes use is unable to match the performance of conventional bones and muscle. Disabled athletes are not yet enhanced, but there is no reason why prosthetic technology should stop where it is. Powered ankle joints have already been prototyped and it is only a matter of time before far more capable prosthetics are used in sport. I think that this is an incredibly exciting time for disability sport. If we allow technological development to continue we will soon see disabled athletes out performing able-bodied athletes and the whole notion of disability will be challenged.
Strange as it may seem, perhaps the greatest threat to this enhanced future is the integration of disability sport with non-disability sport. Sports’ governing bodies will only ever allow disabled athletes to complete alongside non-disabled athletes if their abilities are limited to what is deemed to be ‘normal’. It is inevitable that new rules and regulations will be introduced to limit the abilities of prosthetics at the point where the playing field has been levelled, and this will curb the huge potential of these devices. If prosthetics are allowed to develop within the context of disability sport there is no reason why their potential should be limited. Genuine enhancements could be made and aside from challenging perceptions of disability, this sporting future would create new technologies of huge benefit to the wider population. It would be profoundly wrong to not allow this development to take place, and although it goes against our instincts, keeping the disabled and the non-disabled apart in competition may be the best way to realise this future.