Case: Robotic Legs in the Olympics For the most part, cyborgs, as portrayed by science fiction…

Case: Robotic Legs in the Olympics

For the most part, cyborgs, as portrayed by science fiction writers, do not yet exist. The technology for interfacing between biological and computerized systems is still very rudimentary. Instead, we will look at a case about noncomputerized prosthetics to get a sense of the types of precedents that are being set in the area of human modification and augmentation.

Oscar Pistorius is an elite sprinter for South Africa. His specialties are the 400-meter sprint and the 4×400-meter relay; he has a good chance of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in London. At the time of this writing he needs only one more 400-meter race with a time under 45.25 seconds to qualify. His case is particularly interesting and controversial because he was born without working legs. A double-amputee, he runs on carbon-fiber prosthetic legs.

Pistorius holds the Paralympic records for the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 400- meter sprints. He has also fought for years to be allowed to run in able-bodied (ordinary) athletic events. He was originally banned from competition, because it was feared that his prosthetic legs might give him an advantage of some kind. Pistorius’ legs are not “bionic” or “cybernetic.” They are simply springy pieces of carbon fiber that are shaped to provide good performance when running.

The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF, the group that governs track and field competitions) eventually concluded that his prosthetic legs did not give him an unfair advantage. In the summer of 2011 he competed in the IAAF World Championships, where he qualified for the semifinals of the 400-meter sprint and where he helped his team win second place in the 4×400- meter relay.

In making the decision about whether or not to let Pistorius compete, the IAAF considered the following questions:

■ Is an athlete using prostheses more or less likely to get injured than one who does not use prostheses?

■ Does the springy material of the prosthetic legs provide a mechanical advantage over ordinary legs?

■ Do the prosthetic legs weigh less than ordinary legs? If so, does this provide an advantage in the events Pistorius will enter?

Physiology and kinesiology experts have concluded, so far, that there is no scientific evidence that Pistorius’s prosthetics provide any advantage. Therefore, Pistorius has been cleared to compete in normal events sanctioned by the IAAF. It is possible that, if evidence to the contrary is found in the future, his permission to compete may be revoked.

Part of the argument supporting Pistorius’s competition in IAAF sanctioned events is that the legs themselves don’t provide any sort of artificial power boost. In an opinion article at, Dr. Fred Vox, of the New England Rehabilitation Hospital and Tufts University School of Medicine, claims that athletes with powered bionic limbs might one day be allowed to participate in able-bodied sporting events. In this case, however, it may be necessary to limit the power and speed of the motors in the bionic leg, to prevent athletes using them from getting an advantage over nonaugmented runners.

There is an inherent ethical problem posed by Vox’s idea: How do we decide on the fair level of performance from a bionic leg? Bionic legs designed to perform like the legs of an average person would amount to a disadvantage in a race full of elite runners. On the other hand, legs designed to perform like the legs of the world’s best runners would probably offer an advantage.

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