Oscar Pistorius has made history by becoming the first athlete with a prosthetic device to take part in the Olympic Games. What does this mean for the future of sport and society? Will Olympics and Paralympics soon merge?
Much of the debate has focused on whether he should be allowed to take part from the perspective of what’s fair for other athletes. Scientists have commented on whether his legs are doing something fundamentally different from biological limbs. Other critics have said it is political correctness gone mad that has led to him being allowed within the Olympic programme.
Each of these perspectives fails to see the bigger picture and the fact that the separation between Olympic and Paralympic athletes is an historical accident born out of a time with very different values and a failure to recognize the accomplishments of disabled people.
If the modern Olympic Games were invented today, there would be just one Games. No advanced democracy would accept the segregation that presently exists.
In part, this is why Pistorius is controversial. He is an outlier in the Paralympic community, unrivaled in his achievements and aspirations. Yet his values are more in keeping with the direction of Paralympic sport. While the Paralympic Games may have begun as a social movement, the mission of which was partly to promote the capabilities of people with disabilities, it is today an elite athletic population, held to the same standards of so-called able-bodied athletes.
Recently, the CEO of the IPC, Philip Craven, indicated that it was not inconceivable that the two Games become one at some point in the future and this speaks volumes to how the tables are turning.
Today’s Olympic gold medal winner may be tomorrow’s Paralympian, as the rise of technological enhancements means that prosthetics can overtake the capacities of biological body parts and what we consider today to be optimal may, tomorrow, seem inefficient. This matters considerably in sports as so many promising athletes have their careers brought to an end by injury, a testimony to our biology’s limited capacity to withstand a career in elite sport without technological support.
What’s more, these future athletes need not be the kind of clunky prosthetic devices that resembles Pistorius’ blades. Rather, athletes – and people more generally – may have their bodies infused with nanobots that make our bodies more resistant to stress and more capable of repair and enhancement.
Yet, there is a further argument to support this direction, which is that the Olympic Games is not just about performance, it is about social change and nobody more than Pistorius represents the changes that are taking place around human enhancement technologies. He represents the dramatic changes to our concept of what it means to be able-bodied.
I suspect in 30 years from now, more people will tune in to the ‘Enhanced Olympics’ than the present-day version, not least because more people will identify with these kinds of people.
Professor Andy Miah, PhD (@andymiah), is Chair in Science Communication & Digital Media, in the School of Environment & Life Sciences, University of Salford, Manchester. He is also Global Director for the Centre for Policy and Emerging Technologies, Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, USA and Fellow at FACT, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, UK. He is currently part of a European Commission project called Digital Futures 2050 and of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Digital Participation in the Scottish Government.
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