Newer Prosthetics May Give Paralympic Athletes an Unfair Advantage

Paralympic athlete Kelly Cartwright jumping

The upcoming 2012 Paralympics have renewed the controversy regarding technology that some athletes will use in competition. The controversy over high-end prosthetics began during the 2008 Beijing Olympics largely due to the so-called “Blade Runner”–South African athlete Oscar Pistorius. He uses two carbon fiber prosthetics, which some experts believe have more spring than that provided by the legs of able-bodied athletes.

Is South African athlete Oscar Pistorius handicapped?

Pistorius was nearly denied the opportunity to race against able-bodied athletes due to disagreements between officials about the unfair advantage prosthetic technology offered over the competition. Ultimately he was allowed to compete, but the question of unfair advantage is far from over.

In a recent interview, sports psychologist Jason Mazanov of the University of Southwest Wales questioned the use of these prosthetics. “One of the core ethical questions that Oscar Pistorius raises is what we call ‘authenticity’. So that is, is what Oscar Pistorius does a result of him the athlete or him the technology, the person interacting with the technology?”

Paralympic athlete Kelly Cartwright running with prosthetic leg

Many countries cannot afford to invest the amount of money required for carbon fiber feet, leaving poorer countries around the world facing an uneven playing field during the Paralympics. The technology gap between developed and underdeveloped countries seems likely to widen further, but supporters and athletes in affluent countries think that it isn’t simply the prosthesis that makes the athlete.

runners Kelly Cartwright and Marije Smits

When Kelly Cartwright, who competes both in running and long jump, was questioned about the advantage the artificial limb she uses, she responded, “I do think about that a lot. I think as well it comes into […] money and also knowledge as well. But they are expensive, obviously, running legs and prosthetic legs. It may not necessarily mean just because they get a leg they can run as well.”

Time will soon tell, as Kelly Cartwright will be competing in the long jump against an athlete with two carbon feet at the Paralympics in August.


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