The Issues Surrounding Technology and the Paralympics

paralympicsThe London 2012 Paralympics were branded a success on many levels. London achieved the highest ever turnout for a Paralympic Games with the Olympic Stadium being filled each day. However, controversy has struck the Games for the first notable time in its brief history. Sports’ technology has potentially played a part in the outcome of certain events in the Paralympics, revealing some of the more difficult questions surrounding the Games. Alex Mitchell investigates.

On 2nd September 2012, the world witnessed a major sporting shock. Oscar Pistorius, arguably the face of the Paralympics, was beaten in the 200m (T44) by Brazilian Paralympian, Alan Oliveira. The South African was the outright favourite for the race as he was the first and only amputee to race in competitive able-bodied track events. Spectators were noticeably shocked by the result as was Oscar Pistorius himself. In an interview with the BBC just after the race he vented his frustration over Oliveira’s blade height. In his frustration Pistorius stated, “We aren’t running a fair race…the guys are a lot taller and you can’t compete. The knee height is four inches taller than they should be”. The issues and ambiguity of the technology in sport were becoming apparent.

Whether Pistorius was just being sour in defeat or whether there was a genuine concern with Oliveira’s blades is a very difficult question. The IPC (International Paralympic Committee) were being questioned about the tests to verify whether the blade length was fair. In the same interview, Pistorius is quoted to say, “The IPC don’t want to listen. We’ve tried to address the issue in the weeks up to this and it’s just been falling on deaf ears”. The IPC were being pressured into making some sort of statement to verify the situation.

Peter Van de Vliet, the IPC’S medical and scientific doctor cleared up certain aspects of the debate. It is stated that blades should restore a loss of function, not artificially enhance a person’s body size or performance. This is done by using a formula, using the arm and body span in order to calculate the height that the person would be if they had functioning legs. However, this formula has an error factor. This means that Paralympians can have prosthetic limbs to make them 3.5% taller than their estimated height. Pistorius claims that Oliveira breaks this 3.5% limit in order to have a longer stride length. However, according to Van de Vliet, Oliveira is comfortably within the regulations and Oscar Pistorius could have larger blades if he wanted.

Pistorius’ complaints may be unjustified if this is the case. It is possible that the South African team working with him were just not ready for sudden advances in the technology of prosthetics. This advancement was proving to be too risky for Pistorius to compete in the Olympics in 2008. There was a fear that blades may give him an unfair advantage against able-bodied athletes.

In the upcoming years, this will become an ever more controversial area of science and technology. It is not just within the Paralympics that this is an issue but it may also become a talking point within the Olympic Games. The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, 2016 will no doubt be fascinating in this respect.

Picture: Ryan Marsh

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