Monday, July 16, 2007

The Bionic Man

What is sports? Sports has always been ultimately a competition, man against man (or perhaps woman against woman or team against team) to see who, with the magnificent body they were born with, could achieve victory over a worthy opponent.

Then during the 1970's, there was a very popular television show. Part James Bond, part science fiction (yes, there was even an episode featuring Bigfoot), the show was called the Six Million Dollar Man. It featured Lee Majors, who played the role of Colonel Steve Austin, who in the story almost died in a plane crash and was fitted with artifical legs, an artificial arm, and an artificial eye. Only they were not the usual prostheses. With them, he could run seventy miles per hour, lift cars and throw them out of the way, and watch what people were doing who were hundreds of yards away. Later, the series created a spinoff, called The Bionic Woman, featuring Lindsay Wagner as Jamie Sommers, who had similar replacements to Austin's (except that she got an ear instead of an eye.) In fact, NBC is primed to reach back into the archives and bring back a new version of the Bionic Woman series this fall.

While the series are long since gone, they did introduce a new word to our lexicon: 'bionic,' a word which was used to describe the artificial, robotic prostheses with which they were attached, but now used fairly commonly to describe artificial attachments which are robotic in nature but operate at the direction of a human body and human nerve and muscle stimuli. What made the series remarkable was the idea that such replacements could be made better than the human tissue that they replaced. At the time it seemed remarkable.

Not so anymore. Of course artificial replacement parts, such as wooden peg legs and glass eyes have been around for a long, long time. They have served a mixture of aesthetic purposes and functionality, but no one ever figured that, for example, a person who had lost his or her legs and had artificial ones put on, would ever be as good (or better) than he or she was beforehand.

But now we have the case of sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius' story is an inspiring one. He was born without fibulas-- the bone that hurts when someone kicks you in the shin-- and when he was less than a year old, his legs were both amputated below the ankle. But Oscar Pistorius had a dream. His dream was to be a great athlete. And he has gotten state of the art prosthetic legs, and has set world records in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters at the paralympics. But he isn't content to just compete against other athletes with disabilities. So Pistorius has been trying to qualify to run for Great Britain in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

And that has caused some concern with the folks at the International Association of Athletic Federations, the body which governs track and field events internationally. After carefully reviewing recent tapes of Pistorius competing, they have determined that his new prosthetics actually give him an advantage because they have better air resistance than actual human legs. They have not suggested (yet) banning Pistorius from the Olympics (and something tells me that right now they are putting the proverbial finger in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing before making an announcment on the subject) but certainly the die has been cast-- not only for this year, but for the future.

You see, almost all science fiction sooner or later becomes reality (just read Jules Verne about going to the moon, or about submarines, and you will know what I mean.) About the only thing that is fictional anymore about the 'six million dollar man' is the pricetag-- they never envisioned the cost of health care in the United States. But other than the obvious fact that they theoretically don't want people walking down the street who could rip trees out of the ground, they could probably build parts not much below the level of those in the show today if they wanted to. Certainly the prosthetics they are building are just as good, if not better than what other people have naturally-- and Oscar Pistorius is a great example.

But here is the dilemma: people who are 'differently abled,' for the most part don't want to be considered as such. Hence the push for prostheses which can allow people to do everything that they would want to in a world full of people who don't have their different ability (in fact, the reason Pistorius first started running was that he was recovering from a rugby injury.) They likely don't want to be better than other people, just not different from them. And we have now reached that plateau. But then when we come to the hair's breadth that separates a gold medalist from a silver in the Olympics, how finely tuned can we make that be? For that matter, if Oscar Pistorius had been born with ordinary, or even the best of fibulas, would he have been good enough an athlete to get to this point? Certainly he'd have had the same heart he has now, but the bald fact is that many athletes have heart, but sooner or later most of them run into someone who is just plain a better athlete.

And what of the future? If prosthetics are just as good as human muscle and nerve today, then it stands to reason that it won't be that much longer before standard prosthetics will be much better than human parts. What do you do then? Create an artificial 'Olympics' (just as we've had paralympics for years) for people who can do things that others just can't? That would be a tragic trick for the differently abled-- to no longer be segregated in athletic contests because they weren't physically as good as or able to compete with others, but rather because they were stronger, faster and physically superior athletes than their friends and neighbors. It is already true that the world record for the wheelchair marathon is faster than the record for running a marathon (that has been true for quite a long time now,) but no one suggests that wheelchair marathoners should be eligible to compete against the distance runners in the Olympics.

Beyond that, if things continue as they are, then unlike Pistorius, who is merely competitive (and who recently finished last in a field of elite runners at the British Grand Prix) there is little doubt that prostheses will be developed that will make those who have them better. And if so, might not even some who are not differently abled, but who are just as competitive, maybe even consider having arms or legs amputated just to get the new attachment? Far fetched? Maybe, but if you think that people haven't been willing to do horrible things to their bodies just to get a small competitive edge, then look no farther than the surge of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (for that matter, if they are competing against people who have become better athletes through robotics, it suddenly becomes a lot harder to point fingers at an athlete who uses steroids or other drugs to 'even the field' by 'improving' their natural body.)

I don't believe, despite what the report said, that Oscar Pistorius is really advantaged significantly by his prostheses, and if he runs and wins it will be a tremendous source of inspiration to millions of people, so I believe the IAAF should allow him to run next year. I also believe he should be allowed to compete (if he earns his place on the British team) because the issue hasn't really been looked at like it should, and it is unfair to punish Pistorius because the IAAF has suddenly figured out that technology has caught up with them.

However, this issue is not going to disappear, in fact it will grow enormously in the near future, so I would also recommend that the IAAF establish a committee now, including world class athletes, medical and coaching professionals and advocates for the disabled who will establish guidelines (maybe specific standards for the prostheses which will be used, just as NASCAR has standards for cars and most other sports where equipment is important, from golf to baseball, have standards for that equipment) that will allow the differently abled to compete on an equal field, but without gaining by virtue of the explosive growth in science, an advantage which is not commensurate with the spirit of sportsmanship.


Anonymous said...

there has to be a line somewhere. Remember the golfer who was handicapped and couldnt walk very far so the PGA let him ride in a golf cart a few years back?

that was very unfair to the rest of them. golf can be a gruling sport to play.

thephoenixnyc said...

The Bionic Man action figure was my FAVORITE toy for about 3 years.

Scariest "bionic" side effectthese days is Barry Bond's head growing a full hat size in the last 5 years. Nasty.