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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Artificial Legs and Unfair Advantages . . . .

William Saletan at Slate.com writes about the recent controversy surrounding Oscar Pistorius and his effort to compete in the 2008 Olympics.  The catch - he has two artificial legs.  Mr. Saletan writes about the recent -- court ruling permitting Mr. Pistorius to run and noting the ruling isn't quite what one would expect.   He states, 

Oscar Pistorius was born with defective legs. Before his first birthday, they were amputated below the knee. That didn't stop him. Now 21, he has broken three world track records for disabled athletes and is racing to qualify for the 400 meters at this summer's Olympics. If he can shave four-tenths of a second off his best time, he'll make it.

How has he done it? One answer is superhuman grit. The other is superhuman legs. Pistorius runs on carbon-fiber prostheses made for sprinting. In January, the International Association of Athletics Federations declared them ineligible, claiming they were better than human legs. But on Friday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned that decision, clearing his path to the Olympics.

Go, Oscar, go. We're all rooting for you to cross that finish line in Beijing. Just one note of caution: Don't win. That's the strange upshot of the court's ruling. Artificial legs are fine to run on, as long as you don't win the race.

How did we get to this awkward place? The story begins last year, when the IAAF adopted a rule prohibiting "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device." According to the court, the IAAF interpreted this rule as banning any device that provides "any advantage, however small, in any part of a competition."

In November, the IAAF tested Pistorius and his artificial legs against similar sprinters on human legs. The scientist who supervised the test reported, "Energy return was clearly higher in the prostheses than in the human ankle joints." He also found that "fast running with the … prosthesis is a different kind of locomotion than sprinting with natural human legs. The 'bouncing' locomotion is related to lower metabolic cost."

The court didn't dispute these findings. , , , ,   But it rejected the IAAF's interpretation of the rule. The word advantage, the court decided, has to mean "overall net advantage"—i.e., "more disadvantages than advantages." In other words, it's OK to use artificial legs, even if they're better than human legs at some things. In fact, they're already better at some things. They just can't be better at everything. . . .

In short, the court found that none of the tests conducted on Pistorius, even by his own experts, "quantified all of the possible advantages or disadvantages" of his legs. If you read the opinion, it becomes clear that this task is essentially impossible. There are too many variables.

How, then, can we settle the question of net advantage? By running the race. The court pointed out that the same artificial legs, manufactured and sold to other amputees, have "been in use for a decade, and yet no other runner using them … has run times fast enough to compete effectively against able bodied runners." It concluded: "In effect, these prior performances by other runners using the prosthesis act as a control for study of the benefits of prosthesis and demonstrate that even if the prosthesis provided an advantage … it may be quite limited."   In other words, there's nothing to complain about until runners with artificial legs start winning. . . .

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