The First Olympic Cyborg?

This summer South African runner Oscar Pistorius, after much controversy, will have a shot at competing in the Olympics. Why the controversy? Pistorius, known as “blade runner” (a name he rejects as “boring stuff”) was born without fibula. He has not had flesh, blood and bone below his knees since he was 11 months old.


In January, the International Association of Athletic Federations ruled that his state of the art prosthetics were superior to human legs, and would thus give him an unfair advantage. Last month, that judgement was overturned. If he can cut his best times down by less than a second, Olympic competition will see its first cyborg. The future has arrived.


Pistorius, at 21 years of age, is a testament to the amazing things that willpower and technology can achieve. In any other time in history, or with any less determination, Pistorius would have had absolutely no chance of being a runner, let alone an Olympic athlete. Here he is in action:

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There is a simple and refreshing purity in his quest. He just wants to run. It’s clear from seeing him do so that he has incredible talent and has trained his body to the peak of fitness. Having dominated the Paralympics for years, getting times better than many able-bodied (a term which he’s on the verge of making obsolete) runners, Pistorius sees no reason why he should be kept out of the Olympics if he can make the qualifying time.

But that simple desire has set off a firestorm, raising questions over the very meaning of achievement and humanity. It’s an iceberg issue: what, on the surface, is one man’s desire to become his best has started to reveal all the thorny questions about machines, humans and ability that lie just under the water.

Take this rant from bioethicist Arthur Caplan, in support of keeping Pistorius out:

… if people with artificial legs, artificial eyes that permit exquisite focus, pharmacologically enhanced muscles or emotions, or brain implants that permit unprecedented concentration or endurance enter into competition, then you no longer have a sport. The athletes are not comparable to those who attempted the same feats in earlier times.

It may be fascinating to see who can go the fastest on rocket-powered legs or throw a heavy weight the farthest using performance-enhancing drugs, or genetically engineered muscles. But what you have then is an exhibition or a show, not a sport.

Then there’s Canadian commentator Colby Cosh’s counterattack at the naysayers

Allowing Pistorius to compete will help biomechanics reach firmer conclusions. And if he should win the odd meet or medal along the way, would that really be such a tragedy?

Personally, I’ll be cheering on Pistorius, and I hope that he doesn’t just qualify for the Olympics, but cleans up at them. He personifies the citius, altius, fortius spirit that the games are supposed to be about in the first place. I think the immense challenges he’s had (and continues) to overcome more than outweigh any mechanical advantage his legs might give.

But simmering under all the public discussion is the following insight, perhaps tinged with just a little bit of fear: this is just the beginning. One threshold has been crossed, but it will not be the last.

Then there’s the fact that Pistorius’ amazing legs don’t look like the cybernetics we’ve come to expect. Science fiction and its ilk have shown us futures with mechanical limbs that might be super-powered, but they’ll still be like us. Arms or legs made be made of metal, they may have gears or electronics that whir and click, but they’ll still look like human legs and arms. Even the oft-evil machine people are usually humanoid.

But Pistorius’ legs, with their swept-back razor more-efficient-than-human design, don’t look like that at all. What, then, as technology advances, will be the other “superior” mechanical replacements for human flesh? Arrays of tentacles instead of arms? Eyes on stalks? Limbs we can’t yet imagine?

The future is here – and it’s reminding us that it’s never quite what we expect.

10 Responses to “The First Olympic Cyborg?”

  1. daphny Says:

    isnt this what the paralympics are for?

  2. DJ Velveteen Says:

    Brilliantly expressed. I’m interested in seeing how this argument goes once it gets into the public sphere. I’ve always thought that homophobia is a strange sort of social disease, considering that you can’t tell by looking who’s gay and who’s not (unlike racism). In this case, however, we’d be back to a form of discrimination based on looking different.

    Then again, I think the stigma of making fun of handicapped people is a deciding factor in the case of extreme cybernetics… I hope.

  3. Tequila Says:


    Not really. In this case the argument that his prosthetics are “better than human legs” pretty much elevates him to the level being debated today. The paralympics by and large feature athletes who (yet anyhow) could not competitively compete in the Olympics and in events tailored on some level to their physical condition. The question now is if technology allows for those who normally could not compete a chance to enter the playing field…should they be allowed?

    Here you have some saying he has an advantage (not something I agree with…if such was the case I honestly think pro athletes would give up limbs in a heartbeat for technology that allows them to stay competitive) and while he may have an edge on one level he is still human. If anyone has run competitively they know even his prosthetics are only one element of what’s needed to be an effective runner.

    “But simmering under all the public discussion is the following insight, perhaps tinged with just a little bit of fear: this is just the beginning. One threshold has been crossed, but it will not be the last.”

    I think we already crossed that. Look at the highly questionable training and supplements athletes go through today. I can see the issue raised by this man but given how his competition will more than likely be juiced up on something…I can’t see how he poses any threat not already faced. Caplan is either hopelessly naive or has no modern grasp of what sports are.

    No sport today remains “pure”. I see no difference between prosthetics and the high end equipment offered athletes of all types. Be it the slick new swim suits that allow swimmers to cut through the water or the high end sneakers and cleats which allow many to go well beyond what would be possible with a bare foot. This doesn’t even touch the change in materials to everything from socks to headbands that add comfort or benefits.

    If Golf could come to terms with technology…any sport can. Plus at the end of the day the prosthetics are not doing the running…the man still has to have the will, desire, and training…and that will always be the core of sports no matter the technology.

  4. john colby Says:

    After alot of thought, I just can’t get behind this. It’s like apples and oranges. Its not the same athletic. Why not just have the men and women run together then ???

  5. mono Says:

    I thought this was great when I first heard about it. I thought that if he was capable of running alongside the ‘proper’ athletes then he should have his chance.

    However… after hearing the argument against it from actual atheletes and sprint runners, I can kind of see his advantage so while I’m still not against him running, I can understand why a lot of people would percieve it as being unfair. It’s actually got nothing to do with whether or not he can run faster or not than legged runners, more on whether or not he’s got a ‘free pass’ through one of the more gruelling training aspects.

    Basically, if you’re a sprint runner, your feet and lower legs are very important to you. During your running career, you will frequently get lower leg and feet injuries that you will have to overcome through care and training. It just happens, it’s part of the sport. Taking care of your legs is top priority as they are your prime tools for the job.

    From a sprinters PoV, racing against someone who doesn’t have to deal with that whole aspect of the sport pisses them right off, as it’s something they’ve had no choice but to spend their whole atheletic career doing almost ritually.

    Of course, this is normally countered with “How dare you! You can’t discriminate against him for that – he’s had no legs his whole life! I think that’s a bit worse than a pulled muscle & a couple of blisters!” which, as is usually the case in things like this, is a wholly different argument that inevitably makes people back down.

    Again, I still think he should run, but after hearing that side of the story I must admit my views on the legitimacy of it are a little skewed.

  6. turbine Says:

    Caplan’s rant is pathetic. The prosthetics are springs, nothing more. They provide no extra reach or energy, and while they may bounce more effectively than the Achilles tendon Pistorius lacks the muscles the other athletes use to push off with the foot.

    In this specific case (as evidenced by the fact that he doesn’t even qualify) it’s pretty clear the prosthetics confer no advantage. There will be other prosthetics in the future though, but when half the athletes are doping themselves with chemicals, does it even matter? Technically, there already are very few “true” humans in sports.

    It still looks very cool when he runs though :)

  7. q gauti Says:

    Its a matter of principle, and going by the assumption that there aren’t that many ‘true’ humans left in any given sport because of doping as an argument for unrestricted special-purpose body modification in competitive events is a little on the silly side.

    Even if Pistorius doesn’t have a vast advantage over the capabilities of an unmodified athlete, it sets a precedent that is bound to turn running into some sort of formula 1 facsimile, complete with it’s own engineers & mechanics cup.

  8. lucylle Says:

    Pistorius will be cohosting/attending (didn’t read the ad properly as it was an underground poster and I was in a hurry) an event near my city at the start of july…. I know that Italians, sport fanatics as they generally are, usually get extremely fascinated by him, in a good way… I often heard him compared to the Puma Future campaign:

    As for competiting in regular olympics… I would rather see two different categories, one where all forms of augmentation (chemical, mechanical, ecc) is banned and the sport keeps its truest form, while the other gives athletes carte blanche.
    Despite being utopically impossible to enforce (too complicated, costly and damaging) it certainly would put a stop to the bickering… and in a hundred years from now, we would be looking at radically different sports and performances indeed.
    Not to mention, the commercial spur might bring quite a lot of money for research in the matter…

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