Cyberathletes: How Artificial Limbs Are Turning The Sports World On Its Head

October 10, 2014

Most fans of the Olympic Games knows the story of Oscar Pistorious, the South African sprint runner who uses artificial limbs to compete in events for both below-knee amputees and for able-bodied athletes. During the 2012 Summer Olympics, Pistorious became the first amputee runner to compete at an Olympic Games. Although recently Pistorious’ inspiring story has taken a turn for the worse, resulting in a murder trial, that legal issue is not the focal point of this blog post. The purpose of this blog is to examine the legal ramifications that artificial limbs are currently having on the world of sports and what affect they will have moving forward.
Although most fans know Oscar Pistorious’ story, many might not know how he was able to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Pistorious’ right to compete had to be earned both on the track and in the courtroom. Prior to the 2008 Summer Olympics, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) proposed a rule that would have made it impossible for Pistorious to compete. The rule would prohibit “use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over an athlete not using such a device.” The IAAF’s argument was that Pistorious’ carbon fiber blades gave him a mechanical advantage.
The science behind Pistorious’ artificial limbs was split. German professor Gert-Peter Brueggemann testified that the blades were energy efficient. MIT professor Hugh M. Herr claimed, based on an independent study, that Pistorious did not gain any advantage over able-bodied runners. The case made its way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, world sport’s highest tribunal, and the ruling came down in favor of Pistorious, overturning the IAAF’s ban and allowing Pistorious the opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games.

As is the case with most forms of technology, the technology behind artificial limbs is continuing to evolve and improve at a remarkably fast pace.

On a daily basis this can be seen at PACE Rehabilitation, a rehabilitation center that “provides a coordinated multi-disciplinary service to individuals who have sustained limb loss and/or serious limb injury.” PACE’s head prosthetist, Jamie Gillespie, says “there have been major changes in the last two or three years.” One example of these changes can be seen in the Genium X3, which is widely regarded as the most advanced prosthetic leg in the world. The Genium X3 can adjust for user’s stride pattern, different types of movement from jogging to climbing stairs, and a range of terrains. All new developments that were impossible when Pistorious was being fitted for his first pair of artificial limbs.
The evolution of artificial limbs was demonstrated this past summer by Markus Rehm, an amputee long jumper in Germany. Rehm won the long jump at the German nationals, defeating the field of able-bodied athletes. However the German athletics federation decided to drop Rehm from the team, meaning he would not compete at the European Athletics Championship, because his artificial limbs gave him an unfair advantage. Rehm ultimately decided to not fight the decision that left him off of the roster in a judicial setting, but that option was made available to him.
The potential issue of how to manage athletes who use artificial limbs is not currently at the forefront of American sports or jurisprudence, but rest assured, it will be in the near future. Wait until the moment when a six-foot tall basketball player is able to “jump out of the gym” with the use of artificial limbs or when a football player is able to use artificial limbs to run a sub 4.0 second forty-yard dash (the record is 4.24 seconds). The sports governing bodies in the United States will be forced to make a decision on the same issue that was faced by the IAAF and the German athletics federation. The question, “should disabled athletes be able to compete with able-bodied athletes?” seems to have an obvious answer, but the technological evolution of artificial limbs has forever changed the equation.