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The New Normal

Oscar Pistorius first gained international fame amid a raging debate over whether prosthetic blades would give him unfair advantage against able-bodied athletes. Today, the track star finds himself in the middle of a more serious controversy: whether he intentionally shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Both cases raise serious questions regarding humanity. Gabriella Håkansson* embarks on the slippery-slop of what defines the human.

*Translated by Sarah Death

Oscar Pistorius was born with dysmelia and both his legs were amputated just below the knee when he was a year old. His nicknames, Blade Runner and Fastest Man on No Legs, come from the fact that he runs on prosthetic carbon-fibre blades – and it is these artificial limbs that put him at an advantage on the track, in the opinion of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF). Pistorius claims the opposite is the case and is making ever more vocal demands to be allowed to compete against the able-bodied elite runners of the world in Beijing.

Pistorius has already conquered the paralympic world. In the Athens Paralympics of 2004, at the age of just 17, Pistorius completely outclassed the veteran one-legged American runners, Marlon Shirley and Brian Frasure (who ran with the same kind of prosthetic limbs as Pistorius), and sliced 21.97 seconds off the 400m world record. And that was just the start. Pistorius has broken record after record and won race after race, constantly raising the bar and testing the limits of what an amputee athlete can do, or is allowed to do. Now he wants to compete in the Olympics. With the decision of 16 May, it looks as though he will be permitted to do just that.

“My focus throughout this appeal has been to ensure that disabled athletes be given the chance to compete, and compete fairly, with able-bodied athletes. I look forward to continuing my quest to qualify for the Olympics.”

Pistorius’ many fans around the world are jubilant and can’t wait to see him run, although others are furious and threaten a boycott if the sprinter is allowed to take part in the Olympics. The loudest protests are predictably coming from able-bodied runners who see Pistorius as a serious rival and view his prosthetic blades as blatant cheating. Science, with some hesitation, is taking their side.

When Pistorius made his controversial debut at the Rome Golden Gala in 2007, he came second in the B race over 400m with a time of 46.9 seconds (the current world record of 43.18 seconds is held by American runner Michael Johnson). The race was subjected to scientific analysis and Pistorius’s performance compared to that of the other runners.

Experts would presumably say that the 400m is all about survival: you win on the closing strait and there’s no more to it than that. All the runners peak at the very start and then drop their pace. The slowing pace can be scientifically accounted for by the way the body works – in order first to store and then to release energy, the muscles contract. This contraction leads to fatigue and exhaustion, which inevitably make the runner slow down, and that is why there is always a two second difference between the first and second 200m of a race, for all runners. All runners except Oscar Pistorius.

“Where do we draw the line between body and prosthesis? How much can a person change and modify their body before it stops being ‘natural’ and turns into something else?”

If there are no muscles, then there is no exhaustion. The scientific result of the IAAF analysis is, in summary, that the competitor who loses the least speed in a race will win. Artificial limbs might not be able to make a sprinter run faster, but they definitely save energy and therefore, according to the IAAF, give the runner unacceptable advantages.

Oscar Pistorius himself claims that the opposite is true. His prosthetic blades make him exceptionally slow at the start, so he could never compete over shorter distances because he would not have time to pick up speed. Anyone who has seen him run can confirm this to be so.

But is this the matter at issue? Beyond the scientific analysis of lactic acid and muscle contractions, a completely different set of questions arise. Where do we draw the line between what is body and what is prosthesis? How much can a person change and modify their body before it stops being “natural” and turns into something else? And if it does, then what is that something else? Handicapped? Improved? Inhuman? Superhuman? Cyborg?

Last spring, the IAAF blocked Pistorius’ Olympic ambitions by application of the rule forbidding “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device”. The prostheses were classified – like wheelchairs, which are also banned from the Olympic Games – as technical devices.

The term is, however, a problematic one. In practice, it excludes all forms of medical intervention to the athlete’s body that leave technical traces behind them. If my Swedish family were elite sprinters, none of us could qualify for the Olympics. My father has had cataract operations on both eyes and has artificial lenses; my mother has had a double hip replacement operation and has two so-called MoM – Metal on Metal – artificial hip joints made of carbon, chrome and molybdenum. They are exactly like natural hip bones and hip joints, the only difference being that they do not wear out – which definitely counts as an advantage in a sporting context; my younger sister’s kneecap is pinned with a metal screw 10cm long, which makes her bleep when she goes through airport security; and, as for me, I’ve got a millimetre-wide metal mesh in one of my coronary arteries to thank for the fact that I’m alive today.

Should a metal mesh in a vein be seen as the kind of technical device that by the IAAF’s measure disqualifies a sportsman or woman from competing? I don’t know. The question is rather what Oscar Pistorius’ blades have done to our perception of the human body. Anyone who hasn’t seen him run yet simply has to look it up on YouTube. Those incredibly sleek, slender and apparently fragile prostheses look like an integral part of his body. He runs like a gazelle. There’s nothing – absolutely nothing – to indicate that he might be handicapped, an amputee, or physically disabled in any way.

This, of course, is what arouses strong emotions, because nothing frightens us more than a person who deviates from an externally “normal” appearance. That’s why all prostheses attempt to look as much like the body as possible. The best artificial limb is one that doesn’t show at all. With his eye-catching, slimline, ultra-designed high-tech prostheses, Pistorius challenges every conceivable notion of dysfunction. Anybody can see that those things beneath his knees are making no attempt either to look or to sound like natural legs. What really shocks us, of course, is that Pistorius’s carbon-fibre prostheses don’t behave like ordinary legs, either. They are better than the real thing. They have not merely eliminated a serious disability – they have transformed Pistorius and created an elite runner who scientifically beats any athlete who runs on standard, lactic-acid-producing legs made of flesh and bone. From an ethical and philosophical point of view, this is both shocking and deeply fascinating.

The world of sport might not yet be fully aware of the consequences, but the quick-witted have already realised that the age of the natural body will soon be over. Initially perhaps only in the context of sport – but in the longer term in every other sphere, too. Progressive thinkers would of course maintain that it has happened already in the form of stents, bone implants, pacemakers, and steel ball and socket hip joints. Humankind has already been modified.

Add to that all the medication we take to regulate dopamine, oestrogen, cholesterol, endorphins and insulin. Or all the vaccines we inject into our bodies to prevent smallpox, tuberculosis, HIV and other unwanted micro-organisms from invading them. The natural body is long gone, if it existed in the first place.

Yet the world of sport remains obsessed with what it terms natural. “We cannot accept something that provides advantages,” said an IAAF official with regard to Pistorius’ wish to compete in the Beijing Olympics this year. “It affects the purity of sports.”

Purity! As if sport was ever about purity or naturalness. On the contrary, what lies at the heart of all sport is fascination with the extreme, with extraordinary performances and with what human beings can achieve with their bodies in the most extreme circumstances. What we see in the course of the Olympics are finely tuned athletes who have spent decades forcing their bodies to extremes by submitting daily to scientifically devised training programmes, eating scientifically devised diets and talking to qualified cognitive behaviour therapy coaches to boost their self-esteem. What these people show us is what the human body can achieve when it is forced to the absolute limit. There’s nothing natural about it.

The complete absence of the pure or natural is exposed, too, by the rules that surround big sporting events. The year 1999 saw the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency, a body whose sole function is to monitor and regulate doping in the world of sport. Every year, this organisation updates its list of proscribed substances and methods.

A sportsman or woman cannot have banned drugs in his or her bloodstream, or take anabolic steroids, but is permitted to sleep in a container designed to simulate high altitude and increase oxygen-carrying capacity. Since 2004, transgender athletes have also been allowed to compete. It’s clear that the boundaries for what the world of sport perceives as pure and natural are being constantly pushed.

There are also sports scientists who think that the boundary for what the human body can achieve has been reached. The current record for the marathon is 49 seconds (or 0.7 per cent) away from what is calculated to be the absolute limit of human capacity. The same applies to the men’s 100m. The current record is 9.77 seconds, and it is estimated that this could be forced down a further 5 per cent to 9.29 seconds.

The consequence is that records are broken less and less frequently. The average length for which a world record in athletic events is held is now nine years for men and 10 for women. How should we interpret this?

Oscar Pistorius raises questions about what sort of athletes we really want. If records can no longer be broken and the margins between the competitors are constantly shrinking, maybe disciplines such as running, shot put and high jump will be no fun to watch any longer. Perhaps new Olympic sports will be introduced in which prostheses are no longer considered a problem, but are seen as part of the competition.

Indeed, who wants to see lactic acid-producing legs of flesh and bone shaving tenths of a second off the record every 10 years when there is carbon fibre that can smash all the world records by several lengths and is also completely spellbinding? Does that sound like science fiction? Just bear in mind that what lies at the heart of all sport is fascination with the extreme.

Another route to take is the one that those who work in artificial intelligence have chosen. These scientists have stopped asking whether computers will be able to think the same way as human beings. Computers outstripped the human brain long ago, and the only sensible question remaining is: what are humans good at that computers can’t do?

Perhaps we should be asking the same question in sport. What can humans do that technical devices can’t? Co-operation. Team games. Culture. Beauty. Human beings can discover and create unpredictable patterns in a way no computer has yet been programmed to do. Human beings are unique in the way they can work together and in teams. And above all: human beings can create and apply devices in a way that is vital to the success of the human race.

Perhaps the future of sport will be less about breaking flesh-and-bone records with natural bodies, and more about cultivating and modifying our limbs using internal and external devices? Perhaps it will be less about displaying strength and more about creating an experience of beauty? Perhaps team and communication sports, such as football and tennis, will drive out sports involving records, like the 100m and shotput? Maybe more aesthetically appealing sports, such as figure skating and gymnastics will replace exhibitions of pure strength and technique like the long jump and triple jump? Maybe sport will abandon its fixation with what is pure and natural, and realise instead what fantastic opportunities technology has to offer.

Maybe it’s as simple as this: Oscar Pistorius is ahead of his time.

This story, and others, features in The Chimurenga Chronicle, a once-off edition of an imaginary newspaper which is also issue 16 of Chimurenga Magazine. Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic imagines the newspaper as producer of time – a time-machine. 

To purchase as a PDF, head to our online shop.

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