Blurring the Lines of Dis- and Over-Abled

Nov 12, 2009 at 2:42 pm
click to enlarge Here we see Steve Austin training for the next Olympic games. But will he be allowed to compete?
Here we see Steve Austin training for the next Olympic games. But will he be allowed to compete?
There's an outstanding article over at Gizmodo right now everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read. It's an article by Aimee Mullins, whose name you may not be all that familiar with, but you should be. She's an athlete slash model slash public speaker slash writer who also just happens to have two prosthetic legs, and therein lies the focus of the article in question. 

The article asks the question: where is the line between correction and enhancement in athletics? As Ms. Mullins herself is an athlete who has competed at very high levels with two artificial limbs, she is in the perfect position to ask that question. 

At the center of the issue is Oscar Pistorius, a South African sprinter who was causing a stir with his two prosthetic legs as far back as 2005. At the time, the focus was largely on the issue of Pistorius' length of stride; i.e. there were some able-bodied athletes who felt his ability to both adjust his height and also take inhumanly long strides without extra muscular effort just might constitute an unfair advantage. 

Fast forward four more years, and the issue has done nothing but intensify. The very newest prosthetics, made from woven carbon fiber and with advanced geometric designs, are approaching levels of efficiency never before imagined. Given the already-present concerns, the newer technology is only going to cause additional angst. 

But then again, as Ms. Mullins so adeptly asks, where exactly is the line? Why is it we accept Tiger Woods getting LASIK surgery to take him beyond what we would normally think of as "perfect" vision, even though that isn't the natural state of his eyes? How is that any different than taking anabolic steroids? On the other hand, Woods still has to actually play the game, has to make the shots and build his swing; sure, his new vision is undoubtedly a boon, but how much of one? (Incidentally, I actually happen to be one of those rare people whose uncorrected vision is in the 20/15 range. I do not, sadly, play golf in a manner resembling Tiger Woods.) 

Or what about the speed suits the various swimming apparel companies have built? We've all seen just how many World Records have fallen the last couple years in the sport; now the governing bodies have decided to outlaw the technology. However, they're also allowing the records set with the now-illegal suits to stand. Bit of an odd standard to set, don't you think?

What I think is most interesting is a possible parallel we can see here. Ms. Mullins poses a question in the first line of her article: 

 "One Olympic swimmer has a D-cup breast size. From a physiological standpoint, she's at a disadvantage to a swimmer who's an A-cup. If she amputated her breasts to become more streamlined, would we consider her crazy, or worse, a cheater?"

Months ago, I wrote about Simona Halep, the Romanian tennis player, who was considering getting breast reduction surgery in order to help her play better. She felt her chest was getting in the way of her career. Of course, I was outraged then and outraged now the international community allows such travesties to take place every day all over the world. 

Tongue in cheek protest over the loss of a fantastic pair of breasts aside, I honestly never considered the question from the standpoint of fairness. Would having huge breasts as a female athlete qualify as a disadvantage? And if so, are we all right with her taking steps to correct it? Or do we, instead, try to hold to some notion about the purity of our bodies, and that modifying them is somehow unnatural. Of course, at that point we again have to look at Tiger and all the others who have had their eyes lasered; if God or Providence or Nature wanted them to have bad vision, who are we to change the design? 

To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about these issues. When I first heard of the controversy over Pistorius' prosthetics years ago, I sort of just filed it away as an interesting little tidbit of knowledge, but never really gave it all that much of thought. After reading Ms. Mullins' outstanding piece, though, I do believe I'm going to have to open up the vault and give a bit more consideration to the question. Hopefully, you'll do the same.