A lot of rules in sports, whether at the grassroots or professional level, are made and certainly interpreted by those not currently playing the sport, and sometimes by those who never picked up the ball or racket in question. (The NCAA often is guilty of that, though I think it is improving.) The IOC and various national olympic committees were guilty as well until the demand for the athlete’s voice to be heard grew so loud in response to various training and evaluation inequities that their insights were increasingly sought out.
This increase in contributions from current and past athletes is having an impact on current activities in sports but will likely, if dealt with properly, have an even more palpable impact on developing issues and trends. Elite athletes spend much of their life immersed in their sport of choice. They deal with performance issues, coaching issues, and even the mundane administrative issues. Their perspective on these issues should have a forum. Sports is not without its controversies, especially when it comes to performance issues: What type of training is allowed? What is considered cheating? Thankfully, with with their increasing participation on rules making committees, governing bodies, and in league management positions, they are getting such a forum to deal with these issues.
We certainly understand that many athletes won’t have opinions on many issues, may not care to share the ones they have, or frankly, may not be worth listening to on most things. However, there are many whose experiences and perspectives should be tapped into to ensure that the stewards of sports are better prepared to handle the challenges and opportunities they will inevitably face.
We came across a great piece written by an elite athlete – she is accomplished at many other things as well – regarding the issue of competitive advantage, fairness, technology, and the future of sport. We hope you enjoy this thought-provoking commentary.
“Racing on Carbon Fiber Legs: How Abled Should We Be?” by Aimee Mullins can be found at http://gizmodo.com/5403322/racing-on-carbon-fiber-legs-how-abled-should-we-be, with an excerpt below.
“Racing on Carbon Fiber Legs: How Abled Should We Be?”
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?
The Amazons, after all, amputated their left breast so it wouldn’t impede their skill in archery. Though athletes have taken some truly crazy stuff to have an advantage, nobody’s gone so far as elective amputation.
I’ve spent the better part of my lifetime trying to get out from under an idea of being “disabled,” and the baggage that comes with that label. (Look it up in a thesaurus if you want a taste of what I mean.) As of yet, the best prosthetic available is not as efficient and not as capable as what Mother Nature gives us—or, what she was supposed to give me, and South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. The revolutionary design of the woven carbon-fiber Cheetah Leg, nicknamed for its design inspiration, has been in existence for nearly 15 years—and after my initial triumphs with them in the mid 1990s, it has been the leg of choice for nearly all elite amputee sprinters. But in one instant, after Pistorius entered a summer 2007 track meet in Rome and placed second in a field of runners possessing flesh and bone legs, he and I were deemed too abled.
Commence the comical nightmare of being told that we now possess an “unfair advantage” in wearing prosthetic limbs to run. The scores of amputee sprinters who had competed with the limbs for the previous 13 years—and were still comfortably categorized as “disabled”—were virtually ignored. What is fascinating is the immediate shift in society’s regard of a disabled athlete as an “inspiration” (cue the patronizing “awwwww”) to a legitimate threat to other athletes (“Uh, what the hell do we do now?”).
The first obvious issue for me was the deliberate ignoring of the truly excellent athletic feat performed by Pistorius and the insistence that if he could beat able-bodied athletes, “it must be the legs.” Look, I also beat a few able-bodied athletes when I ran Division I track in college, and so have plenty of other well-trained amputees in the last decade. The difference is, none of us have ever posted his times. Bottom line: If it were just the legs making us superfast, I would have done a decade ago what he’s doing now, and so would others. Oscar’s not running with any different technology than what I ran with 14 years ago.
The modern sports ethos that we’ve constructed is based upon increasing advantages. Because certainly, in so many sports, we have pushed past natural human function to facilitate a more exciting game—better times, better performance. But where does an advantage become unfair? The crux of that question lays under the umbrella of ethics, which should indeed govern our rule structure within the competitive arena, but there’s something in this story which specifically points toward a deep-seated fear, one we don’t want to talk about in polite conversation, one which parallels historical instances of racial integration of sport and gender integration of sport. If we allow a person, one who we view as our inferior (in whatever way), to play with us, and then that person beats us, what does that say about us?
In the 1930s, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis blew the lid off common thinking of how “capable” an athlete of African descent was compared to an athlete of European descent, although the beginning of league integration took a decade more to achieve, and in some sports another three decades. It was as recent as 2003 when some members of the PGA balked at Annika Sorenstam’s quest to compare her talent to the best men in the world, admitting their fear of how it might feel to have a woman beat them, an embarrassing display of archaic thinking.
In 2001, golfer Casey Martin, who played with a degenerative circulatory leg condition that made it nearly impossible to walk an 18-hole course, successfully won a Supreme Court decision allowing him to use a cart as an acceptable assistive medical device. The PGA Tour fought Martin for years, saying all pro golfers must walk because uniform rules are essential for the integrity of the sport. “Accommodating Martin with a golf cart will not fundamentally change the game,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for a 7-2 majority.
What keeps percolating for me is this perceived discrepancy between advantage and “unfair” advantage. It’s absurd to look at a star line-up of athletes and think that they all have an equal shot. We don’t cry foul play when an athlete from the United States, with the best access to training facilities, coaching staffs, and nutritional science is up against someone from say…Uzkbekistan. It’s tough luck that 5′ 11″ Tyson Gay has to line up against a 6’5″ Usain Bolt.
It makes me twitch when we talk about “a level playing field.” No two athletes are the same genetically and environmentally, and the mental and emotional factors they’ve endured in their life are relevant in their performance, too. The only reason athletes today are better than those of decades ago is because of science and technology: We know exactly what and when to feed our bodies for maximum energy, we have lighter shoes and better bikes and new rubberized track surfaces and (legal) supplements and altitude training. We are upping the ante each Olympic year with “smarter” design of an athlete’s tools, both inside and outside the body.
(The article continues at http://gizmodo.com/5403322/racing-on-carbon-fiber-legs-how-abled-should-we-be)