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Human Nature and the Nature of Sports

One thing no one denies about Oscar Pistorius is that he’s a world class sprinter with the heart of a champion. Pistorius is billed as “the fastest thing on no legs.” Because of birth anomalies, both of his legs were amputated just below the knee when he was eleven months old. Now 20 years old and outfitted with carbon fiber prosthetic legs that look somewhat like slender bent paddles, he has developed himself into a sprinter whose times are nearly good enough to qualify for the Olympics, and are still improving. He has excelled in the Paralympics. Now he’s aiming for the Olympics.

This is where the disagreement begins. Some are strenuously opposed to letting him compete in the Olympics, and their exchange with his supporters has led to difficult questions about the very nature and point of sport and the significance of “natural” human bodies. Track and field’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federation, argues that the prosthetic legs may give Pistorius an unfair advantage by lengthening his stride. His proponents counter that because of how the legs store energy, they still leave Pistorius at a disadvantage; worse, the IAAF’s stance reflects an ugly but common revulsion toward people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the IAAF’s way of articulating its position fans the flames. One IAAF official has tried to explain the organization’s opposition to Pistorius’s possible enhancement by appealing to the “purity of sport”; inevitably, though, such language suggests that disabled athletes are “impure.”

Other prominent views about the nature and point of sport are not much more helpful. The World Antidoping Agency opposes enhancements on grounds that they violate the “spirit of sport.” This language also gets Pistorius’s case wrong, since it implies that he is cheating. But he is not hiding his legs, and he did not acquire them in order to run. His drive and determination and his willingness to expose himself to failure on a national stage seem the very embodiment of the spirit of sport.

A few years ago, the President’s Council on Bioethics argued that athletic performance is valuable because it is a venue for “excellent human activity,” and that doping undermines the value of sport because it reveals a dissatisfaction with the human body and a desire for something more. Presumably this analysis would apply to mechanical enhancements. But it doesn’t seem to fit Pistorius’s situation: he did not have his legs removed because he wanted a different body, and his struggle to make the best of what he has been given displays excellent human activity as well as anyone ever has. Indeed, making the best of what one has been given is exactly what the President’s Council said athletes should do.

The failure of these attempts to say why Pistorius should not be in the Olympics should not end the debate, though. Perhaps, after all, we should relinquish the search for a unifying theory of sports – particularly one that can be formulated in three neat words and will explain in every case what’s acceptable in sports and what’s not. Perhaps we should say simply that sports are pursued in various ways, under the aegis of various organizations, to celebrate various things. Sports are valued because they involve behavioral traits that we value – diligence, drive, grit, cool-headedness, creativity, and so on – and physical traits – strength, speed, quickness, endurance. But different sports, and different organizations, will pick out different traits. Each is a kind of subculture, distinguished from others by its commitment to a set of values that not everyone in the society is compelled to share.

This more complicated view of sports lets us reframe the debate about Pistorius. The hard work he’s put into refining his abilities undeniably argues for letting him have a go at Olympic gold. He merits it. Also, he undeniably turns in remarkable performances that are fun to watch: he’s real fast. Nonetheless, the IAAF can justifiably deny him the right to compete in the Olympics. The view of sports adopted by the IAAF and put on display in the Olympics celebrates performances that are achieved with only human bodies – unenhanced and unaided – and Pistorius brings something more than human legs to running.

From the IAAF’s perspective, Pistorius is a true “para-athlete,” and maybe one of the first of a new sporting tradition. He helps us see that the Paralympics is – or can be – a parallel line, not a lesser venue. Pistorius is not less deserving than standard issue Olympic athletes, not necessarily less competitive, and not even necessarily less “abled.” Possibly he is “more abled.” More to the point, others with prosthetic legs probably someday will be. Like Pistorius, these athletes of the future will not be violating any grand eternal plan by competing in sports. But that is still not grounds for including them in the Olympics.

Published on: June 18, 2007
Published in: Bioethics, Emerging Biotechnology, Health and Health Care

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