For those without a direct experience with limb loss and paralysis or unacquainted with one who does, the general image of prosthetics for the better part of the 20th century is a barely mobile piece of plastic with about as much functionality as a crutch. Yet as early as 2006, technology journalist Rachel Metz reported on the rapidly diversifying forms of cybernetic prosthetics for Wired magazine. Among the many new devices Metz covers is a cyber-kinetic interface that allows paralyzed individuals to transmit their thoughts into data that can control a screen cursor or robot arm, an advanced bionic arm prosthesis that is controlled by the nerves which control an amputee’s ‘phantom arm’, and a ‘universal prosthetic’ that can adjust itself for growing children.
For the foreseeable future, massive gains in prosthetic technology yield the potential for human improvement that will challenge our assumptions about the human body. While these are all exciting developments for those dealing with limb loss and spinal cord injuries, it also poses questions about humanity that have less to do with the existential nature of being and more to do with the body ideal as defined by athletics and sports.
As mentioned, the body ideal has been defined through sports and athletics, which examines the limits of human performance in a competitive environment. This spirit culminates in the large-scale events such as the Olympics which attempts to persevere despite scandal and controversy as a celebration of the body ideal. To that end, it has established competitive standards and strict rules regarding the individuals who can participate in such events, such as banning the use of performance enhancers and standardizing sporting equipment to prevent unfair advantages. The rules exist to ensure that all athletes compete on an equal playing field.
Furthermore, while standards weed out those who could not offer reasonable competition. For most of recorded history, such stringent sporting criteria meant the effective exclusion of individuals with physical handicaps or missing extremities. It’s not unreasonable, though, as few would expect the handicapped to perform against able-bodied individuals at a competitive level, and few adjudicators in sports would be willing to tax their schedule in reviewing those who claim to do so.
However, as Adelson observes, the recent advances in prosthetics have fundamentally enabled would-be professional athletes to emerge from nearly two million Americans who suffer some form of limb loss. The functionality and sophistication of prosthetic technology is such that:
“…a below-the-knee amputee at [a prosthetics design firm] walks uphill and downhill on a treadmill. He dances. He kicks a soccer ball. He bends it like Beckham. Soon, prosthetics wearers will be able to turn, cut and twist, motions difficult with current technology but essential in most sports. Next-gen research will shift from replacing the human leg to improving it, just as pharmaceuticals have shifted from restoring to enhancing.” (Adelson)
Perhaps the most high-profile example of a prosthetic outfitted athlete is that of Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter who grappled with competition regulating bodies over his qualifications for the Beijing Olympics. Having lived with amputated legs since he was an infant, Pistorius has participated in a variety of sports such as water polo and rugby, but since 2004, has taken up an interest in competitive runner.
Pistorius refers to himself as “the fastest man on no legs” but is also known as “The Blade Runner,” because he utilizes a set of prosthetic legs developed by an Icelandic company, known as Ossur, called “Cheetahs.” (Angel; Longman) Although Pistorius maintains high ambitions for his career in competitive running, the International Association of Athletics Federation or IAAF contended that his prosthetics constituted an unfair advantage in track and field events.
Contentions from both the IAAF and track and field enthusiasts range from an unfair length in stride to excessive spring to unfair energy efficiency as the benefit of his prosthesis. However, The New York Times’ Jer? Longman also notes that there are also disadvantages from the use of the Cheetahs, which have less than stellar grip in unpleasant weather conditions, limited knee flexibility and a poor starting momentum.