In the lead-up to London 2012, The Olympics Committee had decided to host a debate on the Ethics of Prosthetics usage in what was to prove the greatest and most viewed Paralympic Games to date. With the advent of neuro-controlled bionics, human trialled cybernetics and tailored organs incubated, grown and integrated within the host’s body, the debate was to prove as controversial as the games themselves.
I saw the usual pieces on the run-up to the Paralympics, the talk of bionics, the question on whether a parathlete would replace disabled body parts for bionics and cybernetics not just to improve their game but also to enable them to walk again. Here’s the major difference you see, these aren’t just enhancers, these are life-changing body implants. Basically, the Olympics are not just different to the Paralympics in the sense of visual context, they are different in mindset, culture, community and perception.
I enjoyed meeting Justin Frishberg and Diane Mann at the debate, both were former Paralympians with the kind of single-minded confidence you find in well-oiled athletes. Strong and quick to read any situation or question thrown at them these guys are highly trained, with the steeled determination that can only come from conquering a disability and the public’s misconception of the said disability. A very different breed from the hand-picked well-sponsored able-bodied Olympic athletes we are used to watching.
I asked the Paralympians about the disabled culture and how they felt they differed from Olympians. Justin Frishberg pauses “We are athletes, we train, we have strict diets, we are single-minded just like our Olympian counterparts. The difference with the Paralympics is that there is more of a community feel, a close-knit atmosphere we don’t want to lose. That’s not to say we don’t train hard and we’re not intrinsically competitive but we as parathletes do have more to overcome as a community. As a disabled community, we’re in this together” “We do route for each other no matter which side we’re on and we do tend to be more supportive of each other”
This could explain the Pistorius/Oliveira outburst could it not. Where we watched an outburst from Oscar Pistorius when he was beaten in the 200 metres by Alan Oliveira of Brazil, claiming that Oliveira’s blades were too long and not in proportion to his projected body-length, in line with IPC regulations. Was the Oliveira/Pretorius debacle the start of the win-at-any cost mentality of the Olympics? The disabled community hasn’t had much choice but to stick together as attacks on the disabled rise, you can sort of understand their need to be different, to be a singular community not wanting the big sponsorship or high-tech bionics to enter their world and start the tech race; diffracting the Paralympic community which it unfortunately did with even a supposedly simplistic set of blades. After watching Pistorius’ reaction I’m going to say no. Petulant, yes, professional, no; but real and very raw, absolutely. No happy smiles, handshakes and slinking off to the IPC behind everyone’s backs there. This was an emotive, in-your-face reaction to a betrayal from Pretorius falling on the closed-ears of Oliveira’s camp. Do I disagree with Oliveira shaking the supportive network of the Paralympics who fight to be unique yet equal to their Olympian cousins? Well it’s a difficult premise, his blades were the correct length for predictive body-length worked out from arm-length which may lead to handpicked parathletes with longer than usual arm length and ever closer to the loss of the identity of the Paralympics as they move towards the bred-for Olympics culture.
Pistorius himself was banned from able-bodied athletics in 2007 by the IAAF who amended its competition rules to include a ban on the use of “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” and after two days of tests the IAAF reported that Pistorius’s limbs used 25% less energy than runners with complete natural legs to run at the same speed, and that they led to less vertical motion combined with 30% less mechanical work for lifting the body. Tests that Pistorius was happy to take as he attempted to break the boundaries between able-bodied and disabled athletics, it was just in this case the disabled became the more-abled and with more inroads in neuro-bionics and material science to come, this advantage will become a no-contest.
Basically the Paralympian athletic mindset is already there, these are athletes and whatever they can do to stretch the limits of competition rules they will do, why should they be any different from their Olympian counterparts? But do we want to see a no-contest? Isn’t the spirit of these world-class competitions to show what the human can do not the material. Do I blame Oliveira for stretching the rules to the limit like any other athlete, of course not. Do I blame Pistorius for reacting in the way he did, treating Alan like he was on the same team and having a very real hissy fit in front of millions of viewers, no I don’t, I APPLAUD IT! This isn’t the Olympics community where there is no real connection between the athletes, this is the Paralympics and they are a disabled community. Only time will tell how this community deals with the onset of innovation and technology but after watching the Pistorius and Oliveira debacle I can tell you it will be done face-to-face in a room together with each team updating the other as to how they plan to tackle it.
Paralympians such as Diane Mann and Justin Frishberg are an inspiration. They are athletes that shouldn’t be treated differently in a way that gives some sort of allowance for their disabilities but in a way that makes them unique just like everyone else, if this dichotomy makes sense. We’re all different and are disabled in some way. Because this is the real argument you see, not the classification of prosthetics but the classification AND PERCEPTION of disability itself and what being disabled actually means. At one time or another we have been disabled by an illness, maybe flu for a week, maybe depression for a year, for 20 years, maybe diabetes, maybe cancer, maybe Parkinson’s for a the duration of old-age, or like Diane Mann; maybe meningitis led to the loss of limbs. All of the above can lead to and constitute a disability. The loss of a limb only denotes the severity and unavoidable fact that you are disabled whether or not you choose to label yourself as such. But there are so many other disabilities that are part of our humanity, that can and cannot be seen or gauged by the human eye. What does disabled really mean in this day and age where everyone want’s to be viewed as a unique and singular entity, with their own different ID? What will disabled mean with the advent of new and available technologies?
What is it that stigmatises or makes for uncomfortable viewing and sometimes EVEN OFFENDS people when it comes to a disability and the disabled community? Talk to any psychologist, any psychiatrist and they will tell you that at some point each and every one of you has suffered a bout of depression, a psychotic episode, away from your perception of the norm, away from your perception of your counterbalance; another dichotomy as they will also tell you there is no such thing as the norm, there is no normal and it’s part of the human psyche to experience these episodes and if you will, they are a normal coincidence of being human, being vulnerable. Is it this vulnerability that put’s us off kilter, that makes for uncomfortable viewing. This vulnerability we all have, yet can’t seem to accept in ourselves, let alone accept in others?
Both of these parathletes are far more fitter than me and the majority of people reading this piece they just need adages different to those used by other athletes but athletes they are. The only difference here is due to their disability these guys have to train 24/7. There is no break as anyone with a disability, perceived or otherwise will tell you. This is what comes with bodies of difference, then again aren’t we all?
Take the Healthinnovations ‘I do too’ campaign to basically assimilate the people who can’t admit they can be vulnerable with those who can, when I first started searching disabled sexuality on Bing I kept on being blocked due to my adult content settings, (I only wanted pictures of disabled couples kissing), Google began like this as well until both search engines grew accustomed to my research and started to throw some great pictures my way of disabled kisses, mixed able-bodied/disabled couples, moving onto the visibly disabled holding up banners stating they were ‘disabled and horny!’ which I loved and which the healthinnovations community received well, realising that visibly disabled people get horny too even with the desexualisation of the disabled by society. But then again the workings and culture of disabled sexuality and the ends some of the disabled community have been forced to go to is another debate within itself and to be honest long overdue.
When we think of the Olympics and Paralympics we should remember that the original Olympics were a celebration of God, of Zeus, the celebration of what the human could achieve and overcome, strength and I feel the Paralympians are more true to this ancient competition than their modernistic Olympic counterparts. It wasn’t about perceived perfection it was about what can be achieved by working hard, the human and the indomitable human spirit. We bleed nicely into theologian and theoretical physics, what is seen as God’s image, the tangible form? Why all of us of course, with not one replica among us. We are similar but we are all made unique by our similarity. We must ask ourselves why we fear our own vulnerability, this weakness that makes us imperfect humans when we see and accept prejudice against the disabled community, who all of us have been at some point in our lives.
On a final note, when Oscar Pistorius made the decision to run the 400 metres in the 2012 Olympics I don’t feel he was trying to say I’m the same as able-bodied athletes, I’m as good. I feel he was saying I’m a unique athlete, similar to you but not the same but which of you are?
As with all Healthinnovations articles this is open to discussion and innovation.
Michelle Petersen is the founder of Healthinnovations, having worked in the health and science industry for over 21 years, which includes tenure within the NHS and Oxford University. Healthinnovations is a publication that has reported on, influenced, and researched current and future innovations in health for the past decade.
Michelle has been picked up as an expert writer for Informa publisher’s Clinical Trials community, as well as being listed as a blog source by the world’s leading medical journals, including the acclaimed Nature-Springer journal series.
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An avid campaigner in the fight against child sex abuse and trafficking, Michelle is a passionate humanist striving for a better quality of life for all humans by helping to provide traction for new technologies and techniques within healthcare.