An Unfair Advantage

by Blair Sullivan '10 | 11/23/09 11:00pm

According to a New York Times blog post, a scientific study determined that athletes with lower-leg amputations who use certain high-tech prosthetics appear to have an advantage over ordinary competitors. The carbon-fiber Cheetah Flex Foot, for instance, may provide middle-distance sprinters an edge in races. This discovery raises a number of interesting issues regarding disability accommodations, the definition of competition and the implications of scientific progress.

As technology continues to improve, it is inevitable that such situations will arise. It is difficult to argue that technology should not be used to its full extent in order to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities or illnesses. But when technology reaches the point where it can produce above-average results, the definition of fair competition must be preserved.

What if, in the future, scientists are able to develop robotic eyes that are 10 times more powerful than human eyes? Suppose that these false eyes provide better-than-perfect vision, and are even capable of zooming and magnifying. While I don't see a problem with people possessing these new technologies, it would be unreasonable for them to engage in competition with normal-eyed athletes. Consider the advantages that a baseball or tennis player would gain from using these eyes these athletes would be able to better determine the spin on a pitch or serve.

The circumstance under which the recipient received his new eyes should not change the ethics of competition. We may feel more sympathetic toward an athlete who received the transplant as a result of losing his eyesight. He would still have the same unfair advantage as an athlete who opted for the surgery in order to gain an edge.

It is likely that most people won't have the same attitude about disabled athletes with advantageous prosthetic limbs that they hold about athletes using performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball superstar Barry Bonds, who was once praised and admired, was condemned and taunted by many fans once his steroid use became public knowledge. Millions of sports fans believe that using steroids is a form of cheating that takes away from the purity and integrity of an athletic competition. Disabled athletes, on the other hand, are viewed as admirable role models who had to struggle and overcome adversity in order to succeed.

Is it the matter of choice versus necessity that would cause people view these situations differently? Steroid users choose to take the substance, whereas people do not typically choose to be without limbs.

But what if they did?

Imagine a world-class sprinter who was so committed to winning that he decided to cut off his lower legs in order to gain the advantage of the Cheetah Flex Foot. Most people, I think, in addition to finding this highly disturbing, would question the legitimacy of this athlete engaging in competition. Regardless of the cause of the situation, however, the same unfairness results. As more inventions like the Cheetah Flex Foot develop, it will be interesting to see how disability laws come into play. In 1998, golfer Casey Martin sued the Professional Golf Association under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Martin suffered from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, which causes bone erosion and chronic pain due to an abnormal vascular system of the lower extremity. This disease made it extremely painful for Martin to walk, even for short periods of time, so he requested that he be able to ride a golf cart between holes while competing on the tour. The PGA denied Martin's request, under a policy which prohibits the use of golf carts in competitin. In 2001, the case was heard by the Supreme Court, which ruled in Martin's favor.

The court's decision seems to overlook the advantage over other players that the golf cart could have given Martin. The PGA was forced to make accommodations for Martin because he was disabled. The same accommodations would not have been made for someone who merely had a preference for a golf cart. Although Martin requested to use a cart for legitimate reasons, the result would give him an unfair advantage over the other golfers. While the Court's interpretation of the ADA may have been well-intentioned, the decision lacks a respect for fair competition. Inequality is inherent in athletics. Some people are born faster and stronger than others. Sports are an example of natural selection at its finest. As technology evolves, however, we must be cautious in our attempts to combat this fact of life by allowing the use of super-human technology or by making special accommodations.