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On Friday, May 16, 2008, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that South African runner Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee, would be permitted to compete in the upcoming Summer Olympics were he to qualify. In so doing, the CAS overturned the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), who in January had declared that Pistorius’ artifical feet, called Cheetahs, provided him with an unfair advantage against able-bodied runners. Underlying the cries of inequality—on both sides—and the accusations that Pistorius is no better than steroid users is the most basic rule of sports: fairness.
“That’s not fair.” “No fair.” “You cheated.” For many of us, those were our first legal statements. Playing a game in the neighborhood, somebody might have cut a corner, touched the wrong tree, or started the race early. Our response was probably more a complaint about losing, but it was, in fact, a legal response. “No fair” really translates to, “You shouldn’t be allowed to win because your actions were outside the stated rules.” At least, that’s what I meant, but I was a gifted child.
And so, in the search for fairness, I present you two athletes who want to participate in your neighborhood race. Runner A broke her foot a couple of years ago and had two metal screws implanted. Her foot is now far stronger than the average person’s. Runner B also broke her foot a couple of years ago, and her doctor implanted Inspector Gadget-style springs to the bottom of her feet. Runner B can now bound one hundred yards in two seconds.
Most of us would say that Runner A should be allowed to compete while Runner B should not. But why? Importantly, it’s not intuition that makes our decision, but an understanding of the science. We know that Runner B’s bound would be an unfair advantage in a race because Runner B would finish well ahead of human capacity. Similarly, we would allow Runner A to compete because we know that screws provide no discernible speed advantage. To convince us otherwise would be simple: show some scientific proof that the screws provide a speed advantage.
In the case of Pistorius, the CAS correctly overruled the IAAF after performing just this type of analysis. Determining that the IAAF had made its ruling based on insubstantial scientific proof, the CAS did not declare the Cheetahs harmless. Rather, they demanded that the IAAF prove an advantage before banning Pistorius from the Games. The ruling correctly places the burden of proof on those wishing to ban Pistorius. Neither the appearance of an advantage nor public opinion should matter. Until it is proven that the Cheetahs provide a distinct speed advantage, we must presume that Pistorius can compete and that all is fair.
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