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.

-Steve Berneman

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3 Responses to Oh, Yeah? Prove It.

  1. I broke my ankle in 1997, 10yrs later Dr. steve Offutt (Hoosier Foot and Ankle) said, I should have sued the first doctor. All that was wrong was my ankle was still dislocated! He would go in put it in location clean it up and.. I’d be better! He did promise it diffenity wouldn’t be WORSE,that was April 2006 I just staeted walking six months ago, He cut my heel in half. It looks like what you’d see in a freak show! I’am in Indiana he needs sued! I need help!

  2. HH says:

    Isn’t this question going to answer itself shortly? Any medical advance that confers an advantage will soon enough be used by healthy athletes. I imagine that most people would rather keep their healthy legs, gold medals be damned, but if you see a few healthy runners switching to Cheetahs, you can be pretty sure that they confer an advantage – especially if they start appearing in sports with high monetary payoffs.

  3. c says:

    Dear Steve,
    Most people do understand your arguments. Until further proof, a left hand amputee can constitutionaly argue that he has the right to compete in the Olympic Games with a bionic hand because the IAAF allowed Pistorius to compete, till further conclusion re medical research.
    I believe the IOC has done a lot to offer a platform for disabled athletes to compete in the Paralympics. It is recognised on the same level as the OG. Sport is about money these days it seems and not the level of ability anymore. I as a abled body athlete can now compete against the disabled athletes and make money. Why not? If Oscar can compete against the abled body athletes? Turn the tables and everybody is in trouble. I respect Pistorius and your views but you need to disginguish between science and emotions. Until further notice the wheelchair athletes may compete against the abled athletes in the marathon. Until further scientific evidence prove then wrong….. Another argument. What makes Oscar special? The fact that he is a special disabled athlete and that his artificial limbs scientifically provide/not provide him any advantage. We should be carefull on picking 1 athlete as a go ahead. And forget that the can of worms is plenty. This is the dilemma the IAAF has from this day on further. It sounds radiculous: because I can not compete against Jeremy Wariner I have taken some anabolic steroids. An external assistance because I was biologically not born the same way. This is my only way to compete against him….. Until scientist can prove that he was born stronger than me, my argument remains. It is an open field of landmines. There ae 2 forums: 1 for abled bodies and 1 for disabled athletes. I respect both and they should practise it in such matter. (Don’t forget the commercial incentive driven strategy behind all……….)
    Cheers
    Ps. Apologies for my spelling