I’ve been sitting on this for a couple of days, could stand some improvement, but I’m posting it before it goes stale like so many of my thoughts clattering around on my HD.
Controversy has swirled around the question of whether or not prosthetics give double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius an unfair advantage over his able-bodied competitors. If by unfair advantage they mean that he would been slower if he had been born with two normal legs—he was born with no fibulae, which necessitated the amputation when he was a baby—there’s no way of knowing, since what his legs would have been like had they been normal can only be approximate by extrapolation from the rest of his skeletal and muscular makeup. You could test a similar prosthetic on a pair of identical twins, one of whom has one below-the-knee amputation, to see if the prosthetic results in improved performance. But that only proves that the prosthetic confers no “unfair” to that particular twin. A prosthetic whose performance equals the performance of a calf and foot of a LeBron James is more capable than a calf and foot of a Brian Scalabrine, even though they are roughly the same size and play the same sport professionally. Let’s face it, there’s really no way that you can determine what’s “fair” and “unfair.” If you could somehow agree on some fixed formula for strength, resilience, shape, length, etc., you’re still stuck with a standardized equipment, much like vaulting poles. In fact, you now have a sport that is more pole vault than high jump, if you see my analogy.
There could well be more ominous consequences. There’s always the chance that a good athlete could find that the specs allow him an extra inch below his knees if he switched to prosthetics and could see that the inch could be the difference between merely making the varsity track team and winning an Olympic gold medal. That is no idle thought in my view. And I don’t have to lean on memories as a small child in Montreal fantasizing about having my left leg amputated—below the knee!—so I could wear skates and play ice hockey*. If there’s any truth to the Goldman Dilemma, you have to think that there must be not-quite world-class athletes who will think, what’s a couple of legs compared to giving up all but the next five years of the rest of your life, no? And if it really comes to that, the legs could probably be freeze-dried, to be reattached after your athletic career is over.
The Pistorius story and his qualification for the London Olimpycs 400-meter sprint semi-finals may be heartwarming—I don’t particularly think so, but maybe that’s just me—but it opens up a line of inquiry on what’s fair and unfair that really has no answer. I made peace with my own limitations a long time ago, and I think that all physically-challenged people as well as the able-bodied not-quite Usain Bolts should do so as well.
* I had read, or possibly conjured an alternate reality—I now know that I sometimes had trouble making a distinction between objective reality and my nocturnal dreams when I was as old as six—that there was a pre-WW II NHL player who had returned to play in the league after an amputation. It’s possible that I somehow dreamed a happier ending to the life of Howie Morenz.