Congratulations America. You’ve done your very best to steal London’s thunder of hosting the 2012 Olympic Games by landing yet another rover on the surface of Mars. It is all very impressive, I’ll admit that, though I wonder if you couldn’t have waited just a couple of weeks and let us Brits have our time in the limelight.
My friends in the States, a mixture of engineers and Americans, all seem very excited and inspired right now, if their Facebook statuses are anything to go by. Though the pictures posted are mostly grainy black-and-white images, I have to admit that what NASA just achieved is a pretty impressive human feat.
I should be transfixed by it too—I did, after all, once dream of becoming an astronaut—but my own attention right now is firmly on the Olympics. Aside from a few articles on that extraterrestrial achievement, British media is concentrating on the festival of sport in our nation’s capital. And it should be, considering the great success that Team GB is having—as I write this it lies third in the medals table behind two sports superpowers, the U.S. and China.
And don’t be put off by the shameless commercialization of the competition and the arrogant, over-the-top posturing of athletes such as the men’s 100-meter finalists on the track last Sunday. There are those unfortunate sides of the Games, yes, but there is still a lot that is more in keeping with the real, original spirit of the Olympics. Take, for example, South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, also known as the “Blade Runner.”
A double below-knee amputee, Pistorius is a four-time gold-medal winner at the Paralympics, using flexible carbon fiber blade prosthetics to allow him to run relatively normally. After being banned in 2007, he was eventually given permission to race in International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) competitions against able-bodied athletes in May 2008, and he qualified for this summer’s Games last year.
Some are vehemently opposed to Pistorius’ participation, arguing as the IAAF did in 2007 that his artificial lower legs give him a significant advantage over other runners, and that allowing him to compete sets a dangerous precedent for allowing future athletes to use similar equipment to gain an edge over others.
They are wrong, of course. We already live in a world in which top athletes employ science and technology to get them over the finish line first, from detailed analysis of biomechanics that change a runner’s gait to ultra-low-weight bicycles to high-tech clothing fabrics to cutting-edge running shoes to drugs—yes, drugs.
As every athlete at the Olympic Games leaves the field of play, they are faced with giving urine samples so that any use of illegal medication can be identified. But there is also a huge range of legal drugs; athletes don’t just eat salads and drink water. Vitamins supplement their diets, isotonic drinks improve performance and anti-inflammatory painkillers speed recovery from injury. That we can investigate and regulate these medications—hopefully catching the vast majority of cheats—implies that we should surely be able to do the same with Pistorius’ blades.
The idea that he gains a serious advantage or that others may follow his lead seems crazy. In case you haven’t been paying attention, regardless of the technology he is using, Pistorius is a double amputee. Life has surely not been easy, and neither has his training or competition. No one would ever want to replace his or her lower limbs with carbon-fiber blades just to win an athletic competition; no one would risk major surgery on a perfectly healthy body just for that. But athletes who have had parts of themselves replaced in surgery, such as ACL replacements, are allowed to compete, so why not Pistorius?
The biggest justification for allowing Pistorius to compete, though, is what his inclusion means. Simply put, he has an inspiring story, a tale of someone who simply refused to give up in the face of serious disability. It may not have quite the interplanetary reach of NASA’s latest mission, but it too is a perfect example of what can be achieved with hard work and technology. You might argue about whether or not he gains an advantage from his prosthetic limbs, but you cannot argue about whether or not he embodies the Olympic Games.
In the end, while Pistorius made it into the semifinals of the 400 meters, he went no further than that in the competition. But the most telling moment came just after that race was run. The winner, reigning world champion Kirani James of Grenada, immediately went to swap race numbers with Pistorius, and the whole field embraced the double-amputee. It was clear that this South African sprinter inspired not only the viewing public, but also his athletic peers.
Tom Taylor burst into tears of joy when Great Britain’s Jessica Ennis won gold in the heptathlon. Ask him how long it took to stop crying at email@example.com.