Oscar Pistorius: Unfair Advantage or Healthy Debate?

If Oscar Pistorius doesn't have an advantage in his races, then we in the world of orthopedic rehabilitation aren't doing our job.
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Earlier this month, Oscar Pistorius, known as "Blade Runner" and "the fastest man on no legs," was selected to run in both the individual 400 meters and the 4x400 relay at the London Olympics, opening the door for him to become the first amputee track athlete to compete at any games.

His participation has stirred tremendous debate, with many claiming that his J-shaped, carbon-fiber prosthetic lower legs give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners.

This is a healthy debate, but I'm not going to jump into the fray by taking one side or another about the South African athlete's alleged advantage.

Instead, I hope to add to the debate by arguing that I hope he does have an advantage.

If he doesn't, then we in the world of orthopedic rehabilitation aren't doing our job. If he doesn't, how can we offer hope of high-level function to the millions of other amputees throughout the world?

If Pistorius is barred from competition, we all lose. Society as a whole benefits from a broad range of technologies that were initially developed for special populations. Text readers, touch screens and voice and gesture recognition were all created to help improve function and enable people with disabilities to participate in daily life. We now take for granted these advances that improve the ability of everyone to communicate through devices like computers, tablets, and smart phones.

Part of the reason the debate about Pistorius is so heated is that it's intricately tied to the "purity" of Olympic competition. But when we bar an athlete like Oscar Pistorius from the Olympics or limit the technologies in his legs, we lose an opportunity to showcase his tremendous abilities to the world.

I also think it's time to reconsider the ideal about the purity of Olympic competition and ask some probing questions about what constitutes advantage.

Sport is really all about advantage -- all elite athletes use genetic, environmental, nutritional, and technical factors to their advantage. Certain body types are better suited for some sports than for others. Training at altitude and taking nutritional supplements that promote recovery can provide advantages on race day. Designers of sports gear, shoes, and clothing continuously strive to improve their products in ways that will enhance athletes' performance.

As soon as we ask what's permitted -- and what's not -- in the world of prosthetics, however, we begin to stand in the way of people reaching their full potential. This type of controlling environment conflicts with the goals for rehabilitation devices, which is to confer the highest possible level of functioning for each individual. Many amputees have artificial limbs that don't fit perfectly or function optimally, even though function customizable prostheses are feasible and should be made widely accessible.

Does Pistorius have an unfair advantage due to his high-tech prosthetic limbs? The debate will go on because we don't yet have the technology to prove or disprove this allegation. As director of the BADER Consortium, which focuses on evidence-based orthopedic rehabilitation care to optimize function ability in soldiers with musculoskeletal injuries, I welcome that kind of debate because it draws attention to important issues associated with inclusion and optimizing performance for all amputees and people with limb difference -- not just elite athletes and wounded warriors but also ordinary people for whom increased activity will translate into better health, enhanced quality of life, and cost savings.

At this point, I think it's unlikely that Pistorius's prosthetic limbs are providing him with an "unfair" advantage. He's probably not going to set any Olympic records, but his participation will recharge the rehabilitation community. Pistorius can show all of us the importance of focusing on abilities rather than disabilities. Too often, when someone loses a limb, their first thoughts are about what they can't do anymore. Pistorius is proof that even with limb loss, you can dream and say "I can."

Let's refrain from putting arbitrary limits on that dream.

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