Oscar Pistorius running on the track with his specially designed running blades.
Olympic and Paralympic sprinter, Oscar Pistorius, uses specially designed running blades to compete.
Image: Will Clayton via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0)

The Olympic Games have finished in London, which means it’s time for the Paralympics to begin. Like their non-disabled counterparts, elite athletes with a disability rely more and more on science and technology for that winning edge. But is it fair for everyone?

Technology plays an important role in sport, where fractions of a second can separate victory from defeat. It is sometimes controversial. For example, swimmers were banned from using certain types of swimsuits after dozens of world records were broken in a short time.

Many other sports also have strict requirements for the equipment that is used. For example, tennis racquets must be smaller than a certain size, and boats in Olympic sailing events must all comply with the same specifications. The reason for these rules on equipment is so that the winner will be determined by ability, not by who has the best gear.

Creating a level playing field is trickier at the Paralympics. This is because of the range and severity of impairments that athletes have. It doesn’t really make sense to have athletes who are vision-impaired competing against athletes who use wheelchairs. Athletes in the Paralympics compete in different classifications against other athletes with similar disabilities.

Oscar Pistorius is a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa. He is nicknamed ‘Blade Runner’ after the blade-like prostheses he uses to compete. Despite his disability, Oscar performed well enough to qualify for the World Championships and Olympics against non-disabled opponents. Some objected to his being allowed to compete, as they claimed that his running blades actually gave him an unfair advantage over runners with two legs.

Eventually athletics officials decided that he was allowed to compete, and he ended up making the semi-finals in the 400 metre sprint. While debate will probably continue about the role of technology in sport, it should not take away from the performance of these elite athletes.

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