Olympic Athlete Pistorius and Fairness

Olympic athlete raises complex issue of fairness

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-07-28

We are born into this life without any choice about our bodies or our social situation. Some are born rich, tall and good looking. Others are born poor, unhealthy or disabled. From a certain perspective, life just isn’t fair. But technology can help to make it fairer.

That’s one lesson to be drawn from the story of Oscar Pistorius, a South African Olympian who was born without fibulas — the bones in his lower legs. In London, he will run the 400 on carbon fiber blades.

While Pistorius’ success is an inspiration, some worry that permitting this technological boost will undermine the purity of the sport of running. Others have complained that his prosthetic legs give him an unfair advantage.

Scientific American recently examined this question. Pistorius uses less energy, due to the elastic action of the blades. His lower “legs” are lighter than those of other runners; and they do not tire. But Pistorius must compensate for the light springiness of his legs by bearing down on his prostheses in a way that no other runner must do.

Scientists were unable to answer the vexing question of whether Pistorius was on a “level playing field” with other runners. The concept of a “level playing field” is a fuzzy one that points beyond science to a variety of ethical issues. I asked professor Jeffrey Fry, an expert on the philosophy of sport at Ball State, about this issue. Fry reminded me of the difficulty of defining justice and the idea of a level playing field in sports.

Since Aristotle, justice has been defined as treating similar people similarly and treating dissimilar people differently. Faster runners receive medals, while the losers receive nothing. The purpose of the game is to differentiate among people. It is not unfair that the winners are rewarded. But we also think that competition should be fair, which means that no one should have an unearned or undeserved advantage or disadvantage. This is why doping is outlawed: It creates an undeserved advantage.

Professor Fry indicated that there are other kinds of undeserved advantages and disadvantages that we conveniently ignore. Social and economic factors influence athletic performance. You can’t excel at a sport unless you have access to facilities, coaches and equipment. Athletes from poor countries may not really have a “fair” chance against athletes from rich countries.

And we are all victims of a genetic lottery, which determined our gender, our eyesight and our body type. Michael Phelps was born tall, with long arms and big feet, which apparently helps in swimming. Oscar Pistorius was born without fibulas. Those advantages or disadvantages are matters of luck that neither Phelps nor Pistorius did anything to deserve. In a certain metaphysical sense, it is unfair that Phelps is tall, while Pistorius lacked legs.

It’s true that each athlete has done amazing things with his genetic endowments. But the deck was stacked against Pistorius. It seems appropriate to allow technology to level the playing field. While admitting this, Fry also concluded, “We don’t want differential use of technology to be decisive.”

But what forms of technological assistance are “decisive”? What about running shoes, or diet and access to training equipment? We permit people with bad eyesight to use technology to fix their eyes so they can play golf, tennis and other sports. Should people with other disabilities be allowed to use other forms of technological assistance?

The issue of fairness and disability in sports is a microcosm for thinking about fairness in other parts of life. People with different abilities compete in business, in politics and in the world of romance. The rich, the tall and the beautiful appear to have an unfair advantage over the rest of us. And for a long time, there was outright discrimination against women, minorities and the disabled.

The Pistorius story shows us that we are doing better at treating people fairly. Technological assistance is able to level certain playing fields. There is still a long way to go in overcoming discrimination — especially discrimination against the disabled. But we seem to agree that we ought to try to make life less unfair for those who have done nothing to deserve their disadvantage.