The controversy surrounding Oscar Pistorius and Alan Oliveira obscures a deeper issue that is at the heart of the battle between the Olympic & Paralympic Games. It is in their interest to promote different definitions of what it is to be human.
Oscar’s claim that Oliveira had ‘unbelievably long legs’ was challenged by the IPC, which responded by saying that their length was within the range expected of an athlete with Oliveira’s height.
However, looking at their comparative heights, it is hard to understand how this claim holds, but it all relies on a particular definition of what are the normal proportions of a human being relative to their other body parts and this may be the problem.
It has also been said that Oscar could have increased his leg height, but that this would have invalidated his eligibility for the Olympic Games. On this basis, it appears that the range of what is human within the Olympics is narrower than the Paralympic Games.
This peculiarity may be explained when taking into account the fact that, as technology improves, and as Paralympians get better, they may no longer desire to compete in the Paralympic Games, favouring the more high profile Olympic Games.
As such, it is in the interest of the IPC to permit a range of normality that exceeds typical human proportions and thus espouse a transhumanist definition of the human. This would ensure that present-day athletes – and emerging athletes – develop a career and expertise with a prosthetic device that would be prohibited by the Olympic Sports Federations and protect the Paralympic Games from losing their most celebrated athletes. After all, when training as an elite sprinter, it is not possible just to switch from one set of running legs to another.
Similarly, the IOC will want to ensure that their sports federations promote a definition of the human that prohibits Paralympians from claiming an entitlement to compete in both Games. This would avoid any of the complicated debates about whether prosthetic devices are similar to biological limbs, or not – a debate that remains unresolved in the Pistorius case.
Indeed, this may be the only means through which the IPC and IOC can maintain their positions as a distinct, elite sports event. Furthermore, it may be a significant part of the present debate over whether certain prosthetic devices are permissible or not at the London 2012 Games.
Yet, this solution is rather like putting a plaster on a broken leg. It will not resolve the matter in the long term. As prosthetic devices become more radical in their design, using nanoscale components to make them more biological in appearance and function, and as safer forms of biotechnological enhancements find their way into every day life and athletic competition, this distinction will erode.
In this era, the definition of the normal human will also have evolved – indeed, our species will have evolved – and we will find that these attempts to separate able or disable, normal or enhanced, Olympic or Paralympic are futile. In the future, there will be just one Games, the Transhuman Games.