3. Disabled, Superabled, or Normal? Oscar Pistorius and Physical Augmentation

From: Game Changer

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When South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius stepped onto the track at the Olympic Park stadium in the East London district of Stratford to run in a 400 m qualifier on the morning of August 4, 2012, he made history—­again.1 He became the first visibly disabled athlete to compete in a track event during the modern Olympic era.2 Pistorius made it all the way to the semifinals, and by all accounts this was a success on multiple levels. His last place semifinal finish precluded him from competing in the 400 m final, but the mere fact that he competed in the London Olympic Games proved to be a turning point in con­ temporary sporting competition and our understanding of how technoscience destabilizes the exceedingly imprecise bodily categories of normal, less-abled, disabled, or superabled. Pistorius also broke the unspoken cultural agreement about the sporting segregation of able and less-­ abled bodies. His eventual participation in the able-­ bodied Olympics directly contested historicized forms of compulsory able-­ bodiedness.3 He did not diminish or mask his prostheses , nor did he attempt to pass as more able-­ bodied. Instead, Pistorius embraced , accentuated, and potentially exploited the hybrid nature of his body, forcing sporting cultures to viscerally deal with athletic potentialities and realities when competitions are no longer differentiated solely on the murky distinctions between ­ those who are able-­ bodied and ­ those who are not (figure 3.1). 3 Disabled, Superabled, or Normal? Oscar Pistorius and Physical Augmentation Figure 3.1.  Oscar Pistorius and his carbon fiber composite prosthetic limbs; Olympic Summer Games, London, 2012. He pushed sport to reconsider the bound­ aries between the ­ human body and technoscientific equipment. PCN Photography / Alamy Stock Photo The participation of Pistorius, or someone like him, in the Olympic Games had been imminent for some time. It was a moment that was welcomed by some and feared by ­ others, and also can be interpreted as a cultural breakthrough in sport—­ a fundamental shift in how global society understands less-­ abled bodies as well as accepts the technoscience that allows ­ these bodies to freely live and compete. Less-­ abled bodies and the Judging Artifacts 102 devices allowing them to function more easily have been accepted readily within most walks of life; however, one place ­ these technoscientific advancements have been questioned heavi­ ly is within the context of sport. The overwhelming concern is that ­ these devices, instruments, or practices­ will not just allow less-­ abled athletes to have a fair or equal opportunity to compete but ­ will give ­ these individuals an undeserved and unearned advantage . It was this historically, socially, and culturally rooted technoscientific fear that made Oscar Pistorius’s runs so impor­ tant. When couched in the sporting mantra of fairness, vocalizations of technoscientific fear can be disturbing. When Olympic sprinting legend Michael Johnson questioned Pistorius’s ability to compete, he presented himself as someone who was not attacking Pistorius as an athlete or his carbon fiber prostheses but, rather, as someone who was interested in protecting track and field from a competitor with an unknown, undertested, and potentially unfair advantage. Johnson stated, “My position is that­ because we ­ don’t know for sure ­ whether he gets an advantage from the prostheses that he wears it is unfair to the able-­ bodied competitors.”  4 By contending that the evidence regarding ­ whether Pistorius’s prostheses gave him an unfair advantage was inconclusive, Johnson positioned himself not only as a guardian of the purity and traditions of track and field but also as a defender of all sport from the incursion of new and seemingly event-­ altering technoscience. From Johnson’s perspective, his comments are not specifically directed at Pistorius but are geared ­ toward building bound­ aries from which to maintain the physical authenticity of sport. Unfortunately , the irony of ­ these and similar contentions gets lost in the crossfire of the debate.­ These damning statements would be infinitely more meaningful if none of the athletes Pistorius competed against—or no athlete in the past—­ had used any sort of technoscientific tool, instrument, or practice , but this is not the case. For instance, Australian Cathy Freeman won the ­ women’s 400 m gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The racial narrative power of a ­ woman of Aboriginal descent winning an Olympic medal in Australia was equal to the technoscientific narrative significance of Freeman winning the final as the only competitor wearing a hooded bodysuit designed by Nike. The irony is that Johnson also won a 400...


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Subject Headings

  • Sports -- Technological innovations.
  • Sports -- Physiological aspects.
  • Performance technology.
  • Doping in sports.
  • Sports sciences.
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