The world is heading towards achieving equality and empowering those with disabilities in all aspects of life, including in sport. Allowing disabled athletes to compete in the Olympic Games – as opposed to the Paralympics – raises a number of issues within ethics and engineering. This article aims to discuss the potential benefits and associated problems with the aforementioned.
Paralympians should be able to compete in the Olympic Games
A recent poll conducted by the BBC suggested that the general public was in favour of a combined Olympic and Paralympic Games. Not allowing the merger would be considered against the view of the majority; from a utilitarian standpoint, this would be considered immoral . A separate games would enforce the belief of some that these athletes are inferior or unworthy of participating, which would oppose the opinion of the public.
The Paralympics starts after the Olympics, leading to a lower audience size. TV broadcasting is biased towards the Olympics, with minimal coverage of the Paralympics. It can be argued that Paralympic athletes deserve to have a larger platform to showcase their effective ‘superhuman’ ability, just as able bodied athletes are able to.
It appears that it’s intuitively more acceptable to allow disabled athletes to participate in a sporting event if they wished to. However, this reasoning is solely based on an informal framework that focuses mainly on the common sense and intuition of an individual, both of which can be easily opposed to as they can differ based on background and personal beliefs .
For top level athletes, able-bodied or not, it is common for the sport they participate in to be their main source of income. This income usually comes in one of two-forms, firstly from prize money for placing in a sporting event, for example for the IAAF World Championships in 2017 held in London 1st Place would earn $60,000. Secondly athletes can earn an income from sponsorship deals with companies and brands which is arguably the more attractive of the two as the performance of the athlete on the day does not affect their pay.
Unfortunately disabled athletes tend to earn less from both sponsorship and prize money, for example in the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic games the difference in winning a gold medal for Team USA was $20,000. When it comes to sponsors it is fairly easy to understand that a company would be willing to offer an athlete that receives better sport coverage and a higher view count better sponsorship deals, leading to a lower earning potential for disabled athletes. From a solely financial standpoint, disabled athletes should be able to compete in fully abled events as it would give them the opportunity to earn a better standard of living.
Paralympians should not be able to compete in the Olympic Games
To allow an athlete within a certain category of disability to compete against able-bodied athletes with the use of prosthetics is to say that the prosthetic does not provide an advantage nor a hindrance on the athlete’s ability to perform in said event. If this cannot be proved then is it not unfair on one party or the other to be competing against each other? If this fairness can be proved, and a disabled athlete is allowed to compete, should all athletes within this category with access to the same prosthetics not have to compete against able-bodied athletes to promote an egalitarian society within track and field? Using the statistics from the 2016 men’s 100m sprint event in both the Paralympics and Olympics, based on the gold medal times across all levels of disability, not a single athlete from the paralympics would have progressed through Round 1 and only 4 athletes recorded a time fast enough to pass through the preliminary rounds. Given this information, having able-bodied and disabled athletes competing against one another would rob disabled athletes of the opportunity to compete on a world stage and the sponsorship, prize money and publicity associated with this.
Using performance enhancing drugs in sport is still a prevalent issue to date, since the International Association of Athletics Federation became the first international sports federation to ban doping in 1928. PEDs are not a guarantee of winning an event; there are other influencing factors in performance: the biomechanics of the athlete during the event, the efficacy of the training and nutritional interventions undertaken etc. Nevertheless, PEDs have been banned from the Olympic Games as they offer physiological advantage which would otherwise not be possible naturally.
The use of prosthetic limbs is synonymous with the use of PEDs – it is not a guarantee of performance. Prosthetic limbs should be viewed as an avenue through which performance can be increased. In the Bruggemann study on Oscar Pistorius’ prosthetic limbs, the positive work produced by the prosthetic running blades was found to be three times higher than the human ankle joint during a maximum sprint. Simultaneously, Pistorius could run more efficiently than his able bodied counterparts, with 25% less energy expenditure. This shows the clear biomechanical advantage of the use of prosthetic limbs. The fastest 100 m sprint time is still held by Usain Bolt (9.58s compared to Paralympic Games time of 10.85s, by Jonnie Peacock). Evidently, despite the mechanical advantage, able bodied sprinters are generally still faster; this could change with constant technological advances, so the question of when to stop allowing technology from influencing sport is then raised.
Allowing disabled and able-bodied athletes to compete alongside each other will always be controversial. Despite the income disparity – largely due to the audience size between the Paralympic and Olympic Games – Paralympians are still at an advantage when comparing the potential funding received based on performance merit alone if competing against able-bodied athletes. Combining the issue of biomechanical advantage between the two types of athlete, and ever-changing technology (leading to more efficient prosthetic limbs) creates a larger issue from both an ethical and engineering perspective. Could it be morally acceptable to hold an inclusive Olympics, allowing disabled athletes to compete alongside, rather than against their able-bodied counterparts?
 Zalta EN, Nodelman U, Allen C, Anderson RL, 2014, THe History of Utilitarianism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, page 1.
 Poel, I. and Royakkers, L. (2011). Ethics, technology, and engineering. 1st ed. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.