Marcus Rehm jumping in London at the 2012 Paralympic Games

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

Group 2

In recent years, Paralympic long jumpers have overtaken mainstream Olympians in world record-breaking jumps. As most, if not all, of these para-athletes take off on their prosthesis and sporting technologies advance, one question has garnered increasing attention:

Do modern prosthetics bestow advantages over natural limbs and should the capabilities of prosthetic technology be limited?

Access to prosthetic technology and its legitimacy in high level competition would certainly increase participation in parasports. To deny the use of these technologies is to exclude the mobility impaired. Deontological ethics describes morality in terms of unchanging rules, and Kant argues that moral decisions should be made based solely on universal principles. If the action is allowing more advanced technology in parasport and providing greater opportunity for disabled athletes to compete, the principle of that action is that of increasing another individual’s physical and mental well-being; a behaviour generally accepted as correct moral conduct since the creation of the Hippocratic Oath. Therefore, it is our moral duty to allow the use of more advanced prostheses.

Furthermore, allowing some, but not all technologies is an action aligned with mediocrity; It is humanity’s duty to continually strive for better.

Utilitarianism is the philosophy that the action which benefits the largest number of people is the ‘right’ action. Examining the issue from this framework, it can be argued that a technological limit should not be placed on para-athletes’ prosthetics.

The London 2012 and the Rio 2016 Paralympics have been the first and second most attended Paralympic games respectively [1][2], showing significant support for recent Paralympic games. To impose a technological limit on the prosthetics of para-athletes could harm not only the careers of the para-athletes, but harm the entire industry surrounding enabling impaired individuals to participate in sports. Limiting the performance of para-athletes could deter both current athletes, spectators and prospective athletes, resulting in a drop in attention to parasport events, and also a drop in investment in the industry. Such problems already exist, as reported by the BBC, with para-athletes already struggling to obtain sponsorships, more so than able bodied athletes.

Richard Whitehead wins Gold in London 2012
Richard Whitehead winning gold in the T42 200m final at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Image courtesy of Posability Magazine.

Limiting the technology available to para-athletes for the sole reason of ensuring that they do not overtake able-bodied athletes goes against utilitarian views. The Paralympics should not be seen as a threat to the Olympics: As reported by the BBC, both the Olympics and Paralympics have attracted record numbers of viewers in recent years. In addition, as reported by The Guardian, para-athletes currently hold the official world record times for certain events such as races over 400m. Although the Paralympics could possibly be seen as a greater spectacle than the Olympics in terms of a display of sporting ability, this has not decreased the appeal of the Olympics. Therefore, it could be argued that introducing a limiting factor that could decrease the appeal of parasports would harm more people than it would benefit, as the Paralympics could suffer but the Olympics would remain the same.

Human After All

The concept of utilitarianism, however, can also be employed in the argument for limiting prosthetic technology. In the Paralympics, the number of spectators greatly outweighs the number of athletes competing, whether they are in the arena or watching on television. Sport is a celebration of athletic achievement at the limits of human performance. If technologically advanced prosthetics are used, which allow athletes to compete above these limits, the enjoyment of watching the Paralympics will be taken away because the entire focus of the sport will be changed.

Many people who watch the Paralympics do so to admire the achievements of these highly motivated individuals, and are then inspired to try a new sport. If ‘super-prosthetics’ were allowed, the sport would be more about technology than human performance and the athletes would become less inspirational. Paralympic sport would become a lot more predictable and the thrill of spectatorship would be taken away from billions of people. This could also have a knock on effect on sponsorship of the sport; if less people want to watch then less money will go into the sport.

A hedonistic point of view can also be adopted; this philosophy states that everyone is entitled to freedom of choice, provided that the consequences of their choice do not hinder others from experiencing pleasure. Yet if the use of an advanced prosthetic guarantees that one athlete will win, this surely involves denying their competitors the pleasure associated with winning a sporting event.

This concept can be taken further if the accessibility of these ‘super limbs’ is considered. If the athletic advantages of prosthetics become sufficient, a market for replacing one’s own limbs with these components would emerge. As such, the highest performance would be limited to those that could afford elite prosthetic technology. Take the example of a mediocre, wealthy athlete being able outperform an genuinely talented individual, simply by buying an artificial limb. As the latter may not be free to buy the same technology, the competition ceases to be fair and they would consistently be denied the pleasure of success.

Moreover, it must be recognised that buying advanced prosthetics for the sole purpose of improving one’s sporting performance would also involve the removal or replacement of the individual’s own body parts. A fundamental sense of intuition would indicate that this amounts to self-mutilation, an act that should not be encouraged in any domain. If national or institutional pressure on the athlete to succeed is sufficient, they could be forced or coerced into partaking in this practise, which further condemns this option.

Conclusion

It would appear that the real strength of advanced prosthetic technology lies in making sport accessible. With 7 medals earned by Team GB at this year’s Winter Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang compared with the 5 at the Olympics, increasing participation in sport can only benefit us. However, to avoid the technology eclipsing human achievement in sport, there should be certain limits in place; prosthetics must help para-athletes to access sport without overtaking natural capabilities.

(Cover Image of Marcus Rehm competing at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Image courtesy of Yahoo Sports.)

43 thoughts on “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

  1. This is a great article and really makes you think about prosthetic limbs as an advantage in sport rather than a handicap. Even though I doubt many people would chop off their own leg just to run a few races in a few Olympics for a few years, the possibility is still here.

    I find your choice of the theory of utilitarianism for this debate interesting, especially because it is so closely tied with hedonism, a school of thought that argues that pleasure and happiness are the most important aspects of human life. In this case, deliberately replacing one’s limb with a prosthetic may cause a clash of displeasure and happiness. Assuming the athlete’s new limb will bring them success.

    It is good that your have a counter-argument to your argument but it would have been great to see this topic from the perspective of a different philosophy to see how they compare and contrast. It would make a less one sided and a more rounded debate.

    Do you think that prosthetic limbs should be ‘capped’ at a certain level? Should the Paralympics be allowing only a certain type of material, size, setting or anything else that differentiates one prosthetic limb from another?

  2. Great article! It seems well argued and thought out. Another point I would maybe question is the issue of cost as well as engineering advancement, as surely cost could become an unfair limitation to competition as well, with those who have greater backing having access to more advanced prosthetics. Should then the advancement be limited to a level of prosthetics which can be generally afforded and offered to all para-athletes, or should we advance the engineering further whilst providing it at a standard cost (if this were even economically possible)? Though this may be more a question for the economist than the engineer, so I maybe digress too much!

  3. It is very easy when looking at the use of prothestics in the competitive world to directly compare the results to their able bodied counterparts but I feel this is where the issue lies, I feel the symbiotic relationship an athlete has with their prosthesis should be celebrated not hindered. The limbs do not run themselves the human achievement is still as great just different. As long as the prothestics don’t venture into the realms of robotics why not push the limits? In sport it often comes down to marginal gains, with suits being engineered with specific textures to aid performance, weight being shaved off equipment to even the diet of an athlete being under scrutiny often only avaible to teams with the most funding so why should only prothestics have limits imposed? It tends to the view of able bodied athletes being the untouchable pinaccle of achievement, a view which I feel is narrowminded. So what if a paraathlete surpasses this, just being able to use a prosthetic can be tough enough let alone being able to excel at a sport on the world stage, it is no easy feat for anyone able bodied or not. Let’s not knock the human achievement involved and use the opportunity to push the advancement of prothestics, something that will benefit all.

  4. A very interesting article about a clearly controversial issue. I think the main question is whether the prosthetics are simply enabling the athlete to reach their potential to whether it leads to an unfair increase in their abilities. Furthermore, despite the obvious importance of developing new technologies in this area, the financial aspect does raise some concern as it could lead to some ‘buying their way to success’.I believe a good approach to tackle these issues is tight regulation of the development and use of these prosthetic technologies, potentially similar to that seen with performance enhancing drugs.

  5. Advanced technologies have been used in numerous able bodied sports successfully and without affecting enjoyment of the sports. Examples include Formula 1, cycling and skeleton. Why can’t prosthetics be considered an equipment instead of an extension of a human part?
    Prosthetics cannot function without their human host. Success by record breaking para-athletes required determination and hard work; including mastering and understanding how their prosthetics can assist. It is this human element that makes all sports attractive to participants and spectators and will continue to be so whether there be more technological advances or not.
    More importantly why should there be an artificial ceiling on what para-athletes can achieve (ie not better than an able bodied athlete)? Unless able bodied athletes and para-athletes are competing slide by side, the two sports should be viewed in different context.
    I agree that those financially worse-off would not be able to afford the latest prosthetic but the same applies to able bodied sports.
    New technological advances should be encouraged to increase participation in and support of para-sports. Some form of regulation will be needed (eg to decide when jumping becomes flying!) but not for the purpose stated.

  6. Although it is undoubtedly correct that disabled athletes should be given the opportunity to compete, is there an issue identified at the beginning of the article that actually increases their performance above that of non-disabled athletes? This is not to say that they should not be prevented from using prosthetics but that technology may develop them to the stage where normal bodied athletes are disadvantaged. This appears to be the point made by IJS and I think it is valid. The power that could be developed in artificial limbs could reach a level of development that human limbs could not match. Does that matter? If it does how do you as an engineer deal with it?

  7. An intelligently written article with sufficient balance and thought given to both sides of the argument. It’s always inspirational when you see someone overcome an obstacle. To learn that in some areas disabled athletes are performing better than “fully-abled” athletes. illustrates that prosthetics are not just replacements. It’s wonderful (I think) that disabled athletics is no longer about acting the same as others but about achieving one’s full potential.

    Currently, I’d say I’m favour of this trend but the issue may develop in the future to be a concern.

    Great article. Thank you.

  8. That’s a great, well thought out article giving some interesting insights into a difficult area; there is no easy answer! I fully agree with your conclusion.

  9. I agree that prosthetics must help para-athletes to access sport, yes. But without overtaking natural capabilities? I don’t see this as a bad thing but as an inspirational thing.

    Someone disadvantaged who manages to overcome a difficulty with the help of modern technology to be better than before is only good. You may argue this is unfair, but we all have the right to try our best and be the best we can be. In events such as the Paralympics, disabilities are often difficult to compare anyway and there isn’t a level playing field on a physical level due different people with slightly different circumstances surrounding their disabilities.

    I guess the only unfair aspect would funding to ensure people who want and train hard enough to deserve the benefits of new technology receive it in order to pursue sports.

    From developments in F1 vehicles to the advancement of trainers technology has helped people to achieve in sports for decades and will only continue to do so. Technological advancement is part and parcel of modern sports and I am completely accepting of the notion.

  10. Such an interesting article. Prior to reading it, my opinion was that prosthetics should not be limited. However, you have presented a convincing argument on both sides and made me think a lot more about it. Ultimately the Paralympics should remain a competition of human ability rather than technology and there is a danger that prosthetics might give athletes advantages comparable to performance enhancing drugs. However, para-athletes are not alone in improving their performance with technology for example Formula 1, cycling, rowing, swimmers etc. The equipment they use effects their performance. Perhaps a line needs to be drawn to prevent the technology becoming more important than the physical ability of the athletes. But where?

  11. I’m leaning towards limiting prosthetic tech for the sake of fairness. I think this is ethical when you consider there are similar limitations on equipment used in able bodied sport, like drag-reducing swimming suits that are only allowed to cover a certain percentage of the skin.
    I don’t think anyone will be cutting off their healthy limbs for prosthetics any time soon but its good to talk about it before it becomes a real possibility, like deep fakes, a technology that caught society completely off-guard.

  12. I believe that Paralympic athletes are incredibly inspirational and I think this should be highlighted much more in this case. Yes, certain prosthesis will give an advantage over others, but this is very hard to regulate due to the variety in disabilities. Every person who competes in the Paralympics will need different, probably personalised prostheses so how easy would it be to regulate this? For example a prosthetic which is ‘allowed’ in the regulatory sense may actually still give certain athletes an advantage over others if it is more suited to their particular disability.

  13. This is an incredibly thought provoking article which can be interpreted in many different ways. I think individual interpretation is a big aspect of some of the points the article raises. Everyone has their own ideas on ethical correctness which makes it a topic that will always be up for discussion and will never satisfy everyone.

    I don’t think there is any true way of comparing between prosthetics and human limbs, as no prosthetic or limb is ever identical. Even if there was a way, if the technology is always advancing then studies will quickly become out-dated, which opens it up to a large amount of uncertainty.

    I agree that sport is a celebration of human performance and that ‘super prosthetics’ would make it more about the technology. The only way to combat this would be for all para-athletes to have identical prosthetics. Again, this is fairly impossible due to the variety in disabilities.

    Right now I don’t think there are enough advantages or evidence to support the use of advanced prosthetics. The point to which they should be limited I think will always be an open question, and the answer will never satisfy everyone.

  14. Really interesting article! Very similar discussions occur in many sports, with it being discussed almost annually in formula 1. People are continually asking, “how good is this driver, if he clearly has the best car?”
    I think F1 have found a great balance; by specifying where they want the technology to progress towards and apply some restrictions on that, to ensure that the driver still remains the main aspect of whether the car will win. If you apply the same logic here, the Paralympic committee could, for example, aim to reduce cost of production of the blade by applying restrictions on the material of the blade, directing the technological advances towards making high level prosthetics’ more accessible to the average person without big sponsorship’s/companies behind them.

    On the other hand, you could use the fact that the technology is allowing these athletes to out-perform able-bodied athletes as a big promotion factor to gain more attention for the sport.

  15. A very good article with lots to think about! I think the key issue for me with high performance prosthetics would be there accessibility to all. The issue is trying to create a fair environment so that there is no clear advantage of advanced prosthetics. However, due to the emerging market, leading to only the wealthy being able to afford them, an unfair advantage is bound to present itself. This in itself could decrease participation of less wealthy athletes as success is unachievable. Due to this I agree that advanced prosthetics should be limited in sport.

  16. I’d have to say I agree with the conclusions of the article. I think an alarming point that was touched upon is the possibility of an athlete replacing one of their own limbs with these high performance prosthetics. Athletes have been known to dope and take performance enhancing drugs. If these prosthetics do give advantages, it is not unthinkable that someone might try this, hence the need to limit their capabilities.

  17. I think this article raises a scary prospect for the future where athletes deliberately replace their own body parts for superior artificial ones!

    I think that one of most appealing aspects of the Olympic games is watching athletes from all around the world compete on an even playing field. Having expensive high-tech prostheses could push out those competitors from poorer nations which would be at a detriment to the spirit of the Olympics. The international swimming federation decided that expensive super slippery swim-suits were alienating smaller counties and subsequently banned them, a similar thing could be applied to prostheses where they would be restricted to a basic design with only minor scope for customisation therefore limiting costs and resulting in more even opportunities across nations.

  18. Another potential danger of these advancements is if this practice of “upgrading” your body became mainstream. As we have already seen with technologies such as smartphones and the internet those with access have a significant advantage in life over those without them. The advantages of having upgraded limbs and organs would far exceed the advantages of having a smartphone which could potentially leave “natural” humans behind in life. This could not only divide the sporting world like the article states, but society as a whole. Wealth inequality is already a problem and these “upgrades” would certainly only make the situation worse as the rich became better, faster and stronger!

  19. I really enjoyed this article. The subject was well researched and covered a difficult topic with sensitivity and intelligence, without being condescending. Very well written.

  20. This is certainly a moral dilemma which will need to be solved as technology evolves.

    Like another poster mentioned a system similar to F1 could be introduced to make the competition fairer. Another potential solution would be to have more than one Paralympics; one where athletes possess standardised prosthetics which allow them to perform similar to non-disabled athletes, and one where the prosthetics are as advanced as they can be (but still within reason like F1 to allow for fairer competition).

    Regardless of what solution is found I’m sure athletes will still be inspirations for their countries!

  21. A very interesting read. I’d previously thought of the unfairness of richer countries being able to afford sports scientists, nutritionists, psychologists, coaches, training facilities, equipment etc, but not how it actually threatens the human performance aspect. I assume even the best prosthesis would need a peak condition human to operate it to get the best results, so I don’t think human performance would ever be totally redundant. But if we start down the road of ‘upgrading’ or enhancing human anatomy with technology that’s a whole different discussion, one that sci-fi has been pondering for a long time, albeit from a standpoint of current impossibility.

  22. A good and well-balanced argument for the use of prosthetics in sports. Some really interesting viewpoints were brought up throughout the article that I had not previously considered. I wonder what the writer thinks of the use of steroids in sports considering and how the argument differs to that for prosthetics. Are some forms of improvement more morally and ethically correct regardless of sport or is it just the social constructs that we have formed that make thinks ethically right or wrong?

  23. Initially, I was mentally comparing the potential enhancing benefit of artificial limbs with performance enhancing drugs, but perhaps a better comparison is with formula 1. Clearly to win the athlete must perform at the highest level, but must also have access to state of the art technology.

  24. Interesting article! I agree with the utilitarian side of allowing the technology since it benefits both spectators and Paralympians but there is the question of it becoming more of a competition of who has the best technology rather than who is the best athlete. Maybe a compromise could be sought where the Paralympians were put on a level playing field by using the same type of artificial limbs to ensure parity as technology improves

  25. Really interesting issue that will only become more pressing as our technology and prosthetics develop. There definitely needs to be a financial cap for usage in sporting events, but that would be harder to enforce in the day-to-day. Definitely food for thought!

  26. Interesting article, I think you captured both sides well. I found the point about how you would exclude para-athletes by limiting the technology to be thought provoking. I had always only thought of the problem before in terms of the accessibility of ‘super-limbs’ to poorer countries. While team GB are happy to give a fair amount of funding to parasport the same is not true in poorer countries (and some rich ones like the US). However, now that you’ve pointed it out, I agree that limiting the tech would mean that you limit para-athletes. And I disagree that a more powerful prosthetics would detract from the sporting appeal of the event. You can’t just stick a super limb on a weak person and expect them to win an event, that person is still going to need to be an elite athlete. Plus, modern F1 is more about the engineering than the drivers and that still attracts many spectators. I think as long as you have rules against self-mutilation and allow technologies to be shared among countries, why shouldn’t a para-athlete perform better than regular athletes?

  27. Interesting read that promotes an important debate. The arguments draw many parallels to F1 as a sport. As previous commenters have outlined the FIA impose new regulations every year aimed at making it more of a level playing field in terms of technology. However, the best they can really hope for is genuine competition between the top 2/3 teams with many past seasons being completely dominated by a single team, usually with the biggest budget.

    Expanding on the idea of utilitarianism, recent F1 regulation changes have been aimed at increasing efficiency and advancements trickling down to benefit the masses such as hybridisation. With OEM’s using the sport almost as an R&D facility.

    Controlling regulation is always likely to be a fine balancing act such that the fundamental advantage still remains with the competitor who possesses the most talent as oppose to the biggest budget. Having said this the argument for allowing technological advancements in para-sport is only reinforced by even the most aiding of prosthetics unlikely to ever be as complex as an F1 car or the focus on the technology so pronounced. The increase in understanding behind the technology, may also add a different dimension to the range of skills required by athletes. The emergence and growth of sports science has seen the human body being treated more like a machine, with every aspect controlled to fine tune performance and reduce the likelihood of injury. Just as F1 drivers have to manage their vehicle to produce the best performance over the total duration the race. athletes may adapt their style in order to best manage and utilise prosthetics.

  28. Certainly an interesting topic to cover. I particularly appreciated the utilitarian views and found them quite understandable. The comparison to F1/cycling brought up in other comments is particularly interesting and I can see a clear application to the use of advanced prosthesis in sport.

  29. A difficult subject to respond to as such an emotive issue. This discussion clearly gives both pros and cons on both sides. Your conclusion is interesting though not necessarily one I could agree with as engineering is about progress and why not enable those in parasports to be better than the able bodied.

  30. A very interesting article. Would it be fairer if the technological advancements were shared with the countries who cannot afford such investment in research?
    It will be interesting to see what future developments are made in this field.
    The improvements in speed and distance jumped will be impressive.

  31. First of all, great title.

    Secondly, super interesting read! I’ve literally never considered the potential for technological advances in prosthetics to come with so many issues. I feel like the point about humanity ever striving to do better and to be better is paramount here. Maybe there are issues, but ultimately people watch sports in part to be amazed at the power and magic of human ability, be that physical or technological or both! I say, we give runners the technological advances in the tracks, making them smooth, increasing traction, etc. why should we not be allowing the same technological advances in those runner’s bodies too?

  32. An interesting ethical dilemma with some strong arguments made for both sides. I think there needs to be a continued effort to be as inclusive as possible but the focus should remain on the athletic ability rather than the technological advancements so limitations are needed to keep the true essence of the sport alive.

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