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 , 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.
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.
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.)