I feel like I’m the only liberal in the world who doesn’t think Oscar Pistorius being allowed to compete in the Olympics is an unmitigated good. To me it all comes down to the question “Do his prostheses give him an unfair advantage over unmodified runners?” where by “unmodified” I mean the ones who run on the feet they were born with. If they do, then he should not be allowed to compete with them. In this case it isn’t clear and so it’s right that he was allowed to compete.
Sports Illustrated has a very good article on the technical issues, and why it can’t be conclusively determined at this time – basically, the prostheses have some advantages and some disadvantages, and it’s not clear if they cancel each other out. But someday we *will* produce prostheses that are more effective – at least for a given purpose, like competitive running – than natural limbs, and at that point it will become unfair to the other athletes. I think what we’re going to have to do is to make rules about the equipment, just as we do in every sport requiring individual gear, and to say “you may compete only with equipment meeting these rules”, so that no competitor has an advantage over another.
(For instance, in rowing a boat has to weigh more than a given limit, and some special configurations like sliding riggers are outlawed; golf and sailing have specific rlues about what clubs or boats may be used, and so do lots of other sports. Even in weightlifting, you have to pass drug tests.)
When we get to that point, we should allow amputees to compete in any sport – but with prostheses that match but do not exceed the capabilities of natural limbs. I can imagine foot prostheses designed specifically for golf, equestrian sports, swimming – I can even imagine artificial hands so good they allow someone born without hands to do gymnastics, but that’s a long way away. The attachment points seem like the most difficult issue there. I hope we do get there, and I hope we can do it in a way that’s fair for all.