Most Read: National

Live Discussions

Switchback: Talking Tech

Switchback: Talking Tech

LIVE Q&A, 12 p.m. ET

The Switch team have answers about the gadgets you want.

Weekly schedule, past shows

About Dominic | About Vivek | About Emi | E-mail Us E-mail |  On Twitter Follow |  On Facebook Fan |  RSS RSS Feed
Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 08/08/2012

Is this what superhuman looks like?

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius starts in the men's 400-meter semifinal during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012. (Anja Niedringhaus - AP)

While he did not make it to the men’s 400-meter finals, Oscar Pistorius (”Blade Runner”) still made history as the first-ever amputee runner to participate in the Olympics. With his technologically enhanced prosthetic legs, 25-year-old Pistorius nearly ran head-to-head with the fastest runners in the world, finishing second in his first qualifying heat and eighth in the semifinals.

No wonder he earned a rousing ovation from the 80,000 audience members in London. Having lost his legs while still a child, Pistorius never quit. And today he is at the forefront of a paradigm shift in how we view people with prosthetic enhancements to the human body. Formerly we may have considered them “less than human” — now we recognize them as “more than human.”

Pistorius is the most visible member of the new generation of super-athlete made possible by breakthroughs in medical science and technology. While there is still some scientific debate about the performance properties of his prosthetic legs, it is clear that technology now has the potential to re-engineer the impaired functioning of the leg, the knee, the ankle or the foot. That, in turn, is leading to radical breakthroughs for everybody, not just Olympians. Imagine innovations such as prosthetic limbs that you can control with your mind. The capability is made possible by. microprocessors within the human body.

Those same prosthetic limbs, of course, have led to competitors complaining that athletes like Pistorius are somehow getting the upper hand. Pistorius fought a long, hard battle just to get into the Olympics — as much in the courtroom, as on the track. Even during the Olympics, sports fans following his exploits on the Internet were debating the significance of his London 2012 performance, based on fairness concerns for the other runners.

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius runs during his men's 400m semi-final at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium August 5, 2012. (MICHAEL DALDER - REUTERS)
But, as Erik Weihenmayer (the first blind person to climb Mount Everest) pointed out in TIME magazine in 2008, back when Pistorius was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, it is "too easy to credit (his) success to technology." We lose sight of the mental and emotional components that go into becoming a champion by focusing only on the technology. At the London 2012 Olympics, think about all the other athletes who have been helped by technology to achieve world records — the swimmers in their specially engineered, drag-reducing swimsuits, the cyclists with their state-of-the-art bicycles, even the tennis players competing with rackets made of space-age materials. How is Oscar Pistorius, running with his carbon-fiber limbs, really any different from any other athlete?

Thanks to Pistorius and the breakthroughs in medical technology, the world is on its way to closing the gap between the "disabled" and the "super-abled," a world in which we are all simply athletes competing on a level playing field. As one Twitter user in the U.K. pointed out, Pistorius should receive a gold just for getting to London. It took us more than a generation to get away from talking about men and women as “handicapped” or “disabled.” But even now, we still speak of them as being “physically challenged.” Now we are ready for the next step — when we no longer view them as “challenged” at all. Viewing this photo of Oscar Pistorius and a young girl wearing her first set of prosthetic "blade runner" limbs, it’s all but impossible to think otherwise.

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius gives the thumbs up sign after finishing his men's 400m heats at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium August 4, 2012. (DYLAN MARTINEZ - REUTERS)

Read more news and ideas on Innovations:

Want to ask Bobak Ferdowsi a question? Now’s your chance

The 2012 Olympics, brought to you by the animated gif

‘The surface mission of Curiosity has now begun’

By  |  06:00 AM ET, 08/08/2012

Categories:  Dominic Basulto, Health, Morning Read, Technology

Read what others are saying

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company