There is no artificial enhancer that can give a man without legs the will to run in the Olympics. Oscar Pistorius’s prosthetic calves are hardly his greatest advantage. You can’t manufacture his brand of emotional gasoline, or build aspiration out of carbon fiber, or put it in his blood with EPO, either. The substance he runs on is called the athletic heart, and there is no external way of acquiring it, and it’s why our fretting over so-called “enhancement” is misguided.
The curl-tipped carbon blades on which Pistorius runs look sort of like antique cross-country skis. Unless they look like coat hooks, or lawn implements, or wall brackets, or giant barrette clips. In any case the notion that they might somehow improperly aid the South African sprinter, that they could transform him, in the cuttingly funny words of NBC’s Mary Carillo, into “a super speedy cyborg kangaroo,” is laughable. As the manufacturer of his prosthetics crucially observes, they are “dead objects” — they won’t run unless somebody makes them.
Pistorius poses uncomfortable questions to the anti-enhancement crazies, about the definition of artificial advantage. He exposes the futility of trying to judge the unnatural competitor versus the organic and therefore acceptable one in modern competition. Five years ago the international governing body of track and field declared Pistorius ineligible when scientists decided “Cheetah” blades gave him an edge. But Pistorius took his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which found that he did not gain any “quantifiable” benefit, and overturned the ban. On Wednesday, Pistorius was named to the South African Olympic team in the 400 meters and the 1600 relay.
Medical experts disagree on the values of Pistorius’s blades: Some say they give him spring, while others note the high turnover rate of his thighs, which suggests his speed is self-generated. Still others voice the lunatic idea that because he has no calves he doesn’t suffer from lactic acid buildup.
Just try to apply the World Anti-Doping Agency’s code for outlawing artificial substances to Pistorius’s legs: Do they violate “the spirit of the sport”?
Why are we always trying to police the methods of athletes? What is at the root of the concern that they might do something unnatural or artificial? Maybe it’s that elite athletes are a reproach to our averageness, and, more importantly, our average habits. They are creatures of extreme practices, stresses and obsessions; they seek marginal improvements in hundredths through all sorts of artificialities, hypoxic chambers, wind tunnels, high tech fabrics, and extreme diets.
Maybe what lies behind this fixation on enhancement is fear. We are desperate to maintain the dream that the average, regular, everyday person can win something big. It’s a self-lie. No, you can’t. As my friend Eugene Robinson once wrote, “There is no drug on Earth that can enable me — or you — to drive a 95 mph fastball over the left field wall.”
Trying to legislate level equality in sport is a fool’s quest; it is rife with artificial advantages. Kenyans and Ethiopians have a competitive advantage in distance running — they live at higher altitudes than the rest of us and train in thin air. Why don’t we outlaw the Eldoret Highlands?
There is one unnatural substance that is more enhancing and advantageous than any other on this earth: money. A sprinter’s custom made shoes can cost $10,000.
“It’s absurd to look at a star line-up of athletes and think that they all have an equal shot,” observes former Georgetown runner Aimee Mullins, on the technology blog Gizmodo. Mullins, who competed in NCAA track and field on Cheetah blades, has grown into one of our best thinkers on this subject. She continues: “We don’t cry foul play when an athlete from the United States, with the best access to training facilities, coaching staffs, and nutritional science is up against someone from say . . . Uzbekistan.”
Athletes suffer all sorts of gaping deficits and internal and external impoverishments, and the truth is that the earmark of elites is that they transform circumstances to their advantage. Mullins’s term for this is “the opportunity of adversity.”
You want to breed a transformational athlete? Remove his legs from the knees down when he is 13 months old. Give him a mother named Sheila who was apparently an incomparable teacher, and who, when she told his siblings to put on their shoes, turned to him and said, “Put on your legs.” The best profile of Pistorius to date is Carillo’s for NBC, which aired on Rock Center. It contains this story: When Pistorius was a small boy his family took him to the beach. He noticed that he left marks in the sand unlike other children. “My footprints are different,” he said. No, his parents replied, they’re just better.
Isn’t it time we discard this anxiety we have about the unequal distribution of advantage, and quit trying to define a “quantifiable” edge? The phrase goes to our eternally adolescent fear that life isn’t fair. Well, it isn’t. Meet Oscar Pistorius. Who proves that nothing is a dead object if the athletic heart animates it.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins