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August 3, 2009 | by  | in News |
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A Question of Adaption: How far should technology go in sport?

SPORT with Nina ‘Forward‑Pass’ Fowler

FINA have belatedly banned full‑body polyurethane swimsuits, the innovation blamed for Michael Phelps’ shock loss to unknown German Paul Biedermann. Banning dodgy technology used by able‑bodied athletes is relatively straight forward; banning athletes who use technology to help them adapt to a disability is more complex.

In January 2008, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banned Oscar Pistorius, a double‑amputee sprinter from South Africa, from competing in the Beijing Olympics. IAAF were worried that Pistorius’ prosthetic legs, j‑shaped carbon blades known as ‘Cheetahs’, would give him an unfair advantage over competitors using their natural legs.

The IAAF ban was eventually overturned, but the controversy about Pistorius’ landmark case lingers. Supporters argued that the science behind the IAAF ruling was negligible and, if anything, Pistorius had managed to overcome quite a serious disadvantage. Opponents insisted that the Cheetah prosthetics qualified as ‘techo‑doping’ and affected the ‘purity of sport’.

NZ archer Neroli Fairhill, the first wheelchair athlete to compete at an Olympics, came up against similar accusations. After winning gold at the 1982 Commonwealth Games, her rivals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics suggested that Fairhill’s wheelchair gave her extra support while shooting. “I don’t know,” she allegedly answered, “I’ve never shot standing up.”

Wanaka golden boy, 21‑year‑old Adam Hall, took out all three slalom ski events at last week’s NZ Adaptive Snow Sports Festival. He is the world number two for slalom, was named the 2009 Snow Sports New Zealand Athlete of the Year, and is gunning for gold at the 2010 Paralympics. Hall prefers to be known as an adaptive, rather than disabled, athlete.

“Everyone is ‘disabled’ in one way or another. If you pick someone from the general public and throw them out on the snow, they’re not going to do that well compared to me; [in that situation] they’d be disabled. It’s more about how well you adapt.”

For Hall, adaption means tying the tips of his skis together and using outrigger ski poles to compensate for his spina bifida. He trains alongside able‑bodied athletes at Cardrona and has clocked up some “pretty similar” slalom times to members of the NZ Development Squad.

“I can get a licence to race in able‑bodied competitions if I want, but I think reaching world-class level as a disabled athlete is my focus right now. I guess that if I could get my times up far enough, it’d be pretty cool to be world-class at both levels.”

Not many athletes make it to world-class level, and an even smaller number of disabled athletes make it to world-class able‑bodied level. Those that do, like Oscar Pistorius and Neroli Fairhill, will probably have relied on some form of technology to help get them there. Accusations of ‘techno‑doping’ may run rampant, but the difference between Pistorius’ prosthetics and Biedermann’s swimsuit should be obvious. The former required a lifetime of training; the latter, a changing room. As Hall points out, it’s all a question of adaption.

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About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

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