Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Cyborg and Supercrip: Paralympics and Technological Progress

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, also known as the Blade Runner made history on 4 August 2012 at the London Olympics by becoming the first amputee sprinter to compete at the Olympics. The four-time Paralympic champion, 25, finished second in his 400m heat in a time of 45.44 seconds. For many Oscars story is more about very cool technological progress.

The London 2012 Paralympic Games are expected to have biggest crowd ever, with over 2.1 million tickets sold. The increased public profile of the Paralympic Games has resulted in technological progress in this areas, due to an increasing commercial marketplace for aerodynamic and feather light racing wheelchairs as well as biomechanically and ergonomically responsive prostheses; this has helped to create a legion of ‘cyborg’ bodies that is manifest in the image of the sporting ‘supercrip’(refer to note below). 

Mobility devices that enhance performance have also created a divide amongst ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nation, whilst closing the gap in the performance between ‘cyborg’ and ‘able-bodied’ athletes.

To satisfy the demands of elite athletes, radical new technological developments in wheelchair designs such as the J-Leg, seated throwing chairs (Burkett B, 2003) and prostheses have revolutionised the sports. However, developing improved technology is only half the battle, since technolo­gies develop at different rates. Some nations might make advances in performance sim­ply because of their access to superior technology.

 “Medal tables at the Paralympic Games have been traditionally dominated by western nations in part because they are at the forefront of the technological advancements in mobility apparatus…The race to produce the most effi­cient and advanced mobility aids, has a leg race on its hands.”( P. David, 2011)

Since 1980s the materials from which prostheses are made have changed markedly from wood to fibreglass to all manner of carbon fibre and lightweight metals used in advanced scientific design. These mobility aids have been a product of state-of-the-art technologies and, as a result, they are producing performances that would have been considered impossible 20 years ago.

For many developing countries the cost of up-to-date the technology is a real barrier, as they cannot develop a disabled sport programmes integrating the latest technologies, when a state-of-the-art racing wheelchairs can cost upwards of 6,000€ and ergonomically designed prosthesis up to 25,000€, athletes from across the globe can find participation as cyborgs with state-of-the-art technology prohibitive.

At both the Olympics and the Paralympics, authorities must fundamentally strive to provide an even playing field, which includes ensuring equity of access to technology.

Future technological developments will have far-reaching effects on Paralympic athletes: their new assistive anatomy with its higher level of functionality will not only lead to improved efficiency in performing daily tasks but also enable more effective performance in the competition arena. Such technological progress needs to be more inclusive and enabling, such as the use of technologiesfor conflict prevention and the use of informationand communication for development rather than becoming a discussion about ‘those who have access to technology and those who don't’.

Technological Progress has even led some to argue that it's time to re-think the distinctions we makebetween competitors in the Olympics and Paralympics.  Eli Wolff, a former Paralympic soccer player (Director of the InclusiveSports Initiative) argues for more integrated and inclusive Olympic participation, whilst Andy Miah (Director of the Creative FuturesInstitute) believes that if modern Olympics were invented today, there wouldn't be a separate games for disabled athletes. There might even be more athletes competing since technological enhancements might rescue athletes from career-ending injuries.

Note: Athletes such as Pistorius who have amputated lower limbs often run on carbon fibre ‘blades’ that act as feet and as a result Pistorius has been referred to as the Blade Runner . In using such technology Paralympic athletes can be conceptualized as the embodiment of Haraway’s (1991) cyborg, which is a hybrid body resulting from fusion of a live organism and man-made technology. In the context of Paralympic sport the most successful cyborg athletes may be seen as ‘supercrips’. According to Berger (2008), supercrips ‘are those individuals whose inspirational sto­ries of courage, dedication, and hard work prove that it can be done, that one can defy the odds and accomplish the impossible’ (P. David, 2011 45: 868 Sociology).

Salema Gulbahar

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