A Workshop on ‘Enhancement, identity and the construction of category in the Olympics’. Coming up in November at King’s.

For the first time in the history of track & field, in August 2011 a double-amputee athlete athlete competed against able-bodied athletes in the 400-meter event at World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. Oscar Pistorius, 24 years old, was born with congenital absence of the fibulae in both legs, which were amputated just below the knees when he was 11 months old, and made it up to the semifinals in Daegu (you can watch the video of Oscar qualifying for the semifinals here).

Oscar Pistorius with two fellow athletes of the South African team at Daegu.

Pistorius’ case spurred debate four years ago, when he was banned from running with able-bodied athletes on grounds that his prosthesis gave him an “unfair” competitive edge over able-bodied athletes. Oscar appealed to the supreme Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne (Switzerland), which in May 2008 reversed the sentence, and judged that Oscar does not have an unfair advantage over the other “able bodied” athletes (those interested can read more on the debate here). The story of Oscar Pistorius prompts a reflection on the construction of categories in sports: to what extent are they based on categories existing in nature, and to what are they instead a social construction? Also, to what extent are these categories informed by science and medicine, and to what by ethics, philosophy and eventually law? And what does it mean to be able, or disabled, in sports? Is it legitimate to talk about super-ability, enhancement and post-humans for the case of Oscar Pistorius? When can enhancement be considered doping? These are only some of the issues that arise when considering the effect of mechanical prostheses on the athletes, and when reflecting on how our concept of an Olympic athlete is going to be shaped by different kinds of enhancement, and to look like in, say, twenty years from now. Not only does Oscar Pistorius’ case prompts a reflection on the construction of categories in sports, but it also demands a broader one on the meaning and aims of sport, in other words, its ethics and philosophy.

The Centre for the Humanities & Health, together with the King’s Interdisciplinary Discussion Society (KIDS), are bringing together a panel of scientific and medical experts, ethicists and philosophers to discuss these issues in an open to the public workshop which will take place at King’s College on Thursday, November 10, 2011. The program of the event, complete with timetable and list of speakers will be published soon on this blog. Stay tuned!

Enhancement, Identity and the Construction of Categories in the Olympics.

On March 24, 2011 double amputee Oscar Pistorius, the South African athlete running on prosthesis, ran just 0.06 seconds short of the ‘A’ standard needed to qualify for the London Olympics in 2012. Oscar Pistorius, 24 years old, was born with congenital absence of the fibulae in both legs, which were amputated just below the knees when he was 11 months old. His case spurred debate four years ago, when he was banned from running with able-bodied athletes on grounds that his prosthesis gave him an “unfair” competitive edge over able-bodied athletes. Oscar appealed to the supreme Court of Arbitration for Sport (Lausanne), which in May 2008 reversed the sentence, and judged that Oscar does not have an unfair advantage over the other “able bodied” athletes and ruled he could run in the Olympics, provided he met the A qualifying entry time, a goal that seems to be getting closer and closer for the South-African runner. Pistorius’ case sparked debate on the construction of categories in sports: to what extent are they based on categories existing in nature, and to what are they instead a social construction? Also, to what extent is the construction of these categories informed by science and medicine and to what by ethics, philosophy and eventually law? What does it mean to be able, or disabled, in sports? Is it legitimate to talk about super-ability, enhancement and post-humans for the case of Oscar Pistorius? When can enhancement be considered doping? These are only some of the questions that arise when considering the effect of mechanical prostheses on the athletes, and when reflecting on how our concept of an Olympic athlete is going to be shaped by different kinds of enhancements and to change over the next twenty years. But they are by no means the only pressing questions concerning the construction of categories in the Olympics. Rules concerning gender verification tests, and policy regulating gene gene doping are just two more examples that will be at the forefront at the London Olympics in one year. Stay tuned on this blog for more posts on ethics and sports. Meanwhile, take note that Oscar Pistorius is going to run at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, on May 27th. I will be there to report!