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Outsourced athletes

A sprinter's artificial legs help pose questions about fairness – and personhood.

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In one sense the case of bionic sprinter Oscar Pistorius is a feel-good story. He has overcome unusual limitations as a disabled athlete. But his bid for the Olympics with artificial legs also raises fresh questions about what it means to be human.

Mr. Pistorius, a young South African who competes in the 400-meter sprint, can run very fast using prosthetic legs made of springy carbon fiber. After excelling in track events for the disabled, he's now trying to land a spot on his national team for the Beijing Olympics.

Earlier this year, his goal seemed unlikely after the International Association of Athletics Federations ruled that his prostheses gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners. But the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland, overturned that decision May 16, saying that no evidence of an advantage could be proven.

Now, if he can lop about one second off his best time of 46.46 seconds, he will qualify for the Summer Games. If that happens, it will be the first time that a disabled athlete has competed in the Olympics.

Opinions about his historic bid seem to rest on whether this technology has allowed him to compete fairly (in which case, hurrah for him), or whether it has "enhanced" him with an unfair advantage.

During World War II, Pete Gray was able to play Major League Baseball briefly even though he had only one arm. He earned widespread admiration for his courage and skill. Would his fans have felt the same way about him had he been equipped with a bionic arm capable of throwing a ball at 100 m.p.h.?


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