The iconic Styx song “Mr. Roboto” is about a “modern man,” a man with robotic parts but a human soul. When the song was released in the 1980s, this was a sort of vision for the distant future. Today, with advancements in the field of prosthetics, the reverse of Mr. Roboto is a reality: humans with robotic parts.
The best known case of prosthetics in competition is South African track runner Oscar Pistorius, who competed in the 2012 London Olympics using prosthetic feet called Flex Foot Cheetah Runners. He was the first two-leg amputee to compete with able-bodied athletes.
At the time, there was a controversy over whether or not the Cheetah Racers gave Pistorius an unfair advantage over the runners with feet. These blades were made of carbon fiber and specifically modified for Pistorius’ weight and impact as well as to provide the optimal amount of traction. Critics argued that this design gave Pistorius unique circumstances with which to outrun the competition.
Track and field isn’t the only sport with the chance to be revolutionized by the science of prosthetics. Motocross, snowboarding and the X Games are all being revolutionized by new prosthetic technologies.
Mike Schultz is a big name in ESPN’s X Games. After his debilitating snowboarding accident in December 2008, he also became a big name in prosthetics. Since the accident and the invention of the MotoKnee joint for high-impact sports, he has devoted the part of his career not spent riding his bike to developing better prosthetic options for handicapped athletes in physically demanding sports.
Prosthetic technology is progressing beyond joints. In May, The New York Times reported an innovation in prosthetics being developed by Johns Hopkins University that is researching prosthetic nerves. This would allow the wearer to move the prosthetic using the brain instead of the remaining part of the arm.
As early as 2013, MIT reported the development of a prosthetic limb that can feel heat and respond to touch. As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, there will be more options of prosthetic limbs.
How, then, can we reshape the argument over Pistorius’ Cheetah Racers in the light of emerging technologies? In the not-so-distant future, the playing field will be leveled even for athletes that are missing limbs. Though rehabilitation and initial use of the new limb will be an adjustment period, prosthetics may even surpass natural limbs. Perhaps prosthetics are the new human growth hormone.
Sports has seen an explosion in revenue, and the increase does not show signs of slowing down. Premier athletes must be kept in top condition in order to compete at the highest level, therefore achieving the largest amount of profit. Athletes are born with a certain amount of natural ability. As they age, though, limbs become older and more frail. In the case of highly physical contact sports, joints break down or may become injured. One day, it will certainly be possible to keep these athletes functioning at a consistent level, even into old age.
Sports health technology without prosthetics has slowly advanced over the years. For example, NFL fans are just now starting to notice that all of the best quarterbacks are older. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are two of the best quarterbacks in the league. One is 39 years old and the other is 38 years old, respectively. Their knowledge and experience are commodities that make it worth the money and time spent insuring their bodies.
And this is just with regular care and maintenance. Imagine the possibilities of total replacement and upgrade of parts, then talk about the unfair advantages prosthetics impose.
Back to Oscar Pistorius, though.
The real purpose and goal of prosthetics research is to improve the lives of those who do not have a fully functioning set of limbs. As prosthetic technology advances, quality of life increases for the population, and this cannot be overlooked as the primary objective. As much as the prospect of unfairness in competition is a concern, it’s more important that each person is able to live his or her life to the fullest. As technology moves forward, we are closer to restoring the full range of activity for some individuals, and no one whining about inequality toward fully-able people should stand in the way of or disparage that.