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Prosthesis, disability and the role of technology in elite sport: The Isambard Kingdom Brunel Award lecture

Prosthesis, disability and the role of technology in elite sport: The Isambard Kingdom Brunel Award lecture

By Katie Griffiths, Young People’s Programme Assistant at the British Science Association


Today, on the last day of the British Science Festival 2013, Bryce Dyer gave a challenging and exciting talk on prosthesis, disability and the role of technology in sport for the Isambard Kingdom Brunel Award lecture, the last in the British Science Association’s Award lecture series. I’m sure I won’t be the only member of the audience who spends many hours over the next few days pondering the difficult questions that Bryce raised during his talk, discussing them over the dinner table, and generally scratching my head trying to come to a conclusion about what is right and what’s just going one step too far.

Of course, we’ve all heard about controversies over technology in sport: from the ‘fast skin’ swimsuits that were banned following the 2008 Olympic games, to spaghetti stringed tennis racquets that gave average players an above average ability, the history of sport is littered with examples of athletes pushing the boundaries of what is allowed in order to win. So where do we draw the line? During his lecture, Bryce explored the complex ethics of technology in competitive sport, and in particular in disabled sport.

Using disabled running with prostheses as a case study, Bryce illustrated some of the issues involved in determining what we should and shouldn’t allow. He explained that the ability to run fast is really based on three factors: the force you place on the ground, the frequency of leg turnover, and the length of leg stride. The difference with disabled runners is that they’re missing some crucial advantages that able-bodied runners have. For example, human ankles are incredibly efficient at energy transfer, because they’re surrounded and supported by muscles that can contribute to the force they use. Technically, this addition of force means that the human ankle gets 250% energy return for its input. By comparison, a prosthetic lower limb can never be as efficient, because it cannot donate any additional force: the best energy return it can hope for is 95%.

So, how far should we allow prosthetic limbs to develop? In the near future we are likely to see increasing developments in the field of bionic limbs: prostheses that can provide their own power and drive. If this is allowed, then the future of disabled sport might be less about physical ability and more about having the money to pay for the best technology. But is this what we want? It all comes down to how we define sports and what we consider to be elite athletes. For example, ask yourself this: at what point does an athlete become elite? When they are paid to be a professional sportsperson? Or do they have to reach a certain level of ability? Should athletes be able to use technology to give them a competitive advantage, and at what point does this become cheating? These aren’t questions with easy answers, but they are questions that we will have to consider in the future if we are to develop legislation to keep up with the coming developments in technology.

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