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With over 100 million tweets overall, the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London is now considered one of the most twittered about events in history. Usain Bolt's victory in the 2000-meter sprint garnered 80,000 tweets per minute (tpm), even more than the parachuting queen and Great Britain's gold medal in cycling. Forbes magazine considers the summer games the Olympics in which tablets and apps dominated, with many gold winners openly crediting their iPads for their success and as many as 12 million people watching the game on through their tablets or smartphones.

The most spectacular Olympic moment occurred for me when team South Africa's Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius trotted up to the 400-meter run starting blocks like a cyborg minotaur, on legs that had been amputated at the knee and fitted with a pair of flex-foot Cheetahs, prosthetic devices that feature:

Proprietary carbon technology to efficiently store and release energy produced by the user while running. When a user is running, the prosthesis’ "J" curve is compressed at impact, storing energy and absorbing high levels of stress that would otherwise be absorbed by the runner’s ankle, knee, hip and lower back. At the end of stance phase, the "J curve " returns to its original shape, releasing the stored energy and propelling the user forward.


Watch this video at YouTube.

2012 may in fact be known as the first truly high-technology games. Pistorius' flex-feet were designed by Van Phillips, an amputee himself and now a successful inventor and entrepreneur. Phillips’ invention could be credited with the unintended consequence of helping to change the face of the Olympics forever, catalyzing one of the greatest debates in sporting history by making it possible for the disabled to race toe-to-carbon toe with the fastest able-bodied athletes alive.

Watch this video at YouTube.

Claims of unfair competition against those who use prosthetics in sport follow Phillips and Pistorius like galloping paparazzi. In 2008, the international Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) amended its competition rules to ban the use of "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device." This ruling was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), allowing Pistorius the opportunity to qualify for the 2012 games.

But is it fair? Is the Cheetah a bionic foot? According to the manufacturer, no.

Bionic limbs typically incorporate artificial intelligence, including sensors, microprocessors, and sometimes even motors to supply assisted movement and real-time adjustments for the user, based on feedback captured throughout their gait cycle. In comparison, Össur's Flex-Foot Cheetah is a non-mechanized prosthetic running foot, which returns a portion of the energy stored during the loading phase of running. Studies have shown that the Flex-Foot Cheetah can return around 90% of the energy stored in it. This is far less than a normal able-bodied foot and leg, which has been shown to return 249% of the stored energy.


Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein disagrees, claiming that "the light weight of the Cheetah legs and the extra contact time with the ground give Pistorius a clear advantage.” But the prostheses are also said to have drawbacks. Pistorius is slower at the start than his competitors are. Without ankles, he has to stand straight up out of the blocks and start bouncing to build momentum. Teammate Sibusiso Sishi admits that "I don't mind racing [Pistorius], but I'm still a bit skeptical about his legs because they are man-made. They are carbon fiber, which means they are nice and light. I would just like him to do the tests so at least we know where we stand."

According to Steven Stanhope, Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Delaware:

Sport is really all about advantage–all elite athletes use genetic, environmental, nutritional, and technical factors to their advantage. Certain body types are better suited for some sports than for others. Training at altitude and taking nutritional supplements that promote recovery can provide advantages on race day. Designers of sports gear, shoes, and clothing continuously strive to improve their products in ways that will enhance athletes' performance.

—Steven Stanhope
Professor of Kinesiology
The University of Delaware

No doubt this debate will quietly rage on, buried beneath a continuous avalanche of pressing stories about climactic, financial and geopolitical instability. But when the first differently-abled Olympic gold medalist stands amped on artifice above the silver and bronze contenders, the debate will flare again with questions such as “what makes us human?” and “who is human enough to compete in the Olympics?” After all, athletes today boast countless “enhancements” such as Lasik that were all but inaccessible to athletes a generation ago. That we are now grappling with such fundamental questions suggests the inception of a new era of human factors technology.

Olympic competition has evidenced a long tradition of selecting for variability. Consider Usain Bolt's 6' 10" sprinter frame and Michael Phelps' 80-inch reach. These are far from the average proportions of the human body. And now that Pistorius has wedged open the Olympian door with his carbon foot, human performance technologies, including man-made "prostheses,” are very likely here to stay. Perhaps, a little over 50 years from now, at the Summer 2064 Olympics in Baghdad, we will see competitors with all manner of genetic and mechanical modifications. And 100 years from now, at the 2112 Summer Olympics in Las Vegas? I can’t even begin to imagine what the competition will look like. Can you?