Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Beijing 2008: cf_Pure Server disabled

For anyone paying a modicum of attention to the Beijing Olympics and satellites topics, it’s been hard to miss the attention-focusing news about the South African and disabled athlete Oscar Pistorius.
Oscar had his legs amputated when he was 11 months old, because of a defect regarding his skeleton’s composition at birth. Not a cool thing at all.

What happened to him is interesting.
First, the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) banned him in January, because of his prosthetics. The IAAF guys worked from a first batch of independent scientific studies, which were meant to gauge the physical gains and losses provided by these artificial “legs”.
Only recently, the IAAF lifted the ban and allowed the young man into the able-bodied league. There’s been a smell of hypocrisy in the air.

It puts us in front of a grave issue. We’re at the gates of something which is going to get bigger and bigger. This is science fiction catching us, and obviously only a few are really prepared about this perspective.

Much like the bionic agents being distressed - and rather vindictive - about their condition in the light of the next-gen breed of nano-abled Dentons (Deus Ex), there have been protests voiced by the IAAF, and other “complete” athletes, about Pistorius’ special carbon-fiber “cheetah” legs giving him an advantage, or denaturing the essence of the competition.
Mind you, the prosthetics are primitive, in a kind of way, and yet, controversy already rises.

The IAAF’s dance is most puzzling. Their former evidence seemed rather clear. Then, apparently, the difference wasn’t so clear at all, when put against Pistorius’ performances versus those of able-bodied people.
Somehow, the “cheat claim” was more or less addressed and, I suppose, sort of debunked in a New York Times article, especially since Pistorius, at the beginning of the year, was under the times needed for qualification at the Beijing Olympics.
Now, they don’t really know what to do.

But the anti arguments were interesting nonetheless, notably in the words chosen by Elio Locatelli, talking about how this kind of specialities “affects the purity of sport.”

Yet, despite their lack of certainty, and probably conceding terrain after the outroar from the disableds and their lawyers, they allow Pistorius, while they looked like they had a solid evidence about the advantage provided by the prosthetics. Well well well.

I must say, this will be the first time I’ll have a real interest in the Olympics, because it will address questions which reach beyond the mere concerns of games.
I’m just not that much into games about the solo performances of people throwing plates, sticks and jumping fences.

Let’s be honest, though. The advantages of cyber limbs are becoming more and more evident. We already welcomed the world’s most powerful ankle back in early 2007.
Or what about the CyberHand? An incredibly advanced piece of machinery which seems to come straight out of Ghost in the Shell!
You may also recall the stories about powerful and flexible metallic muscles bending according to electrical currents.

What can be said in relation to games?

Games are based on rules. Rules follow preset standards. Everyone is supposed to start at the same point, by following the same rules.

Assets can be different if the game is purposely built upon principles of asymmetric systems, with opponents (or groups of) relying on the same global play “mechanics”.
The problem here is a problem of standards. Leaving religion and questions such as “is a human brain in a tin can on spider legs still a man?” aside, we could ask if all fully-able athletes are all set by the same standards.
Each individual is different from the other, be it by corpulence or global proportions like length of limbs. Or even health. The differences exist, but they’re considered negligible, as they’ve been for eons, and totally integrated into the games (or is it what we’d like to think?).

The NYT article gives an example about one of the IAAF’s rules:

Historically, the I.A.A.F. has placed limits on devices that assist athletes. It prohibits an array of performance-enhancing drugs. And it does not allow wheelchair athletes into the Olympic marathon, given that wheels provide a clear advantage in speed.
But the governing body has also embraced technological advances. For instance, it permits athletes to sleep in tent-like devices designed to simulate high altitude and increase oxygen-carrying capacity.

The second part is worth a note. Much in the defence of the IAAF, this trick is accessible to both able-bodied athletes and amputees, so there is no reason to sort disabled athletes from able-bodied ones based on this standard.

The standard that makes the difference between the Olympics and Paralympics is either you use your naturally grown limbs, or artificial ones.
The real problem has been: does using these “Cheetah” legs provide advantages?
Then, how do you weigh the advantages, and then disadvantages?
Do you use gauge features and set up averages of performances, for energy and work gain observations?
What if artificial limbs give an advantage in curves, but not in straight lines?
What about jumping fences?

This is complicated issue, and it should be rather obvious than when you’re in the dark, you don’t take hasty decisions based upon ignorance, but rather adopt a prudent stance, and wait to be sure.
Otherwise you may be unwittingly opening a can of worms here.

But could we make an exception here?
It’s possible this Oscar guy may steal the show. You can expect nice accolades for the cameras at the end of the run as well.
Pistorius went to two previous meetings against able-bodied athletes and it was fine for him and the others competitors. Besides, as said earlier, his times aren’t good enough to normally qualify for the traditional runs.
The man himself likes what he does, he wants to feel like any man, he fights everyday to get this recognition, but maybe people should look at the truth and get real?

In the end, this is the artificial world of games. I understand the achievement it represents for any man or woman to be considered part of the society at the same level of any other citizen, but the context is slightly different here.
Within a game, you’re out of reality. No matter how much you try to force real life topics into games, the rules should be clear, and easy to observe, enforce and understand.

When you don’t know if artificial limbs give an advantage or not, you should not take the risk of allowing the intrusion of a foreign element which could break the rules. Otherwise you take the risk of breaking the game itself. You must be sure you don’t confer a given player an advantage over others.

Pistorius seems to be more at a disadvantage than anything else for the moment. If the disadvantage is that clear, then I think that he may be allowed to run, but such things shouldn’t become regular.
We don’t want these disciplines to turn into mockeries of what the events were for such a long time. More precisely, the disabled athletes have their own games, and they can challenge those who share the same problems.
However, on that point, you’ll notice that Paralympics don’t sort out mono legged athletes from full amputees.
Is there an aversion to the “monstrosity” of artificial limbs here?
Sure, it’s not a sight that’s easy to stomach, but maybe we could cut the whine a tad, no?

Now, some may find the IAAF’s reaction inhumane and conservative (and I do think that many representatives of federations had some really crude words over the last twelve months), but then cast ourselves in the future and consider the use of much more complex and advanced prosthetics by amputees, with characteristics which could even surpass those of able-bodied athletes.
The situation would be reversed. Although this is not going to happen anytime soon, the plausibility of such a scenario shouldn’t be brushed away, and should, on the contrary, be considered appropriately.

The relevant authorities of the world will have to deal with the sure fact that Paralympics and other games for amputees will become more intense in certain domains, and will progressively turn into Cyberlympics, Cyborglympics, Biomechalympics, or Bionympics, which could very well become even more spectacular.
This also applies to cricket.

If it does turn true, people will ask for it. When artificial limbs will allow higher leaps and more powerful smashes, I bet there will be a wide audience for this. I’m not saying we’ll get something like Space Marines playing Speedball, but able-bodied players will probably be tempted to make the switch as well, by using enhancing gears allowing for better performances, and money being what it is, authorities will probably countenance that change.
More, artificial limbs could very well become lighter and lighter, therefore surpassing the advantages of any leg enhanced with whatever mechanical devices strapped on it. A leg is still a leg, it comes with a weight, and it’s quite heavy.

So, well, let’s keep the eggs sorted and the slurring low for the moment, OK?

Oh, one last question.
How are we going to call our square eyed cyber athletes then?

EDIT: I'd like to expand this article with the following news. One can only imagine how research in stem cells could help handicaped people regrow muscles upon those joints and articulations.
That said, regrowing bones might be equally possible by then.

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