"Paralympic athletics gives us a really interesting case study for the use of biotechnologies in enhancing human abilities."
Mike McNamee, Professor of Applied Ethics at Swansea University Wales enthused delegates of the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC’s) VISTA conference with a keynote address on the ethical challenges and opportunities that the Paralympic Movement faces.
Around 200 sports scientists and researchers, classifiers, coaches, trainers and sport administrators, are in the IPC's home city of Bonn, Germany for the three day long conference which this year has the theme `A multi-disciplinary approach to Paralympic success'
During his keynote address McNamee raised the question of whether athletes with highly technological prosthesis represent some kind of paradigm shift in athletics.
“Paralympic athletics gives us a really interesting case study for the use of biotechnologies in enhancing human abilities,” said McNamee.
“In a way, Pistorius’ prosthetically enhanced body and his prosthetically enhanced performance raises questions about what we think athletic achievement and identity should be all about.
“It raises the question about what kinds of technologies can you have in Paralympic sport,” McNamee said, “Because I don’t think anyone wants a situation analogous to formula one racing where what runs the event is who’s got the best technology.”
McNamee also considered, to what extent South African Oscar Pistorius’ participation in the IAAF World Championships should be considered a benefit for the Paralympic Movement.
“I feel a little ambivalent,” McNamee said, “On the one hand, Pistorius has been very successful for the Paralympic Movement by bringing to the attention of the world, not just the sports world, a range of issues that are important for athletes with disabilities to do with equality, status, identity and values that I think a lot of people would have been ignorant of.
“But on the other hand, I feel that there may be a bit of a cost as well. If there were more people like Pistorius or Natalie Du Toit, who have participated at an elite level in both disabled and able-bodied sports, what would that do to the Paralympic Movement? Would it somehow devalue it or degrade it? Would other athletes with disabilities still want to compete against them?” McNamee enquired.
McNamee also highlighted that the media and the consuming public have a narrow definition of what the athletic ideal should look like, and they do not recognize and value some the achievements of athletes with disabilties who have very high dependencies.
“What might look from the outside like a simple game of skill might take phenomenal determination, tenacity, skill, training and dedication. Boccia is one of those sports,” adding that the Paralympic Movement needed to work at also marketing athletes with higher levels of impairment.
For sports fans to be able to appreciate Paralympic Sport, McNamee also said the Paralympic Movement needs to work on packaging the sports action, and explaining the skills and techniques to the public.
“When I’m watching wheelchair racing, I pretty much get what it’s about, but I don’t understand the nuances, the subtleties, the techniques and the strategies. Maybe the Movement itself has got to get someone to talk about the strategies and techniques, what’s difficult about doing it. What kind of wheelchairs do and don’t they use? There’s an obligation on behalf of both the Paralympic Movement and the media to educate a broader sports spectatorship.”
Another challenge for the Paralympic Movement, McNamee said, is to trigger a positive emotional response from spectators – admiration of the commitment and focus of the elite athletes instead of pity.
“It’s really difficult, because part of that emotional response from the spectators may be one of pity. However as people with disabilities will tell you very quickly, that’s condescension. [Paralympians] don’t want pity, but it’s hard for people, who aren’t educated about the norms and values of this community, to know how to make an educated emotional response. One wants to be compassionate, but that can easily slide into condescension.”
“Admiration is absolutely the right emotional response to fantastic performances,” said McNamee, whose views arise from research he has been conducting for a European Union project called EPOCH which tackles the ethical aspects of policy making, particularly in relation to human enhancement.
With just under one year to go until the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and with tickets going on sale from 9 September, McNamee is hoping he will be able to experience some of the Paralympic emotion first hand.
“I think it’s going to be absolutely brilliant. I understand over a million people have already registered interest in tickets and that’s just fantastic.”
To sign up for tickets, please visit www.tickets.london2012.com.
For more information on the VISTA conference, please visit www.paralympic.org/events.