Olympics 2012: Jerry Pournelle on the Blade Runner

Written by Jerry Pournelle

South African double amputee became the first double amputee in history to race in the Olympics.

Do you think the Six Million Dollar Man would be eligible for Olympic events? Could he have played Olympics basketball? Should he be allowed to?

At the Summer Olympics 2012 Games in London last week, South African double-amputee Oscar Pistorius — aka “the Blade Runner” made history when he raced on his blade-like prosthetic legs. And now execs at the Boston Athletic Association say Pistorious, an Olympics finalist, will be eligible along with other prosthetic-wearing runners to run in the Boston Marathon.

Where is the line? The question is increasingly relevant.

It could well begin with something spectacular like a military veteran amputee wanting to compete in women’s pole vaulting, but there will also be cases of artificial hip replacements.

We already allow professional competition in basketball — and that includes being on the Olympic team — and this is by men whose knees have been rebuilt. Often with the implantation of man-made parts.

So far as I recall those have all been passive parts, such as pins, but from there to a full joint is a logical step.

Then comes augmentation. But isn’t any artificial moving part potentially an augmentation, reducing friction or wear or even fatigue?

It was fun writing about such matters when it was all science fiction, but it’s not really science fiction anymore.

And as Moore’s Law continues its inevitable march such things will be common.

Pacemakers are not at the moment an augmentation, but it’s easy to conceive of a pacemaker doing a better job for an athlete than the neural equipment he was born with.

At what point do we set stop rules? We forbid drugs as augmentations. But what about knee rebuilds, new tendon attachments and so on?

Are those less augmentive than drugs? And which drugs lie on which side of the line? It cannot be arbitrary.

Maybe we will have a new Special Olympics for natural controls only, athletes with no augmentations, drugs or artificial parts?

Does anyone remember the Control Normals in Robert Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon?

For Chaos Manor and aNewDomain.net, I’m senior commentator and columnist, Jerry Pournelle.


  • The whole “blade runner” eligibility question is very interesting, especially to me as a former high level athlete. The IAAF have run tests and say that he does not gain an advantage….which may or may not be true, but for sure you can see that he is generally much slower at the start, and much faster at the end….so somewhere he must be running faster than the others

    The other aspect is his actual times – his current PB for 400m is 45.07 seconds. Now this is nearly 2 seconds off the world record. He may improve…..but what if he improves by that 2 seconds and actually breaks the world record?
    What if another amputee, with more 400m talent comes in and runs 42 seconds for the 400m?

    I agree with you – somewhere there is a line….and I think the IAAF have overstepped it. There is no doubting that Oscar is an incredible athlete but my feeling is that somewhere he does get an advantage