Techno-Doping debate levels the playing field | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 30.08.2012
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Techno-Doping debate levels the playing field

The Paralympics are more professional than ever - with new sporting records thanks to technology. But some say 'techno-doping' gives disabled athletes an unfair advantage.

A thousand reports have been written and filed, a thousand photos have been taken, and once again hundreds of journalists have come to record Oscar Pistorius' every move.

The South African runner, who uses prostheses, has become a sports icon like no other. He blurs the line between the Olympics and Paralympics.

Politely, Pistorius answers the questions from the media gathered in London.

"The focus shouldn't be an athlete's disability, or the technical support they get, but their skills and their willpower," he says.

The Paralympics were first developed as part of efforts to rehabilitate war veterans – but they are now a professional stage for 4200 athletes from 166 countries.

And as with the Olympics, the Paralympics are all about breaking records, gaining sponsorship, broadcast ratings – and the latest technology.

Whether it is wheelchairs or prosthetics, scientists develop the equipment needed to make the everyday lives of disabled people better. But the same equipment is also changing the disabled sports world.

Some say the advances in technology give disabled athletes an unfair advantage. They call it "techno-doping" for short. And Oscar Pistorius has been drawn into the firing-line.

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius starts his men's 400m round 1 heats at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium August 4, 2012.

Oscar Pistorius has competed in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games

Working day and night

At just 11 months old, Pistorius had both legs amputated below the knee. But he dedicated himself to sports, breaking records using carbon fiber prostheses.

A few weeks ago, Pistorius took part in the Olympics, where he reached the 400 meters semifinals.

His critics argue he had an unfair advantage because his prostheses are lighter than human legs and have been optimized for running on all surfaces.

Pistorius has repeatedly defended his use of prostheses in hundreds of interviews, but now wants to focus on defending the three gold medals he won at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. On his behalf, his supporters say prostheses can never be stronger than legs.

Rüdiger Herzog, who works in the prosthetics industry, agrees.

"It's an absurd and unsporting argument," Herzog says. "It simply ignores the fact that these people train, too. The technical support that the athletes get is more like leveling the playing field."

Herzog works for Otto Bock, a world leader in prosthetics. Since 1988, Otto Bock has organized maintenance workshops at the Paralympics. In London, eighty technicians will work approximately 10,000 hours repairing the athletes' equipment. Wheelchairs, broken bats, and defective prosthetic knee joints will all be repaired or replaced free of charge.

"Providing technical assistance is our contribution to equal opportunities – we want to help improve the quality of life for the athletes," says Herzog.

The human factor

The United Nations would like to see all sports people – able-bodied and disabled – competing together. Rather than calling for integration, it calls for full inclusion.

And in sports, that means breaking down barriers.

"In the end, it all comes down to the human factor," says Paralympian Marc Schuh, "because we all train very hard."

Paralympian Marc Schuh

Marc Schuh - a favorite in the 400 meters wheelchair race

The 23-year-old has caudal regression syndrome, which affects the lower part of the spine. As a result, he lacks stability in his legs. But he is one of the fastest 400 meters wheelchair racers in the world. He is the favorite to win the event at the Paralympics.

He also studied physics at Heidelberg. Together with his father, he developed an instrument to analyze the performance of racing wheelchairs.

Different in developing countries

Schuh won his first race using an everyday wheelchair. Then, he persuaded his parents to buy him a racing wheelchair. He quickly went from one win to another.

His success attracted interest from wheelchair manufacturers. The sponsorship helped - a single racing season can cost 35,000 euros ($43,925) and a good racing wheelchair can cost about 5,000 euros.

It could be argued that the sponsors have helped Schuh achieve his success.

To some, Schuh and Oscar Pistorius represent a luxury gap. Many other disabled athletes do not enjoy the same access to medical infrastructure or sponsorship – such as Thin Seng Hon - the only athlete from Cambodia at the London Paralympics.

Cambodiahas the largest population of amputees because of the many landmines left from war.

Her prosthetics cost 1,990 euros - paid for by friends.

Back at the maintenance workshop, Rüdiger Herzog says he has dozens of stories to tell about athletes who have exchanged old or defective joints, prostheses and wheelchairs for new ones. Sixty percent of his materials exchanged are used in everyday situations – only 40 percent in sporting competitions.

"The athletes will benefit for a long time," says Herzog.

It might not be like Oscar Pistorius - with medals, money and fame - but they may well have a better life.

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