Initially, sport for disabled people was considered to have beneficial results for the rehabilitation process, and athletic activities were undertaken to aid remedial treatment. WWII left traditional methods unable to meet the requirements of huge numbers of disabled soldiers and civilians. Dr. Ludwig Guttman founded the National Spinal Injuries Centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1944 in the UK. He organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948, a direct precursor to the Paralympics. Guttman, along with a forum of doctors, trainers, physiotherapists and administrators organised the event until 1952, after which the event evolved into the Paralympic Games. By the 1990s the Paralympics had come into its own, and Paralympic sport had become a form of self-actualisation for serious athletes.
Connecting with Technology
Over the last 20 years, the Paralympic Games have developed in to a fully-fledged event, partly as a result of developing technology. The availability of biomechanically responsive carbon fibre prosthetic limbs and aerodynamic wheelchairs are some examples. With the aid of such technology disabled athletes have not only been able to compensate for their limitations, they have also been able to transcend them – they can become ‘supercrips’ (Howe, 2011). The integrative use of technology by the athletes means that Paralympic athletes can be seen as the embodiment of the cyborg, a hybrid body resulting from the fusing of a live organism with man-made technology.
The notion of technology doping, that we know from all sports in which technological means play a part, has a special meaning in Paralympic sports. Ethically, it is completely legitimate to keep on developing the quality of prosthetic limbs. But innovations in sports equipment are always strictly regulated to avoid unfair advantage by better-equipped athletes. Some prosthetics of a paralympic athlete is both sports equipment and body part. The debate on material doping continues to shift between these aspects.
What is a Universal Body?
The IOC’s way of addressing humans in a universal way through the Games, implies a normative statement about what it is to be human. From this perspective, Paralympic sportsmen and women are set apart from the universal image, just as workers, females, and non-white athletes were set apart in the past.
Such normative prescriptions of what is acceptably and naturally human and what isn’t are also known as hegemonic humanness. Hegemonic humanism is put in practice when disabled athletes are excluded from competing in able-bodied athletic events (Butryn, 2003: 28), Today it is the disabled athlete who is struggling to recognise him- or herself in the universal human standard that is upheld at the Olympic Games. How will this struggle develop?
There are voices that predict the complete merging between the Paralympic and the Olympic Games – a series of Paralympic events next to the male and female events, to avoid new kinds of unfair advantage, either for those with a completely organic body plan, or for the technically enhanced.
P. David Howe (2011), ‘Cyborg and Supercrip: The Paralympics Technology and the (Dis)empowerment of Disabled Athletes’, in Sociology, 45:5, pp. 868-882.
D.J. Haraway (1991), Simians, Cyborgs, and Women; The Reinvention of Nature, London: Routledge.
Leslie Swartz en Brian Watermeyer (2008), ‘Cyborg anxiety: Oscar Pistorius and the boundaries of what it means to be human’, in Disability & Society, 23:2, pp. 187-190.
T.M. Butryn (2003) ‘Posthuman podiums: Cyborg narratives of elite track and field athletes’, in Sociology of Sport Journal 20: 17–39.
Butryn, T.M. (2002), “Cyborg horizons: Sport and the ethics of self-technologization”, in A. Miah en S. Easson eds, Sport, Technology: History, Philosophy and Policy, Oxford: Elsevier Science, 111-34.