Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 93–110 | Cite as

The “Second Place” Problem: Assistive Technology in Sports and (Re) Constructing Normal

  • D. A. BakerEmail author
Original Paper


Objections to the use of assistive technologies (such as prostheses) in elite sports are generally raised when the technology in question is perceived to afford the user a potentially “unfair advantage,” when it is perceived as a threat to the purity of the sport, and/or when it is perceived as a precursor to a slippery slope toward undesirable changes in the sport. These objections rely on being able to quantify standards of “normal” within a sport so that changes attributed to the use of assistive technology can be judged as causing a significant deviation from some baseline standard. This holds athletes using assistive technologies accountable to standards that restrict their opportunities to achieve greatness, while athletes who do not use assistive technologies are able to push beyond the boundaries of these standards without moral scrutiny. This paper explores how constructions of fairness and “normality” impact athletes who use assistive technology to compete in a sporting venue traditionally populated with “able-bodied” competitors. It argues that the dynamic and obfuscated construction of “normal” standards in elite sports should move away from using body performance as the measuring stick of “normal,” toward alternate forms of constructing norms such as defining, quantifying, and regulating the mechanical actions that constitute the critical components of a sport. Though framed within the context of elite sports, this paper can be interpreted more broadly to consider problems with defining “normal” bodies in a society in which technologies are constantly changing our abilities and expectations of what normal means.


Assistive technology Human enhancement Athletics Fairness Prosthetic Normality 



I am grateful to Nick Schweitzer, Joe Herkert, Jay Klein, and Troy McDaniel (Arizona State University) for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. No funding was used to complete this research. Portions of this paper were presented at the 2014 IEEE International Symposium on Ethics in Engineering, Science, and Technology, May 2014.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Consortium for Science, Policy, and OutcomesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  2. 2.ASU Social and Behavioral SciencesPhoenixUSA

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