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Blade Debate Sharpens In Run Up To The Olympics

Jun 8, 2008
Pistorius first came to the public attention when he competed in the 2004 summer Paralympics. Representing South Africa, the 17 year old from Gauteng came third in the 100m and picked up the gold medal in the 200m. As well as completing very successful turns in Paralympic competitions such as the 2007 World Cup, Pistorious began pushing for inclusion within international able-bodied competitions.

In 2005 for example, Pistorius was entered into South African Championships for able-bodied athletes and picked up gold medals in the 100, 200 and 400m races. This sparked a great deal of controversy within certain sporting communities regarding the suitability of Pestorius's carbon fibre 'Cheetah Flex-foot' blades. To his detractors, the similarity between "cheetah" and "cheater" proved an all too tempting homophonic substitution and even respected doctors and physicians became embroiled in some fairly unpleasant mudslinging.

Around this time the athletics' governing body, the IAAF, amended the rules around qualification to the Olympic Games to ban the use of any "technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device"

Though the IAAF claimed the ruling was not aimed directly at Pistorius, when they began testing artificial limbs later that year they concluded that he was indeed in breech of the ruling and was given an unfair advantage by the Cheetah Flex-foot.

In January of this year the IAAF officially banned Pistorius from competing in the Olympic Games in Beijing because they ruled his prostheses illegal for use in their competitions. A scientific study carried out by professor Gert-Peter Bruggemann insisted that Pistorius's limbs used 25% less energy than able-bodied runners to run at the same speed, and that they led to 30% less mechanical work for lifting the body.

However, unhappy with the result, Pestorius and his team appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in April. When the matter came up for review in Lausanne, Switzerland, the court threw out the IAAF's case saying that there was insufficient evidence that Pistorius's prosthetics provided any advantage over able-bodied competitors. Over-turning the ban, the CAS unanimously decided that the 'Flex-foot' prosthetics do not provide an overall advantage for Pistorius in comparison to other 400m runners, when their disadvantages are taken into account. Citing the work of American experts, the CAS felt that the original IAAF ruling had not taken into account anything like the amount of variables that would affect Pistorius run over the course of a full race.

These disadvantages were, in part, laid out by Professor Robert Gailey who contended that Pistorius's prosthetics allow for a much slower start. Because the forward thrust from the feet and calves is absent in his case, Pistorius's burst from the blocks is severely hampered. He must, in effect, immediately stand up straight to start any considerable forward motion.

In addition, Gailey highlighted a separate study to the ones undertaken by the IAAF, that insisted that, whereas the average natural leg returns up to 240% of of the energy absorbed in each stride, the 'Flex-foot' returns only about 80% meaning that the natural leg provides much more spring.

The study from America insisted that the perceived advantages itemised by the IAAF were vastly outweighed by the numerous disadvantages. Pistorius may benefit from carrying less weight in his lower leg and suffer a lower rate of lactic acid build up, but he also lacks in the strength and direction of able-bodied athletes. In short, what you do not have you cannot control.

The CAS were quick to clarify that their verdict applied only to this specific case in hand and that the IAAF may, in the future, successfully prove that Pistorius's prosthetics do provide the runner with an advantage over other 400m runners. The arbitrators also insisted that this study legitimised only the model of prosthetics that Pistorius uses now and that any technological advancement would be met by further testing.

At this point in time the IAAF have accepted the CAS's ruling and Pistorius, still only 21, is cleared to try and qualify for the Olympics in Beijing. His personal best is still just over a second shy of the qualifying standard of 45.55 seconds but then that, almost, is immaterial. Whether Pistorius qualifies for this Olympic Games or not, his case will be held as a benchmark regardless.

The ruling of the CAS, and its subsequent backlash, form the basis of a far bigger debate in the sporting world. Namely, in the face of technological progression, what biological or philosophical truths do sporting bodies hold to be self evident? Can Oscar Pistorius be included within official competitions as the "fastest runner with no legs", or does this stray too far from the collective understanding of what an athlete should be and should look like? In other words, forgetting 'advantage' for the minute, is Pistorius's method just too different for him to be compared to that which is considered normal?

In the light of such intrinsic questions one thing is certain; that this problem is not going to go away. The advancement of the biological and the bionic in sport will neither die out nor will it be silenced. Control from boards like the IAAF are crucial for the integrity of sporting achievements to be maintained, but that control must always be fairly driven, clearly devised and unilaterally implemented to cope with the complexities of the human body and its thirst for success. The IAAF can either push to allow Pistorius into the Olympic competition or move to have him banned, what they cannot do now is go back.
About the Author
Samantha is a London fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here London Shows, Hairspray and Jersey Boys.
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