Study Suggests That Amputee Holds an Unfair Advantage
The Olympic aspirations of Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, may end soon. Track and field’s world governing body is expected to announce that he is ineligible to race against able-bodied athletes because his state-of-the-art prosthetics give him an unfair advantage.
Pistorius was born without the fibula in his lower legs and with other defects in his feet. He had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old but has gone on to set Paralympic world records in the 100, 200, and 400 meters. He has defeated some able-bodied runners in his pursuit of attaining an Olympic qualifying time, touching off international debate over what constitutes disabled and able-bodied and how limits should be placed on technology to balance fair play with the right to compete.
The ruling by the International Association of Athletics Federations, track’s governing body, was informed by a scientific examination of Pistorius’s j-shaped, carbon-fiber blades, known as Cheetahs, and his biomechanics. In November, he was tested for three days in Cologne, Germany, under the supervision of Peter Brueggemann, a professor at the German Sport University.
“The I.A.A.F. has a rule which states that any technical aids which give an athlete an advantage over another are prohibited,” Nick Davies, the organization’s director of communications, said in a telephone interview from Monaco. “But there was really no scientific literature on whether these prosthetics give you an advantage or not. All we had was people’s opinions.”
The I.A.A.F. had said that it would announce its final ruling Thursday. But the organization pushed that back to Saturday, saying Pistorius, who was informed of the results more than a week ago, had until midnight Thursday to respond to the study.
Pistorius will file an official response before the I.A.A.F.’s deadline, according to his agent, Peet van Zyl.
“If it’s against Oscar, then we will appeal it and ask for a second independent set of tests to be done,” van Zyl said in a telephone interview from South Africa. “At the end of the day, his dream is to compete in the Olympic Games, and we will continue to pursue it until we believe that every avenue has been explored and every test has been done.”
Comparing Pistorius with able-bodied athletes running at the same speed, Brueggemann said he determined that, “In his blade, the energy returned was very high and the loss of energy was less than 10 percent in the artificial joint,” he said.
“Interestingly, in the human ankle joint, the energy loss is much higher in maximum speed sprinting,” he added. “This means the blade is able to replace the whole kinetic chain of the human leg and the prosthetics are much more efficient from a mechanical point of view.”
Brueggemann said this did not necessarily translate to a general advantage. But he did establish that this “different kind of locomotion” was also more efficient from a physiological standpoint.
“In the 400 meters, he was able to run at the same speed as the control subjects, but his oxygen intake was much lower,” he said.
Although Pistorius will not be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes if the I.A.A.F.’s ruling is upheld, he will remain eligible for Paralympic events.
The research project cost the I.A.A.F. in excess of $50,000, said Davies, who added that in the future if a disabled athlete wished to compete against able-bodied athletes, the onus would be on the disabled athlete to prove that his prosthetics did not confer an advantage.
Van Zyl said he was not convinced that the I.A.A.F. had made a final judgment on Pistorius.
“The way Oscar was treated was fair and the way everything was explained to us was fair,” he said. “But we believe that all avenues have not been explored and that there hasn’t been enough testing to make a final decision.”
Pistorius competed in a second-tier 400-meter race at the Golden Gala meet in Rome in July before lining up against the 2004 Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner and a handful of other Olympic medalists in Sheffield, England, later that week.
The event in Sheffield was supposed to be Pistorius’s grand entrance onto track’s global stage, but rainy weather hampered the race. Wariner did not finish after slipping out of the blocks and Pistorius was disqualified for running out of his lane.
Since then, Pistorius has been racing in South Africa and has been timed around 46.5 seconds in the 400, Davies said, well off the automatic qualifying time for the 2008 Olympics of 45.55 seconds.
“His ultimate dream is to compete in an Olympic Games, whether it’s in Beijing or the next ones,” van Zyl said. “But the goal he’s training for right now is to compete in the Paralympics in Beijing and win gold.”