Should Oscar Pistorius compete in the Olympics?

With all the positive excitement about Oscar Pistorius being added to the South African team in the 400m, it seems that a great deal of attention is being paid to his “feel good” story and we will no doubt be bombarded with even more coverage of Pistorius as the Games approach.

If you don’t know Pistorius’ story, you will know it by heart when the Games conclude. He was born without fibula bones and his lower legs were amputated when he was 11 months old. He runs on Cheetah Flex-Foot blades which are J-shaped metal spring-like extensions that attach below his knees, are about 16 inches long, and weigh just over a pound.

In 2008, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Pistorius could complete with non-disabled athletes. This came after the sport’s ruling body, the IAAF, had ruled his prostheses gave him an unfair advantage according to the rules.

Pistorius has run a personal best of 45.07 — remarkable considering all this man has to deal with.His personal story of perseverance and determination and courage is truly inspiring.

I’ve read some other commentaries against Pistorius’ participation in the Olympics. Each has the same questions that I do about the fairness of the competitive situation. What amazes me is the strength of the responses that follow from anonymous internet commentators. The level of ignorance that comes from a large number of those who feel the need to emotionally sound off on a topic that often they clearly have not researched.

Why do I bring that up? I saw a number of folks saying that there is evidence both ways that say the blades give Pistorius an advantage. I decided to do some research to find out just exactly what was the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision and see what they had to say about the evidence presented by both sides.

The truth is, they did not decide that the Cheetah Flex-Foot blades did not gave Pistorius a competitive advantage under IAAF rules. They said that the rule was vague and ambiguous and that their testing protocols were incomplete when looking at all physiological considerations of a 400m race.

In simple terms, the burden of proof was on the IAAF and they didn’t prove their case.

In fact, the Court specifically stated that future studies could provide definitive proof. The Court also said that the decision was specific to Pistorius and to the prosthesis that he was using. It applied to no one else and to no other version of the Flex-Foot that he might wear in the future.

[Note: I found it interesting that the Court said the Cheetah Flex-Foot has been used by many amputees, almost unchanged, since 1997.]

The Court finding did include a great deal of evidence presented by the IAAF, but referenced very little of the evidence presented by Pistorius. While not specifically stated, I wonder if this implies that the Court tended to believe the IAAF’s position, but that the evidence needed to be more comprehensive.

The final report even included this lengthy passage excerpted from the IAAF’s study conducted in Cologne:

The hypothesis that the transtibial amputee’s metabolic capacity is higher than that of the healthy counterparts was rejected. The metabolic tests indicated a lower aerobic capacity of the amputee than of the controls. In the 400 m race the handicapped athlete’s VO2 uptake was 25% lower than the oxygen consumption of the sound controls, which achieved about the same final time. The joint kinetics of the ankle joints of the sound legs and the “artificial ankle joint” of the prostheses were found to be significantly different. Energy return was clearly higher in the prostheses than in the human ankle joints. The kinetics of knee and hip joints were also affected by the prostheses during stance. The swing phase did not demonstrate any advantages for the natural legs in relation with artificial limbs. In total the double transtibial amputee received significant biomechanical advantages by the prostheses in comparison to sprinting with natural human legs. The hypotheses that the prostheses lead to biomechanical disadvantages was rejected. Finally it was shown that fast running with the dedicated Cheetah prosthesis is a different kind of locomotion than  sprinting with natural human legs. The “bouncing” locomotion is related to lower metabolic cost.

The Court’s did not dispute the Cologne study’s finding’s, but that it was not complete in that it only looked at sprinting on a straightaway and did not examine curve running. Also, the Court appeared to be even more concerned with the IAAF’s procedures during the entire process as well as before mentioned questions regarding the rule as written.

My personal thought is that Pistorius does gain an advantage that is inarguable. Without the blades, he simply could not run at all in the same biomechanical way as other Olympics athletes. Wearing lighter shoes or shaving your body hair to be more aerodynamic might give an advantage, but they are available to all and, without them, anyone can still run. In that way, it gives him an undeniable advantage that is not available to the rest of the field.

Also, if the IAAF tests are accurate — and there’s no reason to believe they aren’t — then needing 25% less energy should give him a tremendous advantage over athletes competing with both legs. Doesn’t basic physiology of exercise acknowledge the way the body must utilize different energy systems after prolonged anaerobic exertion?

If you’ve ever run a 400, you know the feeling the last 100m as your body fights to provide energy to keep your body moving. Would it be as difficult if you required 25% less energy? Does Pistorius feel the same lactic-acid buildup burning in his body at the end of a race? Does Pistorius ever have to worry about a cramp in his calf muscle from dehydration? Is he concerned with achilles tendon damage caused by over training? Of course not.

What Pistorius does do — besides provide incredible inspiration to all of us — is force us to examine the nature of what technology can do and to debate where we want the application of technology to take sport.

Is Pistorius’ blades any different really from having using steel rods to splint fractured leg bones? Both are technological advances that allow someone to do things that they would not normally be able to do and improve quality of life. Would we have the same questions of someone running with a steel rod in their leg?

I think we should honor and praise Pistorius for a great many things, but allowing him to compete in the Olympics with prosthetic blades is not one of them.



Should Oscar Pistorius compete in the Olympics? — 1 Comment