At the Olympic Games this Saturday one South African athlete, Oscar Pistorius (aka, the Blade Runner runner), will make his mark in history by running on artificial limbs in the 400-meter sprint. The only problem is, some skeptics claim his prosthetic legs give him an unfair advantage.
Pistorius was born missing both fibula bones that attach the ankles to knees and ended up having his legs amputated at the calves as a baby. Twenty-five years later, he has set world records for the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes as he runs on specialized prosthetics called “Cheetah Flex-Feet” which are made from carbon fiber.
He is now competing against able-bodied athletes in this summer’s Olympics–not the Paralympics. To him, it’s all about competing with the best of the best, he told NPR:
It’s not that I don’t want to run Paralympic or disabled races, or races for those athletes who are handicapped, or amputees. But this is just a challenge for me, and any good sportsman that wants to be better has to face up to challenges that aren’t always as easy as some of the others.
But, of course, there are some who just can’t accept the fact that a double amputee can run that fast–even up to 25 mph on a treadmill for short bursts. His artificial legs give him extra spring, they claim. His legs don’t fatigue as easily as others. And the most ridiculous objection: He weighs less than other athletes because he doesn’t have full legs.
These are all theories that have been dispelled.
After a series of tests that measured how much energy it takes him to run, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled he had no advantage and couldn’t be barred from the Olympics–as long as he ran a qualifying time. In fact, prosthetics researcher Alena Grabowski from the University of Colorado says his “metabolic energy is the same as other elite athletes.”
He was able to swing his legs a little bit faster, so he had a little bit quicker turnover. But he wasn’t able to exert as much force on the ground during top-speed sprinting. So, we actually perceived that as a disadvantage. If you’re not able to push off on the ground as hard as other people, it could be that that device is limiting that ability, and you’re not able to sprint as fast.
Thankfully, Pistorius is not bothered by his skeptics:
Out of the tens of thousands of prosthetic legs they’ve made, there’s never been any 400-meter athletes run under 50 seconds. So, if this was such a technologically advanced prosthetic leg, then how come not everyone’s qualifying, or coming close to the qualification time, then?
So is it fair that Pistorius competes against able-bodied athletes? Of course. And is it fair that he uses his “Cheetah legs?” Absolutely. More power to him.
Good luck, Pistorius! We’ll be cheering you on this weekend.