The Blade Runner – Oscar Pistorius
On July 19, 2011, at a meet in Lignano, Italy, Oscar Pistorius won the 400 meters in a new personal record (PR) of 45.07 seconds. What made this significant is that it was Pistorius’ first time running under the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Championship and Olympic “A” standard of 45.25. In fact, it was a PR of over half a second (his previous best was 45.61). Now with a World Championship and Olympic “A” qualifier under his belt, Pistorius has taken another step towards competing at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu and the 2012 Olympics in London.
Pistorius is a double ampute, running on a prosthetic or carbon-fiber blade called the Flex-Foot® Cheetah® from Össur. Both of his legs were amputated when he was eleven months old because he was born without shin bones. He took up running seven years ago to rehabilitate from a rugby injury. Nicknamed the Blade Runner, he is currently the world record holder in the 100, 200, and 400 meters for disabled athletes and is a multiple gold medal winner at the Paralympics. But his goal has been to compete against able-bodied athletes at the IAAF World Championships and Olympics.
In 2007, the IAAF, which is the international governing body for the sport of track & field, banned “any device that incorporates springs, wheels, or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” This in essence barred Pistorius from competing against able-bodied athletes, notably in competitions like the World Championships and the Olympics. Pistorius appealed the ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) and in 2008 he won the right to compete against able-bodied athletes.
The next hurdle for Pistorius was to qualify for the South African team for the World Championships or Olympics. In order to do that, he would need to run a qualifying time. For the 2008 Olympics he needed a time of 45.55 but his best that year was only 46.25 so he was not selected to represent South Africa at the Olympics. For the 2009 World Championships in Berlin he needed a time of 45.95 but that season could only run a best of 47.07.
It appeared that despite the ruling, Pistorius might not ever compete at the World Championships or Olympics because he could not run the qualifying standard to be able to represent South Africa. Needing a time of 45.25 for the 2011 World Championships, Pistorius ran 45.61 at a meet in March. But he failed to improve on that time at meets in the Czech Republic, France, New York, and Eugene during the spring and early summer. In Padova, Italy, two days before the Lignano meet, he ran 46.65. Time was running out for him to run the time standard in order to be selected for the South African team. However, with his 45.07 at Lignano, Pistorius is all but assured a spot on the team (three South African runners would have to run faster than 45.07 between now and the end of the qualifying window for Pistorius to not make the team).
Pistorius is now in position to become the first amputee to compete against able-bodied athletes at the track & field World Championships. In order to qualify for the South African Olympic team in 2012 to become the first amputee to compete against able-bodied athletes in track & field at the Olympics, he will need to run under 45.25 two times during the 2012 season to satisfy the South African Olympic Committee’s selection criteria.
The initial scientific research on the Pistorius’ blades was done by the IAAF in 2007 and it concluded that Pistorius gained an unfair advantage and thus ruled that he could not compete against able-bodied athletes. The CAS reversed this ruling based on evidence that the IAAF research was not scientifically supported. They did not base their decision on scientific evidence that the blades were not an advantage.
The best scientific explanation of the findings I’ve seen appeared on The Science of Sport website by Ross Tucker, PhD and Jonathan Dugas, PhD in 2009. These two scientists were strongly of the opinion that Pistorius gains an advantage from the carbon-fiber blades. Their opinion is based primarily on the finding that Pistorius uses 17% less oxygen than elite 400 meter runners.
In late 2009, Peter Weyland and Matthew Bundle published an argument that Pistorius runs the 400 meters ten seconds faster with the carbon-fiber blades than he would if he had his own legs. Ironically Weyland and Bundle provided the evidence that led to CAS’ reversal of the ban in the first place. One year later they reversed their position, saying that they made their initial conclusions based on incomplete evidence at the time. Their claim that the blades are worth ten seconds in the 400 meters is based on the facts that Pistorius can reach a speed using 20% less ground force, and that his blades are lighter and springier than real limbs, allowing him to have a faster stride rate during the race.
Now that Pistorius is qualified for the World Championships, the debate over whether or not he gains an advantage from his carbon-fiber blades is raging once again. The above research suggests that he does gain an advantage. However, there is a counterpoint.
Geoff Turner of the Pamakid Runners in San Francisco also uses a carbon-fiber blade made by Ossur. Turner’s are made for distance running and Pistorius’ are made for sprinting. Turner states that although the prosthetic can “return ninety plus percent of stored energy while your tendons return twenty percent,” what is missed in the research is the fact that “your ankles, feet, and calves return anything from 250 to 400 plus percent in active force.” The implication being that without ankles, feet, and calves, Pistorius is not gaining active force that an able-bodied runner is gaining. In the end, Turner may sum it up best, “all of that said, Oscar would take his unborn feet over blades.”