Pistorius Not Able

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Research and Development divisions throughout the world of sports are pushing the technology envelope to make athletes more aerodynamic, to lessen impact on tumbling floors, to increase power in racquets. With 100 days to go before the Beijing Olympics, the biggest story to date has been the new ultra-streamlined swimsuits that have helped swimmers break an uncommon number of world records over the first few months of this year. It is the ultimate irony, then, that one athlete has been banned from this summer's Olympic Games because his equipment is evidently too technologically evolved. The irony comes with the fact that this athlete is physically disabled.

South African runner Oscar Pistorius was born 21 years ago with a congenital disorder of having no fibula bones in either of his legs. Before his first birthday, both his legs were amputated below the knees. With the advent of custom-designed prostheses, Pistorius played tennis, water polo, and even rough-and-tough rugby union as a kid. But when he discovered track, Pistorius found his passion.

His first success as a runner was against fellow disabled athletes. At the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens, he won the 200 meters in world record time. But controversy started the next year when Pistorius moved into meets against the able-bodied. He finished 6th in the able-bodied South African Championships in the 400 meters. With a string of similar successes, Pistorius set his sights on the 2008 Olympics. Not the Paralympics. The able-bodied Olympics.

But in January, the International Association of Athletic Federations put an end to Olympic history before Pistorius could even begin to make it. They banned him from all able-bodied competition.

The prostheses Pistorius uses for sprinting are called Cheetahs and the IAAF study found that the Cheetahs are longer than what normal legs for his height would be. They never become fatigued, they never burn calories nor oxygen, and hence they never produce lactic acid that slows down able-bodied athletes. The studies also concluded that Pistorius' limbs used 25% less energy than real legs and 30% less mechanical work for lifting the body. On the other hand, studies done at the University of Miami found the Cheetahs return only 80-some percent of the energy they absorb with each stride, whereas a natural leg returns up to 240% to the track on each stride. Real legs, in other words, provide much more spring.

It's a fascinating dilemma. On the human side, who in the world would deny a young man who has spent all the days of his life as a double-amputee a chance to compete with the best in the world? Yet on the purely athletic side, devices that incorporate springs, wheels, or any element that provides an unfair advantage are not allowed and we can understand such a ruling. Pistorius and his lawyers appealed the IAAF January ruling before the Court of Arbitration for Sport this week. One of their arguments is to demand further testing on the Cheetahs since it's such a new set of scientific issues. His lawyers also point out they want to win this right not only for Pistorius but to set a precedent for all disabled athletes. But there's the rub. Just imagine the super-bionic, ultra-flex legs that will be designed in the future. Imagine an amputee sprinter on something far superior to the Cheetahs, bounding down the 100-meter straightaway in four seconds, leaving mere mortals far behind.

It's cruel to say it aloud, but if the disabled are advantaged by such equipment as the Cheetahs, they must compete against other advantaged athletes. Without Cheetahs, or the next model of prosthetic blades, it's the able-bodied runners who have come to be disadvantaged.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Photo: Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images



Diana Nyad