Watershed moment for 'Blade Runner'

Watershed moment for 'Blade Runner'

Without lower legs, Pistorius must generate his power with his hips, working harder than able-bodied athletes.

Oscar Pistorius rocked back and forth near the start line last Saturday as the public-address announcer introduced him as the ‘Blade Runner.’ An Olympic Stadium camera cooperated by panning to the pair of carbon-fibre prosthetics that he wore with his track suit.

Pistorius, a 400-metre runner from South Africa, soon crouched to the track and placed his prosthetics into the starting blocks. Then, with a firecracker sound of the starter’s pistol, he became the first double-amputee runner to compete in the games.

This has been an Olympics full of firsts: Each nation has sent female athletes, including those from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei. A black woman, Gabby Douglas, won the Olympic all-around title in gymnastics. A man from South Sudan, the world’s newest country, is competing in the men’s marathon as an independent athlete.

While these milestones have been widely embraced as signs of social progress, Pistorius’ presence raises more complicated questions about the line between disabled and able-bodied athletes – and it ultimately may prove to be more of a watershed as the ranks of disabled athletes grow.

Many competitors have welcomed him and called him inspiring, yet others continue to debate whether his artificial legs give him an unfair advantage over sprinters using their natural legs. Saturday, Pistorius finished second in his heat with a relatively modest time of 45.44 seconds to reach the semifinals. He allowed a smile in the starting blocks and said later that he appreciated the historical significance of the race.

Recounting an admonishment by his mother, Sheila, who died when he was 15, Pistorius said: “A loser isn’t the person that gets involved and comes last, but it’s the person that doesn’t get involved in the first place. It’s a mentality we’ve always had. When you start something you do it properly.

The passion you start something with, you finish it off with.”

Pistorius, 25, was born without fibulae in his lower legs. When he was 11 months old, both of his legs were amputated below the knee. He began running after sustaining an injury playing rugby. Competing on carbon-fibre legs, called Cheetahs, he began to blur the distinction between what is considered able and disabled.

In March 2007, Pistorius finished second in the 400 at the South African national championships. But in January 2008, the world governing body of track and field ruled Pistorius ineligible.

The governing body said the carbon-fibre blades violated its ban against springs or wheels that gave an athlete a competitive edge over those not using such devices. The prosthetic legs allowed Pistorius to run as fast as elite sprinters while expending less energy, the governing body said.

In May 2008, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which mediates international disputes, struck down the governing body’s ban and said the prosthetic legs gave Pistorius no real advantage. Still, it was too late to compete at the Beijing Olympics.

The scientific debate has continued about where to draw the line between fair play and the right to compete. A 2009 study published in The Journal of Applied Physiology said Pistorius could take his strides more rapidly and with more power than a sprinter on biological legs.

Some resistance

Some resistance remains to his presence in London, where Pistorius will also run the 4x400-metre relay. Michael Johnson, the world-record holder in the 400 metres at 43.18 seconds and a two-time Olympic champion in the event, now retired, said recently that he considered Pistorius a friend and a great ambassador. But Johnson also said,
“Because we don’t know for sure whether he gets an advantage from the prosthetics that he wears, it is unfair to the able-bodied competitors.”

Saturday, Kirani James, the reigning world champion at 400 metres from Grenada, said of Pistorius: “He created history. I have a lot of respect for the guy. It takes a lot of courage, a lot of confidence, to do what he does.”

But when asked if Pistorius, who is not considered a medal contender, would be so eagerly embraced if he ran as fast as the world’s best quarter milers, James said, “That’s another story.”

Bryshon Nellum of the United States offered more unqualified tribute. While a student at the University of Southern California in 2008, Nellum was shot in both legs in a case of mistaken identity, leaving his sprinting career threatened for a period.

“If something like that happens to you and you lose both legs, some people would give up,” Nellum, who also reached the semifinals, said of Pistorius. “For him to continue to run, it’s unbelievable. It’s amazing.”

As he left the blocks, Pistorius popped straight up while others drove forward in a low, aerodynamic position, less vulnerable to wind resistance. This is among the reasons the suggestion that Pistorius has an advantage on his carbon-fibre legs is inaccurate, said Robert Gailey, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami School of Medicine, who helped Pistorius gain the right to compete.

“His ability to compete is a testament to what a great athlete he is, not because of any technological advantage,” Gailey said Friday in a telephone interview. “Literally, he has a disadvantage throughout much of the race, but he’s been able to overcome it. He’s an elite athlete. He just happens not to have feet.”

While calf muscles generate about 250 per cent energy return with each strike of the track, propelling a runner forward, Pistorius’ carbon-fibre blades generate only 80 per cent return, Gailey said. Without lower legs, Pistorius must generate his power with his hips, working harder than able-bodied athletes who use their ankles, calves and hips, Gailey said.

Pistorius also struggles more against centrifugal force in the curves than runners with biological feet, and his arms and legs tend to begin flailing in the homestretch more than able-bodied runners, costing him valuable time, Gailey said. Pistorius’ stride is not longer than other runners, as many presume, Gailey said.

“It’s not like he’s bouncing high with a giant spring,” Gailey said. The blades “basically allow him to roll over the foot and get a little bounce. The human foot operates like a spring and his feet operate like a spring. But the human foot produces more power than the blades do.”

At least six disabled athletes have now competed in the Summer Olympics. In London, Pistorius joined Natalia Partyka of Poland, who participated in table tennis despite being born without a lower right arm.

“It’s one thing being here and it’s another thing performing when you’re here,” Pistorius said. “For me, that’s a task I take seriously.”

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