Chariots of Wire

By , Posted on 4th April 2012 - Posted in: News

On Saturday the 17th of March South Africa’s 400 metre runner Oscar Pistorius won a 400 metre race at the Provincial Championships for Gauteng North in the selection event for the South African National Championships. There’s nothing too remarkable in that bald statistic perhaps, but the winning time was recorded at 45.20 seconds, a tenth of a second under the Olympic qualifying standard. The wider significance for Pistorius, and indeed for world athletics, is that it should be enough to guarantee his participation at this summer’s games in London.

Of course Oscar Pistorius is no ordinary athlete. Nicknamed ‘Blade Runner’,¬† he has captured the imagination of the world for his ability to compete at the highest levels despite the fact both his legs end above the knees. He uses prosthetic running feet, the so-called ‘Cheetah flex-foot’ model developed by Icelandic orthopaedic specialists Ossur and his presence at the games seems certain to reopen the debate over the legitimacy of such artificial body parts in the Olympic arena.

He has passionately argued his case for many years, and has scientific data backing up his claim that the Cheetah offers no discernible advantage. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has verified use of the Cheetah and declared it doesn’t contravene the International Athletic Association of Federations (IAAF) rules and regulations, but still doubts linger and experts remain divided.

To the layman it also seems intuitive to assume there must be some sort of benefit in using the flex-foot. If muscles are replaced by metal and wire then an unfair advantage is obviously gained insofar as the athlete has fewer body parts to get injured or cramp up. A counter argument is that the muscles of his upper leg have to work that much harder to power his body around the track but that too can be countered. The fact Pistorius is having to fuel fewer muscles means his oxygen consumption, over a 400 metre sprint, has been calculated to be 17% less than his rivals. Surely this constitutes the so-called ‘unfair advantage’? My gut belief is it does, and for this reason it seems difficult to accept the case for the defence.

But these arguments are by no means conclusive and I think something bigger is at stake here than¬† theorising over what micro advantages one athlete may have over another. While scientists should continue to monitor the advantageous nature or otherwise of prosthetic devices the fact of the matter is Pistorius’s continuing dedication and professionalism has done so much to remove the prejudices that continue to surround disability. Any blurring of the public perception between what it means to be either disabled or able-bodied seems to me to be a positive development and for that reason alone Oscar deserves his place in London. Let the games begin.


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