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"Blade Runner" Stirs Up Olympic Controversy

Oscar Pistorius is a double amputee competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Oscar Pistorius is a double amputee competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.


It is a rare occurrence when a double amputee is accused of having an unfair physical advantage over his able-bodied counterparts, but that's the situation South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius faced heading into the 2012 Summer Games. Born without developed fibulae (the bones between your knees and ankles), Pistorius has been competing internationally on blade-like carbon fiber artificial limbs called the Cheetah FlexFoot and, not content to simply annihilate the competition in the Paralympic Games (winning four Gold medals in 2004 and 2008), he will be competing this week in London against a field of able-bodied competitors in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

While many praise Oscar Pistorius's dedication to his sport, critics of Pistorius and the Cheetah FlexFoot argue that specialized artificial limbs allow athletes to have an unfair advantage over their competitors. Carbon fiber limbs like the FlexFoot are made for running, and because they are lighter than natural limbs as well, critics argue that athletes who use them can be faster and less easily fatigued.
IAAF scientists declared that high-tech limbs like the Cheetah FlexFoot do indeed give their users unfair advantages, like decreased oxygen consumption (up to 25 percent less) and significantly less fatigue.

Oscar Pistorius started competing against able-bodied athletes in 2007. Known by his nicknames "Blade Runner" and "the fastest man on no legs," Pistorius quickly began to win against people with intact limbs. And the uproar began.

In 2008, the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), the folks that control big athletic events like the Olympics, amended their competition rules to exclude participants like Oscar Pistorius. The new rules excluded the use of "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device."

While the IAAF claimed that the amendment was not aimed at Pistorius, the timing of the change certainly was suspect, since no other athlete at the time was using such a device, and when Pistorius attempted to enter one of their events, they informed him of his inability to compete under the new rules. They also commissioned a group of scientists to monitor his races and perform tests to determine how his artificial limbs compared to natural legs and feet.

IAAF scientists declared that high-tech limbs like the Cheetah FlexFoot do indeed give their users unfair advantages, like decreased oxygen consumption (up to 25 percent less) and significantly less fatigue. These factors considered, the IAAF excluded Oscar Pistorius from their events.

The same year, Pistorius hired a legal team and found his own scientist, a biophysicist from MIT, to research his allegedly unfair advantages. After a two-day trial comprising the findings and testimony of MIT's Hugh Herr, a biophysicist and expert on artificial limbs, a higher-ranking organization reversed the decision of the IAAF. Herr argued that artificial limbs like the Cheetah FlexFoot don't give disabled people an unfair advantage, they simply even the playing field, allowing people with physical disadvantages to perform to their maximum potential.

"The laws are written to allow unusual minds and bodies to have full access in society, and that includes sports. So, we're imagining a world in which you happen to be born without fibulae, and you happen to be the world's best athlete, you should have the freedom to become that. The answer is more technology, not less. Advances in science and technology will provide Oscar and future elite athletes with unusual bodies access to the Olympics, while maintaining fairness in sport," concludes Herr.

He also says that claims of 25 percent less oxygen use among FlexFoot users are bogus as well, and that any advantages that may come with using carbon fiber limbs are outweighed by the disadvantages of being disabled. The Cheetah FlexFoot may be designed for running, but the human foot evolved for that and much more. Amputees like Oscar Pistorius have to run differently than the human body was made to, have to push off from the ground with more force to propel themselves forward, and have a lot more difficulty making turns and accelerating.

Perhaps the best argument that Pistorius and his supporters can make is that, if artificial limbs make running so much easier, why is Oscar Pistorius such an anomaly? Why don't we see a horde of bionic men and women competing in our track events? The reality is that we don't see more Oscar Pistoriuses because being an Olympic-level athlete is really effing hard, and doing it while missing limbs is even harder, no matter how great the technology you have (possibly excepting an Iron Man suit). And frankly, the Cheetah FlexFoot is not all that advanced. Carbon fiber limbs have not changed substantially in the last 15 years, so this Blade Runner is no futuristic super human. He is simply a normal man with innate athletic ability, a competitive spirit, and a lot of drive -- isn't that what the Olympics are actually all about, anyway?

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Katt Williams lays out his version of the story of Oscar Pistorius.
Last modified on Monday, 01 October 2012 14:33

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