Of Blades & Men – The Oscar Pistorius Controversy

Back when I was a collegiate sprinter, specializing in the 200 and 400 meter dashes—I will save you a Google trip; I peaked at 22.15 in the 200, running unattached on a high school track that hit temperatures over 100 degrees, so that I had to lick my fingers in order to keep them on the ground before the gun went off—there was an enormous amount of fuss about a South African sprinter whose times hovered in the 47-46 second range over the quarter mile. Why, pray tell, would anyone be so interested in such pedestrian times, incapable of winning, for example, the NCAA Division I, and possibly even III, title, especially with the Beijing Olympics in sight?

The answer was not the races as much as the runner. They were run by a man with no legs.

To be fair, Oscar Pistorius has legs. What he does not have are calves, having been born with no fibula, and then being amputated below both knees at an incredibly early age. Pistorius was then fitted with his prosthetics, and lived, by all accounts, an active and normal life. Running on carbon fiber blades, Pistorius eventually cemented himself as a top double amputee sprinter, and, as his results crept closer to able bodied athletes, the discussion began. How much of his success came from him, and how much from his blades? More importantly, did the blades provide any illegal advantage?

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), track and field’s governing body, commissioned a scientific study to determine if Pistorius violated rules relating to technological aides. Conducted by German professor Gert-Peter Brueggman, the inquiry came back with results that demonstrated the carbon fiber blades gave Pistorius a clear advantage over able bodied runners. The study, which has since seen its fair share of criticism for its methodology, determined that Pistorius used roughly a quarter less energy to run the same distance as an able bodied athlete, a crucial point if anyone has ever suffered the grueling agony that is the home stretch, and that the blades returned more energy than organic limbs. In sprinting, the return of energy from striking the track is crucial for driving the legs up and pulling them through at a high rate of speed; the prosthetics effectively serve as a “spring,” to put it crudely. Armed with these results, the IAAF banned Pistorius from the Beijing Olympic Games.

Pistorius’ camp appealed the ruling, taking it before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland. The CAS was presented with a new study, headed by Hugh M. Herr of MIT, that basically determined he had no such advantages, and the Court overruled the IAAF. Pistorius failed to meet the “A” qualifying Olympic standards, and still did not compete in China, but the path was cleared for London in 2012. And now, that moment has arrived.

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While it may seem a done deal, studies released since the CAS decision have been mostly overlooked, and seem to point to the notion that Pistorius not only receives an advantage from his prosthetics, it may be a fairly large one, as well. South African scientist Ross Tucker, whose detailed breakdown of the arguments for and against Pistorius were integral to this article and can be found here, expressed his views on the CAS studies and further revelations for Inside the Games, stating that “… the CAS hearing allowed the second lot of science to bull-doze the proper interpretation of the results. There is no way they should have been allowed to make the conclusions they did.”

According to Tucker, Rice’s Peter Weyand revealed that the new energy exertion figure, which they found to be 3.7% compared to the German study’s 25%, was reached when distance runners and elite distance runners where additionally compared in the results, stretching the statistical limits (distance runners are far more oxygen–read: energy–efficient than sprinters, and elite ones even more so) until Pistorius could fall within the reasonable standard of deviation. In this way, the statistic was reduced from 17% compared to other sprinters, very close to Brueggman’s result, to 7% and finally 3.7% through the additional date from more, and more skilled, distance runners. Weyland went even further than that, publishing additional studies and stating that Pistorius’ blades give him a ten second advantage over 400 meters, an immense benefit if true.

With scientists in Pistorius’ own camp now coming out with evidence that the blades do, indeed, provide him an advantage, the question of allowing him to compete is raised anew. The Telegrpah‘s Jim White feels that this science is faulty–despite not being a scientist himself–using the argument that Pistorius’ grit and determination, which, by no doubt, he does have, is what allowed him to run the times he does. Ironically, Mr. White goes about proving this point in an incredibly suicidal way: by mentioning facts that actually point to the technology as being the great equalizer. As mentioned above, and again in the White piece, Pistorius was fitted with his limbs at an early age. Tucker points out that, by having his legs amputated before he could lay down the muscle memory to walk, Pistorius would be far more mobile than an athlete who became a double amputee later in life. The effect is similar to painting a wall; Pistorius never painted in jet black, so his first snow white paint goes on easily. An able bodied runner has their wall painted jet black in adolescence. The brain learns and re-learns, but it will never match what it lays down in the crucial years of early development. In effect, Pistorius has been practicing for this moment his entire life. White’s defense of the man–that able bodied sprinters become far slower when they become double amputees–in fact puts the above into stark contrast; those athletes are forever limited by the neural paths they originally put down.

White further maintains that “blade technology is not forever improving” and therefore cannot take the credit. Once again we turn to Tucker, who speaks from experience of athletes who receive new prosthetics and make immediate gains in performance. It is worth noting that the Cheetah has not seen “significant updates” since 1997, according to Ossur, so this by no means discredits Pistorius or his accomplishments; what he does upon those blades is extraordinary and inspiring. But to compare it to running without them is simply not fair. It is only in comparison with sprinters who have access to the same technology that the comparison can be made, and Pistorius no doubt dominates that arena.

In the end, the data seems to suggest that, as ludicrous as it sounds, a man with “no legs” has an advantage over a man with two in a sprint. While that is still a point of contention among many, Pistorius does have one major, universally recognized disadvantage: the blocks. Without the tactile sensation of his feet against the blocks and the Achille’s tendon necessary to spring from them, he is most always the slowest person to start. This is negligible over 400 meters, however, in particular if he can race the final stretch expending less energy, but it is a disadvantage none the less, and one that would most likely keep double amputee runners from closing the gap in the 100 and 200, races in which the star is instrumental, and, in the case of the 100, crucial. Short sprints aside, where does this leave the sport?

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With the CAS ruling in place, one could argue that a slippery slope of technological innovation may soon be trod upon. Opinions on this vary from it being a non-factor to envisioning a dystopian future where the world’s best athletes purposely become amputated to gain these advantages (a situation debunked by our black wall). Doomsayers wonder how long until track spikes appropriate some form of the Cheetah technology, and the entire sport descends into madness.

What it comes down to is this: if there is any sphere in which meritocracy should rule, it is in athletics. At its basest, the philosophy of sport is that the only thing separating the losers from the winners is individual talent and skill. This is, of course, a universal ideal and one that is impossible; anyone who believes that American Olympic athletes and Eritrean ones have anywhere near equal access to technology, medicine and knowledge is a fool. But on the field, we can strive to keep the playing field as level as possible. This goal is not reached by allowing Pistorius to run, for if his blades really do provide an advantage, the playing field has been shifted, perhaps paradoxically, in his direction. Only athletes who were amputated extremely young, posses the athletic ability required and can afford the expensive blades would benefit from this new field. If Pistorius’ blades indeed only level the playing field, then by all means, let the man run with his able bodied competitors. If they move him into a realm of performance that is beyond human capability, he should only compete with others on that same plane.

For right now, the argument is moot. Pistorius, even with his possibly advantageous blades, is buried far down the IAAF’s 400 meter top performances list, his season best of 45.52 and career best of 45.02 incredibly fast but still far outside the world’s top quarter milers, who operate in the rarified air below 45. Regardless of if he should be there or not, Pistorius has as much a shot of medalling in London as a bait dog does of escaping the pit still breathing. But what happens when an athlete of his caliber is approaching Michael Johnson’s world record? It is then that the Pistorius question will have to be answered once and for all.

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