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Running Against The Wind

A double-leg amputee and his high-tech prosthetics are blazing a trail into able-bodied sports. Will they be welcomed?

3 min read

The jaw-dropping performance of a teenage sprinter from South Africa named Oscar Pistorius is raising a question once barely imaginable: can a double-leg amputee run fast enough to qualify for the able-bodied Olympic Games?

And if he did, would he be allowed to compete?

Oddly enough, the first question may be easier to answer: "I have no doubt that Oscar will eventually run fast enough to compete in an able-bodied world championship," says U.S. sprinter Brian Frasure. "He could be ready to qualify for South Africa in time for the 2008 Olympics," Frasure adds, pointing out that Oscar, barely 18, is at least 10 years away from his physical peak.

No one--perhaps not even Pistorius himself--is in a better position than Frasure to assess the young athlete's potential and just how far he might go. It was Frasure's world record that Pistorius shattered in the 200-meter dash at the Athens Paralympics last September, becoming the first leg amputee (congenital or otherwise) to run the distance in less than 22 seconds. What is more, it was Frasure, a 34-year-old clinical prosthetist, who fitted and helped design the high-tech carbon-fiber "feet"--as athletes call their artificial running legs--that Pistorius wore while streaking past him on the track.

"I should have waited until this year to make them," Frasure, who has since retired from competition, says with a rueful smile.

Pistorius, born with a congenital disorder that left him without feet, has been competing for little more than a year. "I went from a time of 24.8 seconds in March 2004 to 21.97 at Athens," he says, an improvement that Frasure described as "unheard of." The able-bodied world record for 200 meters is 19.32 seconds, and the bottom-bracket qualifying time for a sprinter going to the Olympics would be 20.75 seconds, just 1.22 seconds more than Pistorius's Athens time. "I can go a lot further--my times should get a lot better," Pistorius said in Athens.

Photo: Alexandros Vlachos/EPA/Landov

Barrier Broken:

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius set a new world record during a men's 200-meter race at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games on 21 September 2004.

True to his word, in February Pistorius shaved more than a tenth of a second off his newly minted record. Equipped with new and improved prosthetics, he was expecting to run even faster in mid-May at the inaugural Paralympics World Cup in Manchester, England, where he will also compete in the 100-meter dash [for results of that event, see].

In both events he will come up against U.S. Paralympic superstar Marlon Shirley, the only athlete in disabled sports to have a dollar income from corporate sponsorships that's counted in six figures and the only leg amputee ever to run the 100-yard dash in less than 11 seconds. Shirley admires Pistorius but does not think they should be running in the same race, even if technically they are competing in different disability categories. "The length of his legs"--and the fact that they can be adjusted, adding distance to his strides--"gives Oscar an extreme advantage biomechanically over the other [single amputee] athletes in the field," Shirley comments. As a single-leg amputee, Shirley cannot augment his height.

It may seem paradoxical that a double amputee could have an advantage over an athlete with at least one fully functional limb. Advances in materials technology have greatly enhanced performance levels in disabled sports.

The current generation of L-shaped running prostheses are made of carbon-fiber composites--first used in the aerospace industry--which combine great strength and variable stiffness with relatively low mass. Attached to a silicon-lined socket fitted over the residual limb, these "feet" are also extremely efficient springs, returning nearly all of the energy stored when the runner's weight pushes them against the ground.

Yet Frasure points out that a prosthetic foot is far less powerful than a natural limb. The prosthetic returns about 95 percent of the energy put into it when "loaded," whereas the muscles in a human leg will return more than 200 percent, he explains. Biomechanical engineers agree, but if you add the adjustable-height factor, suddenly the calculation becomes more complicated.

Which is why, if and when Pistorius qualifies one day for a top-level event, some able-bodied athletes and organizers may object. "There is no existing ruling on this question, either forbidding or allowing it," says Istvan Gyulai, general secretary of the Monaco-based International Association of Athletics Federations, which establishes qualifying criteria.

Even money says Pistorius is going to rewrite the rules.

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