Officials Question Amputee Sprinter's Tech Legs

This publication has been following the progress of Oscar Pistorius for two years now. Who's he?

Pistorius is a young athlete from South Africa who was born without feet and lower legs and eventually was fitted with a pair of special prosthetics that enabled him to take up running. He quickly became so good at it that he began to set records on the track for persons with disabilities. What happened next, though, was astounding. At the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004 (held in conjunction with the Olympics), Pistorius shocked the world of track and field by posting a time of 21.97 seconds in the 200 meters -- only 2.65 seconds off the pace of the world record for able-bodied runners. And he was getting faster in subsequent competitions.

For a backgrounder on Pistorius, you can start with contributor Marlowe Hood's full-length introduction to the young phenom, "Born to Run" (one of the first exclusive features to appear in Spectrum Online). In his report, Hood notes:

A revolution in new materials, the ever-shrinking microprocessor, and the power of CAD design tools have all pushed the technology of prostheses, in the words of Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer Hugh Herr, to the 'threshold of a new age'. The bionic man -- or at least a microprocessor-controlled bionic leg -- is already a reality. But even in the realm of passive prostheses, which by definition do not produce energy but only store and release it, recent changes have made it possible for a lower-limb amputee to run faster than ever seemed imaginable. Maybe too fast.

In an editorial in the December 2005 issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine, Editor-in-Chief Susan Hassler wondered " When Is a Disability an Advantage?".

In May of this year, we posted a Tech Talk entry that observed that: Pistorius won two gold medals in sprint events at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, England. His times were spectacular. His physical status, though, is what grabbed the attention of the press. He has become an overnight sensation, a cause célÿbre for the rights of the disabled, and a dilemma for authorities in the world of sports.

Now comes word that officials at the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) are giving Pistorius's carbon-fiber prosthetic legs a second look in terms of competitive fairness. Pistorius took part in two track meets in the last few days and had mixed performances. In Rome on Friday, he finished second in the Golden League B-field 400 meters with a time of 46.90 seconds. And in Sheffield, England, on Sunday, he finished last (47.65) in heavy rain and was disqualified for running outside his lane against a field of elite international sprinters.

In a news item from the Associated Press today, the IAAF said it is studying high-definition film of his race in Rome to see if his prostheses served to give him an unfair advantage.

"The guy Oscar beat on Friday -- the stride length was the same, but the speed through the air was slower for the able-bodied guy," IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said. "This research makes us want to do more."

Davies told the AP the initial research also showed the way Pistorius distributed energy was virtually the opposite of the way able-bodied athletes run. Unlike able-bodied runners, Pistorius was faster at the end of the race instead of the beginning.

So the saga of Oscar Pistorius continues to play out as he seeks to qualify against all comers to compete in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing on behalf of his country. To do so, the young man needs to record a time of 46.3 in the 400 over the course of the next 12 months. Will he do it? Will he be allowed to do it? Stay tuned. We'll keep you posted. We've been watching this remarkable athlete for two years. And we're not about to count him out of the running after he's come so far.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

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