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What To Do About The "Blade Runner"

June 1, 2008 - Erik Brown

Oscar Pistorius is at the same time both inspirational and controversial.


The inspirational aspect is this: Pistorius is a double below-the-knee amputee. He is able to run – quite fast actually – using prostheses called, ironically enough, Cheetahs. He may be good enough to make South Africa’s Olympic 4 X 400 relay squad. My runner’s soul hopes that he does.


The controversial aspect is this: The IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) initially banned Pistorius from competing in IAAF-sanctioned events – including the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing. The IAAF’s ban was based on the results of an independent study conducted by Peter Brueggemann, one of the world’s leading experts in running biomechanics, and Ross Tucker, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. They conducted a battery of tests and concluded that Pistorius’s prostheses enable him to use significantly less energy than able-bodied athletes when running at the same speed. The key findings of their report said that the Cheetahs produced:


1.)    Less Energy Loss - Energy is lost when the foot hits the ground running. The Cheetahs lost 9.3 percent versus 41.4 percent energy loss experienced by able-bodied sprinters.


2.)    Less Vertical Motion - The Cheetahs produce significantly less vertical force than the human foot. So, the energy return produced by the blades pushes Pistorius in the right direction – forward, not up.


3.)    Less Fatigue - Tucker believes that the loss of propulsion Pistorius experiences by not having lower-leg muscles is more than made up for by the fact that the Cheetahs have no chance of fatiguing. Plus, they weigh less. The mass of each prothesis is about 2.2 pounds, which is 13 to 17 pounds less than a human lower leg.


4.)    Equal Speed, Less Energy - Pistorius can run the same speed as able-bodied sprinters using 25 percent less oxygen, due to the blade's energy return.


5.)    Superior Energy Return - When you run, the body sends energy into the ground and receives some back, which helps propel you forward. Because the Cheetah's carbon-fiber blades are so stiff, they produce three times more energy return than a human ankle. "There's evidence that a stiffer tendon returns more energy," says Tucker, "and the Cheetah is a lot stiffer than any human leg."     


Pistorius appealed the IAAF decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The Court ruled that currently, there is not a sufficient body of evidence to prove that Pistorius obtains an advantage from the use of his prosthetics.


So, for now at least, Pistorius is cleared to compete – all the way up to the Olympics if he can make the team. But the debate is hardly settled. My heart is on his side, but my head tells me the IAAF was wise to proceed with caution.  


It seems to me that there are a lot of folks who are listening only to their hearts. Mark Remy, a columnist for Runner’s World weighed in on his blog. He concludes with this:


“…do any able-bodied folks – runners or not – really believe that not having legs is an advantage for a runner? And if so, how many of them have scheduled appointments with a surgeon?”


That REALLY ticked me off! I don’t mind if people decide how they feel about this based on their emotional reaction to it, but it really bothers me when they “support” their position by attacking the character of someone who takes a more analytical approach. Remy basically accuses folks who are concerned about the mechanical advantage of the prostheses of being jealous of Pistorius. Give me a break, please! It is impossible to have a productive dialogue about this serious matter when one side is making such irrational statements, and it is Pistorius who gets caught in the crossfire. 


So I wrote the following as a comment to his post on Runners World.     


Nice try Mark (Remy). Actually, I take it back. In your eagerness to convince yourself that you have great empathy and compassion you completely dodge any honest analysis of the facts and potential ramifications of the Oscar Pistorius case. Furthermore, you deliberately insult those of us who are able to set aside our emotions long enough to permit some degree of rational thought to guide us through such an important and complicated matter as this clearly is.   


The question isn't whether “not having legs is an advantage for a runner” as you sarcastically frame it. Rather, the question is whether an unfair advantage results from wearing the prosthetics that Mr. Pistorius uses.


There are other questions too. Who may use these prosthetic devices? And, what about the incredible pace of technological advances that could render a myopic, albeit well-intentioned decision today, a disaster tomorrow. This is a very complicated matter, that probably requires a great deal of data and a degree in physics to properly work through.  It’s a critically important issue because the integrity of our sport is on the line. I doubt that you have all the answers. I'm sure I don't.


Personally, I’m rooting for Pistorius. But only if it can be shown by thorough, objective analysis that his prosthetics do not result in an unfair advantage, and only if a comprehensive set of rules can be promulgated to address the inevitable advances in technology, etc. We're not heartless Mark, just thoughtful.


P.S. You might want to schedule your own appointment with a surgeon. You might have torn a meniscus from your knee jerk approach to this issue.

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