Oscar: ‘fastest man on no legs’

14 May 2007

Running in the 100 metres at the Nedbank Championships for the Physically Disabled at Germiston Stadium in Johannesburg last month, South African athlete Oscar Pistorius became the first amputee to break the 11-second barrier, flying to victory in 10.91 seconds.

He followed that up with two more world records, clocking 21.58 seconds in the 200 metres and 49.16 seconds in the 400 metres.

That made it 26 times that Pistorius has broken a world record for an athlete with a disability since he first burst onto the scene at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Then just 17 years old, he took gold in the 200 metres in 21.97, breaking the old record by a full four-fifths of a second.

At the 2005 Paralympic World Cup in Manchester he stormed to gold in the 100m and 200m – and returned to the same venue to clinch the double again in 2006 and 2007.

However, as with another famous South African Paralympian, one-legged swimmer Natalie du Toit, it is when Pistorius measures himself against athletes without disability that his story gets really interesting.

Where does a man with no legs stand?
The 20-year-old has run significantly faster than his 200m and 400m world records – he’s registered a 21.34 and an astonishing 46.56 respectively – but the times were not counted by the International Paralympic Committee because they came in competition against athletes without disability.

The funny thing is: the ruling body for so-called “able-bodied” athletics, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), was apparently not impressed with Pistorius’ efforts, either.

So where does a man with no legs stand?

Pistorius is a double amputee, having had both legs amputated when he was 11 months old because he was born without fibulas, which are bones found between the knee and the ankle.

Critics are suddenly saying that the carbon fibre “blades” Pistorius uses when he races give him an unfair advantage. The issue has never seriously been raised before – for the simple reason that nobody has ever produced the kind of results Pistorius is now producing.

In a class of his own
At the South African Senior Track and Field Championships in Durban in March, Pistorius came second in the 400 metres in a time of 46.56 seconds, prompting Independent on Saturday correspondent Mike Rowbottom to call him the “fastest man on no legs”.

Speaking to Rowbottom, British Paralympic legend Tanni Grey-Thompson described Pistorius as a “stunning talent … He is as far ahead of his Paralympic rivals as Michael Johnson was over his Olympic 400m competitors 10 years ago.”

Where the IAAF has a problem, it would seem, is that Pistorius’ time puts him within realistic reach of qualifying for the 2007 IAAF World Championships and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

As Trevor Brauckmann, Pistorius’ prostheticist, sees it: “[T]he world is not ready to face the fact that a disabled athlete can be competitive with able-bodied athletes.”

Pistorius says he has held talks with Athletics South Africa about competing against able-bodied athletes, and that the International Olympic Committee’s stance seems to be favourable, but that the IAAF seems to want to close the door on him.

IAAF rules against ‘technical aids’
In its April newsletter, the body notes that it has studied the 143 rule change proposals that will be presented to the IAAF Congress in Osaka, Japan in August, just ahead of the World Championships.

In 142 cases, the body has indicated where it stands on the proposed rule change, “so as to provide guidance for IAAF Congress delegates who will be called on to vote in Osaka.”

One rule, however, was approved and brought into immediate effect by the IAAF council on 27 March – the rule relating to the use of “technical aids” in competition. “The new Rule 144.2 (e) enforces that the use of any technical device that incorporates, springs, wheels, etc is forbidden,” the IAAF said in its newsletter.

The body has reportedly scheduled a meeting for 1 August to discuss the issue.

Arguments for and against
According to Rowbottom, some argue that Pistorius’ carbon-fibre prosthetics – which have blades rather than feet at their tip – are longer than they need to be, making him taller than he would naturally be and providing him with excess spring.

Grey-Thompson told Rowbottom she had been expecting Pistorius to be banned. “When he was running less quickly, it was all quite jolly, but as soon as he started running fast times, that’s it.”

Grey-Thompson believes there’s an argument both ways. “People will say [Pistorius] can pick the length and style of his prosthetics, so maybe that gives him an unfair advantage. I think it’s probably more of a disadvantage to be running with two lower limbs missing.”

While conceding that there is logic in the likely IAAF position, Grey-Thompson adds: “I’d like to see some well-researched evidence that the prosthetics give Oscar an unfair advantage rather than for the decision to be taken because of fear of disability.

“I think this has provoked a debate about what it is to be disabled and what it is to be able-bodied.”

Running with prosthetics
Prostheticist Trevor Brauckmann, in a recent letter to the website The Final Sprint, wrote: “It is my opinion that a lot is being made of the ‘advantage’ that [Pistorius] has with his ‘carbon fibre blades,’ and not enough is said about the disadvantages that he and other disabled athletes face.”

Prosthetics have to be individually tailored to each patient, Brauckmann says; what is good for one doesn’t necessarily work for another.

“This is similar to a set of golf clubs,” he writes. “Just because they are made from a carbon fibre composite does not mean that you can hit a ball further or more accurately. You still have to be able to play golf and execute the stroke accurately and efficiently.”

Alignment is very important for athletes using prosthetics, Brauckmann adds. While an able-bodied athlete can correct for his feet hitting the ground at the wrong angle, an athlete running with a prosthetic is unable to do so.

In addition, athletes like Pistorius lack feet and ankle muscles and cartilage to absorb shock, which travels through their stumps and into their knees, hips and backs.

Other disadvantages include “stump balance, stumps that hurt and bleed, size and volume changes in the stumps, [prosthetic] legs falling off during a race, components breaking or coming loose, and ‘wheel alignment’ of the feet.”

Pistorius’ own counter-argument is much simpler; why, he asks, have other athletes, using similar prosthetics, failed to produce competitive times? Or in other words: I’m good at what I do, and don’t deserve to be punished for it.

A name made for a movie
Not surprisingly, Pistorius has already had approaches from people interested in making a film about his life. There have been rumours that actor Tom Hanks is interested in his story, though Pistorius says there has been no contact with the actor so far.

He says he has spoken to his management team about making a movie and, although it is something he would like to do, he would rather tackle the project later.

For now, he feels he is only at the beginning of his athletics career, and wants to focus on that.

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