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Oscar Pistorius and the Olympics: good news or bad for sport?

Oscar Pistorius – the South African double amputee athlete known as Blade Runner – will run at the at the London Olympics. Until a week ago, his hopes of inclusion in the South African Olympic team looked…

“Blade Runner’s” selection for the London Olympics has made sporting history. RAINER JENSEN/EPA

Oscar Pistorius – the South African double amputee athlete known as Blade Runner – will run at the at the London Olympics. Until a week ago, his hopes of inclusion in the South African Olympic team looked, essentially, to be zero, given he’d missed out on the country’s qualifying criteria. Pistorius himself had conceded defeat.

And then, within days of the games, South African athletic authorities decided to make an exception and select Pistorius for the 400 metres and 400 metres relay.

He will also compete in South Africa’s London 2012 Paralympics team, and will defend his 100m, 200m and 400-metres Paralympic titles.

The Olympic decision is certainly a victory of sorts, but for what and whom?

How did we get here?

Pistorius has spent most of this year travelling the globe trying to register a 400-metre time fast enough to qualify for London.

After a series of not-so-near misses, his final hope was last month’s African Senior Championships in Porto Novo, Benin (see video below). Again he missed, this time by a relatively narrow 0.22 of a second.

The move by the South African Olympic committee to overturn its earlier decision means Pistorius will become the first amputee to compete against “able-bodied” sprinters at the Olympic Games. By any measure, it is landmark moment in the history of modern sport.

Pistorius during a training session in 2008. Gerlinde Schrijver/EPA

Who is Oscar Pistorius?

Pistorius was born without fibulas (calf bones) and learned to walk on prosthetic legs. After a remarkably sport-filled childhood, he became the world’s dominant Paralympian male sprinter and by the mid-2000s was looking for new challenges.

His application to be allowed to compete at the 2008 Beijing able-bodied Olympics was initially turned down by world athletics’ governing body, the IAAF, on the basis of a single scientific study.

The study found that Pistorius’ carbon-fibre prosthetic legs – or “Cheetahs” – gave him an unfair advantage over “intact-limb” runners.

The IAAF’s haste to resolve the issue, not to mention the small amount of data it relied on to arrive at its decision, probably made what happened next inevitable.

With legal and scientific experts on board, and armed with their own data refuting the unfair advantage conclusion of the IAAF’s study, Team Pistorius took their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), sport’s equivalent of the Privy Council.

CAS duly overturned the IAAF’s decision, finding that the original study had not conclusively proved unfair advantage.

Although greeted with disbelief in some circles, the decision was not all that surprising. As anyone who studies it will tell you, human motion is an extraordinarily complex and subtle mechanical and physiological phenomenon.

Pistorius at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in 2011. Rainer Jensen/EPA

No matter how good the IAAF’s original study was, it was never going to provide the last word on the matter.

At this point, things get murky and, among those who’ve taken an interest in the affair, impartiality is rare.

Cans of worms

At the time of the CAS verdict in 2008, I had a small involvement in the sporting media and it was immediately clear that many thought the decision a great day for the human rights of disabled people and step forward for sport.

What most people didn’t know at the time was that Pistorius and his entourage are a formidable entity and enjoy substantial financial backing. Their publicity machine has been keen to play up the human rights angle and much less forthcoming about the involvement of Pistorius’ many sponsors and the commercial interests of the Cheetahs’ makers.

More recently, online discussion among scientists reveals a couple of interesting things. First, some point out that a wide range of relevant variables – such as the comparative elasticity of human tissue compared with carbon-fibre, the length of the prosthetic limb and the nature of the articulation between the prosthetic and the body – were not even considered in the CAS decision.

In short, some scientists believe that Pistorius’ carbon-fibre blades give him a clear and unarguable advantage over non-disabled runners, which brings us to a second worrying development.

There are those who say their attempts to communicate scientific concerns about the CAS decision to the media have been ignored or misunderstood because it spoils the “feelgood” story Pistorius has provided. Worse, I have read claims that pressure from disability advocates has convinced some experts to simply say nothing.

In one sense, the controversy surrounding Pistorius is misplaced: CAS made it clear that their ruling only applied to the use of one particular type of blade; the kind that Pistorius uses and no other.

In reality, there are many more advanced forms of the device in the pipeline and the issue will need to be tackled again. And this is the point that most commentators have missed.

Pistorius has managed to garner support precisely and only because he has been close, but not too close, to the performance of the best non-disabled athletes. If he had been much slower, the whole business would have seemed slightly sad and disappeared quickly.

But if Pistorius had managed to beat his non-disabled peers – and at one stage his rate of improvement was so fast this did not seem impossible – spectators would have been left with the extremely confusing task of deciding what to make of it all. Would it have been a sporting result that made sense to anyone?

Sport, but not as we know it

On the surface, the Pistorius case looks like a fight over science: does he have an advantage or not?

In reality it is something quite different. The prosthetically-enhanced human who can easily outrun their “normal” competitors is coming. He or she is just a matter of time.

The question for people who care about sport and want to preserve the enjoyment we get from it is how far we allow the technologisation and the commercialisation of sport – and despite all the emotion, Pistorius represents both – to go.

Pistorius at press conference of the IAAF World challenge Golden Spike athletics meeting in Ostrava in May. Filip Singer/EPA
The risk is that one day, regardless of what the scientists say, we will be presented with sporting contests that don’t look or feel like sport any more. At that point, the golden goose will be dead.

Pistorius’ ultimately successful struggle to qualify for London has, perhaps not surprisingly, garnered much less media attention than the original decision to let him try.

What this calm before the inevitable storm conceals is that we have entered the final stage of a cold war that began in the 1960s between the people who make money out of sport and the people who watch it.

This war revolves around finding answers to a single organising question that sport’s entrepreneurs ask themselves every day: how far can the paying public’s understanding of what sport is be stretched, mutated and exploited for commercial advantage without undermining their emotional commitment to it?

In this sense, the struggle is between those who like sport the way it is and those for whom stasis is death.

There can only be one winner. And so one day, although we won’t know why, we will wake up and know that we don’t care any more.

Enjoy it while it lasts, I say.

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29 Comments sorted by

  1. James Wookey

    Paramedic

    Fantastic article.

    I'd be interested to see how/if the tech filters down to the every day much like the way it does in motorsport. Plus if a disabled athlete can now be selected to compete equally at the highest level the social and workplace/career implications for the physically disabled in the general public could be huge.

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    1. Michael Gard

      Senior Research Fellow in the School of Education, Southern Cross University at Southern Cross University

      In reply to James Wookey

      Good point James. The answer is that the tech companies are licking their lips and the motor sport model is exactly the scenario they have in mind. It is now quite well known that there is a strategy here to use elite disabled athletes as the marketing front-line for the eventual mass-production of an entirely new generation of devices. Of course, this is no crime and stuff to help disabled people live more comfortable lives is obviously a good thing. My interest, though, is to not look at this issue…

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  2. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    He has no legs, remind me again about how he has an advantage!

    I agree the original testing was flawed, the revised testing showed his foot strike was less efficient than a normal leg, so he was actually at a disadvantage. What some are talking about now is the new developments and compensating for the lack of stretch shortening cycle from a lower limb.

    Either way, speak to amputees about how comfortable it is to wear prosthetics for any length of time, let alone perform heavy training in them. Speak to amputees about all the other disadvantages they face in trying to prepare for sports. And also remember that Pistorius hasn't posted a time that would get him into a final at the Olympics. He'd have to shatter some personal bests to get past the semi-finals.

    The guy has no legs, let him compete.

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    1. Michael Gard

      Senior Research Fellow in the School of Education, Southern Cross University at Southern Cross University

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Let him compete no matter what? Surely how much he has or has not overcome to get there is irrelevant? Actually, "reminding" you how he has an advantage would take a long time, and the people who study this are not in much doubt about it. The point though, is that it is only BECAUSE he is not likely to win that he has been allowed to compete. How this is good for sport or disabled people is not clear to me at all. One of the things about studying Pistorius is that you find out interesting stuff like the amount of money behind him and funny little things like his coach's admission that he wished Pistorius would train harder. You see? The point is that what the blades might actually have done is turn a moderate athlete into an Olympic level one. This is all speculation, of course. But just because he is not going to win in London does not mean that the prosthetics don't give him an advantage.

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    2. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Michael Gard

      I think you are assuming that he is competing against athletes who don't also have advantages.

      I agree that the technology may get to the stage were it is adventitious. Currently the science has said it isn't. But this is the same kind of gear review that occurs with shoes, support equipment, clothes (the famous shark skin suits which are proven to be adventitious), etc, on a regular basis. Considering that most athletes are amateurs and aren't from rich countries, just being a professional from a wealthy country will see better results.

      All that really needs to happen is the same gear reviews that sports conduct.

      As to how this is good for the sport: I'm not sure that is the issue. The issue is more about all athletes being able to compete if they are good enough. I'm surprised we haven't seen more para-olympians cross over, especially in shooting sports (archery, clay, trap, etc).

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    3. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      To put another way: how many athletes will be signing up to have their limbs amputated to compete?

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    4. Michael Gard

      Senior Research Fellow in the School of Education, Southern Cross University at Southern Cross University

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      The science has not "decided" that there is no advantage. This is very, very far from the actual situation. What has happened is that Pistorius' well organised team managed to convince a non-scientific body - CAS - that there is not conclusive evidence of advantage. Tim, no official body of any kind has decided that he has no advantage. This may seem a small point, but the bottom line is that, so far, Pistorius and his people have not had to clear a stringent scientific hurdle. The current situation…

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    5. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Michael Gard

      Sorry, I was under the impression that they had tested the legs. My mistake for believing Catalyst.

      I was discussing this article further this afternoon and there are a number of comparisons that can be made. The equipment available to certain athletes and not others is just one example. The swimming suits were another example. Drugs are the elephant in the room, and we know that they are used. But something we all have to remember with all of this is that the best athletes have always been the best athletes.

      Take a look at any track athlete and their times going back to high school. They were always progressing through the ranks. None of them exploded onto the international scene, they had all been breaking the high school record, then the local meet, state meet, etc, before they got into the big leagues. So no international level athlete has gotten to the high levels due to "tools" of the sport, they were always destined to reach that level, with or without the "tools".

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  3. Christopher Rawlinson

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Great insight in to the future pitfalls that sport may encounter unless it asks questions now and gives a real answer rather than a politically correct opinion. After being an elite track athlete for over a decade you need only see the last 100m of the race to see the impact of the blades, mere mortals drown in lactic acid, whereas blades don't.

    I think what will be interesting is watching what leg he runs, as his weaknesses is the start. If he runs a rolling leg in the 4x400m with no start then watch the clock. Its all fun and games till he wins an individual medal then watch the fallout.

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  4. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Running in the Olympics is for athletes with legs. No one thought to write such a rule, since it is obvious, hence the current controversy.
    Running isn't very essential to human existence anyway. We don't chase game for our dinner, just buses.
    There are far more barriers for those with disabilities that should be addressed than a diversion created by one guy using springs to participate in the Olympics.

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  5. Frank Marino

    logged in via Facebook

    Here is the problem..." After being an elite track athlete for over a decade you need only see the last 100m of the race to see the impact of the blades, mere mortals drown in lactic acid, whereas blades don't"

    You see, lactic acid does not play a role in the slowing down of mere mortals...it never has and this is another way in which the science has been distorted. So, making judgements about the merit of scientific evidence requires insight into the science. If we believe that lactic acid is the culprit in reducing performance then we will believe anything. I along with many others I have spent the good part of a lifetime studying the biochemistry of fatigue and it turns out that lactic acid, high or low has no regulating role in the development of fatigue....so my point is that we need to understand the science before we really comment on what it says, doesn't say or actually what it means!

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    1. Christopher Rawlinson

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Frank Marino

      I take it Frank you have never been an elite athlete? One session we always used to run to test speed our endurance was 6x300m of 3mins recovery. We had numerous sports physiologists at the track taking samples during the session, and there was a relationship between the apparent slow down in our times and our lactic levels jumping to over 20! These were real results with real athletes (5 of which were in the top 10 in the World in 400m/hurdles) not lab based with randoms who consider themselves fit for testing and inferences being made about elite athletes from the results. So according to your research lactic acid has no role in the athlete slowing? why then when I took a lactic buffer the levels reduced and I maintained a higher velocity in the last quarter of my race? must be coincidence, oh and recovery rates improved with a lower final lactic level and finally every personal best I have including my World record was run using this methodology.

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  6. jamie calder

    anaesthetist

    Consider this: a carbon limbed competitor breaks the world record by 5 seconds. No discussion; the record is not allowed. Breaks the record by 1 second? Wins at the Olympics, but no record? What about just a bronze? So where exactly does one draw the line?
    Good on this bloke for having a go, but it defies logic that he be allowed to compete.

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  7. Matthew Taylor

    Lecturer in Biomechanics at University of Essex

    An interesting article....I’m just going to add my two pennies worth (or cents worth for our Australian hosts).

    There are some interesting things to reiterate here. As mentioned in the article the CAS ruling is for Oscar and his current prostheses. If another athlete comes along or a different prosthesis is used then the whole process starts again. What is interesting though is that this type of dynamic response (energy storing) prosthesis which Oscar wears has been around for a good few years…

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  8. Chris Barnes

    logged in via Facebook

    The issue is certainly complex: but similar complex issues are likely to arise sooner rather than later, and there is an advantage in addressing them sooner rather than later. Ultimately it is technically possible now to create a level playing field on which all levels of enhancement/disability can compete 'on their merits'. Th problem is essentially a classification problem, such as has been tackled successfully (more or less) by the IPC (for example) for athletes with disability (AWD) competitors…

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  9. James Rule

    logged in via Twitter

    I propose that anyone who thinks this gentleman has an unfair advantage cat their legs off at the knees & give it a go.

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    1. peter williams

      writer

      In reply to Michael Gard

      Oscar smashed a junior paralympic world record 3 months after taking up track sprinting without the help of sophisticated cheetah running feet. Amputee runners are 25 seconds slower in comparison to able bodied counterparts when it comes to the 800 meters.

      If you read the CAS ruling not only do they state there is insufficient evidence to conclude Pistorius has an advantage but also the original testing was skewed to show pistorius gets an advantage from the cheetah feet.

      From what i know the…

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    2. Michael Gard

      Senior Research Fellow in the School of Education, Southern Cross University at Southern Cross University

      In reply to peter williams

      I guess I would just ask people to consider the statement Pistorius "gets no advantage from his blades". Really consider it. We're all intelligent people, right? So, take a deep breath, stare into the mirror and say "Oscar Pistorius gets no advantage from his blades". Go on. Try it. A caramello bear to anyone who can look themselves in the eye and keep a straight face. I had a go. It can't be done. And in case you think I'm being sarcastic, the point is that, as a statement, it's not that it's so obviously wrong; it's that it's a statement utterly without meaning. As, if we are to be honest, is the statement that he does get an advantage. If I'm honest, I have no idea what either position is actually saying. Why? Because Pistorius on stilts is playing a different sport as his competitors on legs. It's like racing a canoe against a sculling boat. Sure you can do, but what does it mean?

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    3. James Rule

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Gard

      it's not like racing a canoe against a sculling boat at all. it like removing someones limbs, then them to learn to use prosthetic limbs & then asking them to race an able bodied athelete. Sport is about human endeavour & this should be celebrated, rather than using it as another excuse for complaining.

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  10. Janelle Slattery

    logged in via Facebook

    So the CAS ruled that there was no advantage???
    I suggest everyone do a little bit more homework to gain a balanced view and then make an opinion.
    Visit this site, it gives a great run down on the whole story a bit more:

    http://www.sportsscientists.com/2011/12/science-of-sport-awards-controversy-of.html

    And this site for THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY!

    http://smu.edu/education/APW/LocomotorNews.asp

    I work in Human Biomechanics and have been following Oscar's situation for a number of years now...

    i WORK IN

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    1. peter williams

      writer

      In reply to Janelle Slattery

      I have read these sites and i am pretty unimpressed by their arguments. One of Dr Weylands and Dr Brundels key claims is that Oscar gets a10 second advantage from his legs. You would think that in the large population of amputee sprinters who use the cheetah legs there would be someone who is above the hack level. If their claims are true no amputee sprinter could run a 400 under 52 seconds meaning all amputee sprinters could not even make their high school teams It doesn't make sense.

      I believe that myself and others who support Oscar are not doing so out of emotion but out of reason. One thing i commonly hear from Oscars detractors is he cannot injure his achilles as if this ends the argument. It is true but his training is severely hampered by the fact that the force from running is detrimental to his stumps. if people were being fair and considering the matter deeply this should have occurred to them.

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  11. Matthew Taylor

    Lecturer in Biomechanics at University of Essex

    Perhaps its an idea to go to the primary sources which are often cited in websites and press reports.

    this is the IAAF commsioned paper by Bruggerman et al.

    http://users.auth.gr/~lmademli/Analysi_Vadisis/Pistorius_SportsTechnology2008.pdf

    this is I think what is cited as the houston report in CAS by Weyand et al

    http://jap.physiology.org/content/107/3/903.full

    this is the point/counter-point debate in JAP i mentioned in a previous posting - note that it is between Weyand/Bundle…

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    1. Janelle Slattery

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Matthew Taylor

      Thanks Matthew, I had forgotten about the JAP debate...wonderful!
      I think we all need to see that biomechanical analysis, like many other anylysis can be rather skewed depending on how one interprets the data presented.
      Also, that there is little data comparing able bodied runners to double-leg amputees (rather than unilateral amputees) around, makes for an interesting debate!

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  12. Stu Rayner

    Primary teacher

    My first ever post. While reading this article I had a few rather markedly unusual thoughts regarding Oscar Pistorius. These are ideas. No science to back these thoughts

    Firstly, with say 10% of his structural volume removed from his body,(amputation) his heart does not have to work as hard to pump oxygenated blood to his lower limbs. The heart he was born with was designed for pumping the entire full length body. It only needs to pump blood to the knee and return again to be oxygenated. So…

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Stu Rayner

      In reality, disabled people have shorter lifespans than the average by about 10 years. Reality is the exact opposite of your scenario.

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    2. Stu Rayner

      Primary teacher

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Thanks for the reply. I didn't know that amputees have shorter life spans. Killed my idea stone dead. I was kind of hoping that maybe something special was happening in his body form to lift his performance.

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  13. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    Incredible stuff :)
    And sure, let him play. After all. there will always be investors in a idea that may capture peoples mind, and sure, they do if for the profit. But that doesn't state that Oscar does it for that purpose. And if we really want (do we?) to be honest, what professional athlete today ignore money? I don't think such exist myself?

    It will be a kick for all disabled persons seeing him compete, especially the young ones, and give sports and a healthier lifestyle a big boost. Can't see anything wrong in that? And if it someday gets proven that it did give him a 'unfair edge' then we'll take that discussion when it comes.

    As it is I'm really impressed with Oscars accomplishments.

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  14. Pamela Valemont

    logged in via Facebook

    Things alter dramatically and drastically for Oscar Pistorius after he enters a parlous new cycle numerologically on 22nd July. This cycle, which does not bode well for his chances in the upcoming murder trial (which date has been set down for 19th August), will continue through to 22nd November, 2013. If you would like to read the updated version of my book Oscar Pistorius Reeva Steenkamp A Double Tragedy, please go to Lulu and type in my name Pamela Lillian Valemont, or follow this link to the ebook http://www.lulu.com/shop/pamela-lillian-valemont/oscar-pistorius-reeva-steenkamp-a-double-tragedy/ebook/product-21089409.html Also available in soft and hard cover. Thank you.

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