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Pistorius' loss to Oliveira fuels the ‘disruptive technology’ debate

“Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius is no stranger to controversy. This morning in London (AEST) the South African athlete was involved in a remarkable race at the Paralympics, the men’s 200m – T44 final, in…

Alan Oliveira came from behind to beat Oscar Pistorius, sparking further debate about the effect of prosthetic legs. Andy Rain/EPA

“Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius is no stranger to controversy.

This morning in London (AEST) the South African athlete was involved in a remarkable race at the Paralympics, the men’s 200m – T44 final, in which he was defeated by Brazilian sprinter Alan Oliveira. Both athletes are double amputees who run with J-shaped, prosthetic running blades with carbon-fibre feet.

Immediately after the race Pistorius raised his concerns about unfair advantage, questioning the legitimacy of the prostheses worn by the race winner Alan Oliveira and the third-placed athlete Blake Leeper. Pistorius was quoted as saying:

We are not running in a fair race here. I’m not taking away from Alan’s performance but I can’t compete with Alan’s stride length. The International Paralympic Committee have their regulations and their regulations mean that some athletes can make themselves unbelievably high - his knee heights are four inches higher than they should be.

Pistorius has been subjected to the long-term assertion that he has benefited from his prosthetic advantage. In 2007, a report on his running action observed that:

fast running with the dedicated Cheetah prosthesis is a different kind of locomotion than sprinting with natural human legs. The “bouncing” locomotion is related to lower metabolic costs.

In an article for the British Journal of Sports Medicine former Australian Paralympian (and now University of Sunshine Coast researcher) Brendan Burkett pointed out that:

athletes depend on their prostheses in order to run, and so the prostheses are essential for performance; however, based on the mechanical analysis alone, these same aids could be considered performance enhancement.

Pistorius broke the world record for the 200m – T44 in the heats and set a time of 21.30 seconds. Oliveira ran 21.88 seconds to win his heat and Leeper 22.23 seconds in his heat win.

Oliveira was the only athlete of the three to run faster in the final, winning in a time of 21.45 to beat Pistorius by 0.07s.

With Oscar Pistorius expected to win the men’s 200m – T44 final, there was little pressure on Alan Oliveira. Andy Rain/EPA

What is fascinating about this discussion is the role the prosthetics played in the result. As in the case of Richard Whitehead, who won gold and broke the world record in the men’s 200m – T42 over the weekend, Oliveira finished strongly to take the win.

I am left wondering if there were other co-acting variables in his performance. For instance, given the expectation of a Pistorius win, there was little or no pressure on Oliveira to come away with victory. This may, conceivably, have influenced his performance.

Pistorius’ comments about the stride length and foot length of the prostheses worn by his opponents will likely lead to research about stride length, “bouncing” running styles and any evidence of ergonomic advantage.

Earlier this year, in a discussion of inclusion in sport, US researcher Sarah Wild observed:

If the rules must change or if society’s view of acceptable sports practices must be altered, so be it. For if change is not forthcoming, then it is possible that there will be no place for athletes like Oscar Pistorius.

Indeed, if Pistorius is banned from able-bodied events, but is too competitive for disabled events, he is effectively left without a forum to display his athletic talent.

There is a sense in which Pistorius’ prostheses have been a disruptive technology in Paralympic running. Within a year of Sarah Wild’s observation, Pistorius has found a competitor within Paralympic sport.

As this story comes to a close perhaps the next debate will be about the growing trend for long jumpers to take off on their prosthetic limbs.

There is, it seems, no shortage of points for debate.

Further reading:
Beaten by a length? Pistorius, Oliveira and Paralympic fairness

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12 Comments sorted by

    1. Keith Lyons

      Adjunct Professor of Sport Studies, UC-RISE at University of Canberra

      In reply to Mathew Marques

      Thanks for the link, Mathew. It will be interesting to monitor the short-term discussions at the Games and the longer-term research developments. I noted Ross's observations:

      It turns out that Pistorius took 92 steps during the race (2.2m per stride), and Oliveira took 98 steps to win gold (2.0m per stride). To break it down further:

      In the first 100m, Pistrorius took 49 steps (2.0m per stride), with 43 steps in the straight (2.3m per stride).

      Oliveira, on the other hand, took SHORTER strides - 52 in the first 100m (1.92m each) and 46 in the second 100m (2.2m each).

    2. Tim Newman

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Keith Lyons

      My observation from watching the race was that Pistorius appeared to have a "normal" running style, whereas Oliveria tended not to have any significant back lift. In theory this should be a slower running style, so maybe the blades do act differently to "normal" legs. But either way the earlier run by Pistorius was still the fastest of the meet - he shouldn't have peaked so early!
      Don't really know what my point is...

    3. Keith Lyons

      Adjunct Professor of Sport Studies, UC-RISE at University of Canberra

      In reply to Tim Newman

      I think it might be about peaking for a final, Tim. It is interesting that rhythm can be affected by context. There has been a great deal of expectation about Oscar Pistorius' performance at these Games given his presence at the Olympics a few weeks ago.

    4. Laura Hale

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Keith Lyons

      The media is helping with that. I think he was the only athlete to have his own special press conference at the Main Press Centre BEFORE the start of the Games. No one else had one on that scale.

  1. Peter Elepfandt

    Medical Doctor

    I only read his actual comment now.

    What's his problem? He was subject to the same regulations. If he thinks that longer legs are an advantage he could have made himself "unbelievably high" with "knee heights...four inches higher than they should be"

    It seems like a comment that came in the heat of the moment. I understand he has apologised and they hugged at the medal ceremony - which I thought looked genuine.

    It comes down to the same problem as the megafast swimming suites for the swimmers a few years back. At the time they were legal, now they are banned.

    It is a very fine line. But Bolt would not run as fast as he does in shoes with the same technology as the guys in the 1908 in London Olympics and Bradley Wiggins might struggle on Eddie Merx's bike.

    1. Keith Lyons

      Adjunct Professor of Sport Studies, UC-RISE at University of Canberra

      In reply to Peter Elepfandt

      I agree. I do think it was a heat of the moment comment ... but it must have been on his mind. It was his first loss in a T44 Paralympic 200m Final.

    2. Laura Hale

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Keith Lyons

      He's not even classified as a T44 runner. He is classified as a T43 runner, competing in T44 events because he doesn't think the classification he was classified under was competitive enough.

  2. Gregor Wolbring

    Associate Professor, Faculty of Medicine at University of Calgary

    It is interesting that Pistorius was at the receiving end of the leg length/stride argument in 2005

    From a book chapter of mine (Media coverage of Pistorius: What are the angles? What is missing? ) in (Heroes or Zeros: The media's perceptions of Paralympic sport. Ed. by Schantz, O.J., and Gilbert, K. Champaign, Il: Commonground Publishing) to be out soon

    “The Archrival” from May 2005 in Sport illustrated highlighted that the legs Pistorius were using were also seen as giving him an unfair advantage in the Paralympic sport. At that time the issue was about the proper length of the legs The article stated “International Paralympic Committee is trying to determine the proper length of prostheses and expects to have an "Oscar Rule" in place for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing
    the link to the original article is here

    1. Gregor Wolbring

      Associate Professor, Faculty of Medicine at University of Calgary

      In reply to Keith Lyons

      thanks for your kind words. And I think down the road we will see more. We see children using blades now. That means I think that the body/ the muscles.... will develop in such a way that they can use the blades in an optimum way. That means the generation that used blades from a young age very likely can get even more out of them. + carbon nanofibers will get better which makes the blades even more springy.......
      In the end the blades are like a bobsleigh or other tools. Material sciences improves things... And the situation will become really interesting if the techno-advantage over the flesh leg people (I refuse to use the term techno doping as its not cheating) becomes .a reality. My last blogging in the series to come here will deal with the future.

  3. Laura Hale

    logged in via Twitter

    I'm a bit at a loss as to why people expected Oscar to win. What I got from talking to people inside athletics going into London was that Oscar was not going to win any gold medals. I also got a feeling of pushback inside the Paralympic family that Oscar's legs gave him an unfair advantage compared to able-bodied athletes and some felt he needed to make a choice.

    The story isn't Oscar winning gold, but of everyone in the media hyping Oscar's performance without really understanding the sport Oscar was participating in and who is competitors were. The media looks like they saw a story, saw some one willing to put themselves out there and make a story, a highly capable of performing competitor... and running with it instead of fully researching it.