The Pistorius problem - how South African blade runner's artificial legs make him 10 seconds quicker
By Mike Hurst
The Daily Telegraph
August 11, 2011
The Blade Runner: Oscar Pistorius of South Africa has run an A qualifying time for the Olympics and has been selected in his country's world championships team. Picture: Getty Images Source: Getty Images
WHEN it comes to Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius, the athletics world remains split - science isn't so indecisive. Mike Hurst reports.
OSCAR Pistorius, that running paradox - a sprinter without legs - advanced one more step towards fulfilling his dream of competing in the Olympic Games when he was named in South Africa's 26-member team this week to compete later this month at the world athletics championships in Daegu, South Korea.
His official notification comes after he clocked 400m in 45.07sec last month in Italy to better the International Association of Athletics Federations' tough qualifying standard of 45.25sec - a time no Australian has recorded this year.
In fact, at the previous world champs two years ago in Berlin, Trinidad's Renny Quow won the bronze medal with 45.02. In a quiet season for the men's 400m if Pistorius could replicate his 45.07 in consecutive rounds he could well end up on the medals podium.
But then what? Will there be an outcry from those able-bodied sprinters who could not run fast enough to beat Pistorius? Will they campaign to the IAAF against the Pistorius appliances - the carbon-fibre J-shaped blades he wears in place of his legs which were amputated below the knee before his first birthday?
What might the IAAF, the custodians of the major Olympic sport of track and field, do next? Would they dare try again to ban him from competing in London next year?
The IAAF have tried once and failed to ban the technology that enables Pistorius to engage in his flight of fancy to run in the Olympics.
Pistorius took the IAAF to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2008. His lawyers cited the opinion of seven scientists (6 American and one French) that the evidentiary basis of the IAAF eligibility ban was not sound. The CAS primarily considered the research conducted on behalf of the IAAF by Professor Peter Bruggemann of Cologne sports university which was used to provide the rationale for the IAAF's eligibility ban.
In fact both scientific parties found that Pistorius enjoys a big advantage over athletes with biological legs but crucially, in its own narrow terms of reference for the case, CAS questioned whether Prof Bruggemann's findings adequately supported the IAAF claims and the eligibility ban.
The CAS ruled that the evidence the IAAF offered did not adequately support the eligibility ban on Pistorius and overturned it.
The IAAF could well have restated their case against Pistorius but with public opinion, including the support of many of his fellow sprinters, strongly in favour of the courageous and persistent Paralympian they decided not to go on with the matter.
The IAAF's decision was at least partly taken in the belief that biology would settle the matter and Pistorius might not attain the tough selection time in the first place.
Two of the physiology professors whose research was sought by Pistorius's legal team, Peter Weyand and Matthew Bundle, told The Daily Telegraph by email yesterday: "We both admire the inspiring performances of Oscar Pistorius.
"We greatly respect the dedication and persistence he has exhibited in his successful quest to qualify for the World Track and Field Championships and congratulate him on his historic accomplishment.
"Nonetheless, the scientific evidence clearly indicates that Oscar Pistorius's lightweight, compliant lower limbs provide a major advantage over biological limbs during competitive sprint running.
"However, orthopaedic factors may impose greater recovery difficulties on Mr Pistorius than his intact limb competitors, particularly those relating to the interface between his stump and the sockets to which his blades are attached."
Sympathy seems to be the over-riding factor enabling Pistorius's participation; that and the CAS procedure which found the basis of the IAAF's scientific finding flawed, but which did not consider other scientific reports which agreed with the IAAF's basic assertion that once he is up and running some of Pistorius's locomotive technological processes supercede human physiological processes and provide him with up to a 10 seconds advantage over 400m as against the time he might have run on biological legs.
"The 10sec value is the time difference Dr Bundle and I estimated for Oscar Pistorius over a 400 metre race run with his artificial lower limbs vs. intact, healthy biological limbs," Prof Weyand told The Daily Telegraph.
"This figure was determined from the data we collected both on Oscar Pistorius and runners with intact limbs. The 10sec advantage value originated with us and first appeared in the press release that coincided with the online publication of our point/counterpoint debate (in the Journal of Applied Physiology) in November of 2009.
This value is rounded down slightly from the 11.9sec figure that appeared in the actual point-counterpoint publication.
"We rounded down by nearly two seconds to be conservative in our estimate and in part to incorporate factors not present during our experiments that are present during competitive track races one being that our predictive algorithm was developed using running or flying-start sprint trials.
"Obviously, competitive track races start from a still position and we recognised that Oscar Pistorius is relatively disadvantaged by his artificial limbs when beginning a race from a stationary start."
The Daily Telegraph wishes to correct a previous report stating that professors Peter Weyand and Matthew Bundle changed their conclusions during the Oscar Pistorius controversy. In fact, they did not. Throughout their involvement, the two professors have steadfastly maintained that: 1) Oscar Pistorius limbs do provide a major competitive advantage over the biological limbs of his competitors, and 2) the scientific evidence offered by the IAAF to justify their competitive ban on Mr. Pistorius was not valid.