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Oscar Pistorius poses plenty of questions

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There's a lot to admire about the enormous will & courage of Oscar Pistorius and the fact he's had no legs since the age of 11 months makes one think - gee give the guy a chance to compete on the world stage. Yet as this article says, the scientific evidence to date suggests Pistorius has an advantage, so there is a strong case as offered by the writer that Oscar be restricted to amputee athletics. Whilst not having a definitive opinion either way, I could never imagine what it would be like to grow up without legs virtually since birth so I am sympathetic to Pistorius and happy to see him compete.

Oscar's performance poses plenty of questions
Via The Canberra Times
31 Aug, 2011

It is not the taking part that counts, but the winning. This inversion of what we were taught as children about sport is the real truth about top-flight athletics. On the other hand there is Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter who on Monday failed to qualify for the 400m final at the World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea.

Pistorius finished last in his semi-final heat but afterwards seemed exhilarated, saying it had been an ''unbelievable experience''. He is a bigger star, now, than any of those who qualified. The reason for that is that Pistorius is a double amputee, the result of a severe congenital abnormality which led his parents to have his legs cut off below the knee at the age of 11months.

Yet, with the aid of prosthetic attachments designed especially for speed on the race-track, Pistorius has become one of the world's swiftest 400m runners, ranked 18th-fastest going into these championships. For someone whose parents were told he might never be able to walk, this is an achievement which has earned him the admiration of millions - not to mention quite a bit of money: this month he was named the new face of Thierry Mugler's A*Men fragrance. The French parfumier declared Pistorius the perfect fit, because ''The story of A*Men is one of heroic fantasy. It evokes inner strength, determination, power and charisma''.

Still, there is an outraged minority in and around the world of athletics who regard all this as preposterous: not just the vacuous guff that serves for marketing in the fragrance business, but the right of Pistorius to compete at all (apart from the non-able-bodied events which he dominates with ease). They have long argued that the South African's Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fibre prostheses (made by an Icelandic firm that also manufactures helicopter rotor blades) give him an unfair advantage. In 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations seemed to agree, after receiving a report from Professor Gert-Peter Bruggemann which found that Pistorius's prosthetics allowed him to use 25per cent less energy than able-bodied athletes to run at the same pace. He is much slower off the blocks, but the extraordinary lightness and bounce of the sweeping carbon-fibre blades more than make up for that during the latter part of races, when athletes in possession of much heavier real legs tend to hit a wall of lactic acid. (Pistorius seemed to acknowledge this, telling a reporter last week ''When I outperform those guys in the last 100m - that's what I'm addicted to.'') A year later, for reasons which were not made crystal clear, the IAAF revoked its earlier decision to accept the findings of the report it had commissioned, so Pistorius was free to take part in the world championships. Perhaps surprisingly, Professor Bruggemann seemed less outraged than Pistorius's fellow South African, Dr Ross Tucker, a senior lecturer in exercise and sport management at the University of Cape Town.

Earlier this month, Dr Tucker said: ''[Pistorius] gets an enormous advantage and two of his own scientists who did the testing to clear him recently published a paper saying that he had a 10-second advantage ... the decision that cleared him was a complete farce, scientifically.''

If I were a cynical man, I might suggest that the IAAF loves the media attention Pistorius brings to athletics; and since it is a very remote chance that even with his Cheetah Flex-Foot accoutrements he could capture a gold medal at the Olympics, why not pander to public sentiment (not to mention advertisers such as Thierry Mugler)? For what it's worth, I think they are mistaken. Each year, prosthetics becomes more and more sophisticated, so much so that Hugh Herr, head of biomechatronics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a supporter of Pistorius, told The Sunday Times: ''In future people will be running faster in the Paralympics than in the Olympics ... regular old arms and legs will seem dull.''

The problem is, given the confusion even at current levels of technology, there will be no obvious point at which all can agree that a runner with prostheses has an undeniably unfair advantage over ''regular old arms and legs''. Pistorius's backers say that any able-bodied athlete who feels hard done by can use the same methods: but as that would involve radical surgery, it seems unlikely that many will want to try.

At the risk of being a spoilsport, surely the time has come to insist that those taking part in able-bodied athletics should do so without anything attached to their lower limbs beyond standardised running shoes. That would limit the magnificent Pistorius, but at least he could remain a supreme Paralympian, once re-attached to his Cheetah Flex-Feet.

The Independent



Hope is a running dream

By Carl Thomen
Friday, 2 September 2011

Oscar Pistorius' participation at the Athletics World Championships in Daegu this week raises a defiant finger at those who wanted him banned from competing against able-bodied athletes. At the same time it affirms all that is good in the human animal.

In 2008, even though he was close to a second outside the Olympic qualifying time for the 400m – a metaphorical country mile – he was treated as a harbinger for the coming cyborg apocalypse. Elio Locatelli, Director of Development at the IAAF, said that Pistorius' running blades "affect[ed] the purity of the sport. [What we will see] next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back."

Initially the IAAF suggested it would be dangerous for Pistorius to run in a relay because his blades might harm other athletes. Without conclusive proof for the claim that his blades gave him an unfair advantage, the powers-that-be banned him from competing against able-bodied athletes anyway. Pistorius challenged the IAAF's ruling in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and the decision was reversed after the Court could not find enough evidence to support the claims of the IAAF.

Throughout all of this it was largely forgotten that both his legs were amputated as a baby because of a congenital condition that meant he was born without fibulas. The world's media did not champion the will to compete in 'normal' rugby and waterpolo as a schoolboy, or the sense of humour which allowed him to laugh as he woke up in his school's boarding house to find that his friends had hidden his legs.

The focus was on his performance, bringing to the fore a tension between Pistorius' achievements in objective, scientific terms, and those same successes seen in a personal, metaphysical or spiritual light.

Unsurprisingly, the sports profiteers were quick to spot an opportunity to exploit the courage of the 'fastest man on no legs.' A Nike advertisement featured the following text next to a picture of the Bladerunner:

I was born without bones below the knee.

I only stand 5ft 2.

But this is the body I have been given.

This is my weapon.

How I conquer. How I wage my war.

This is how I have broken the world record 49 times.

How I become the fastest thing on no legs.

This is my weapon.

This is how I fight.

The use of words such as 'weapon', 'conquer' and 'war' shift the emphasis from the deeply personal – from the self-affirming message of valour in the face of severe limitation – to the discourse of exploitable performance. 'Even without legs, you can beat, conquer, win; even without legs you can break world records… with Nike's help. So buy Nike stuff.'

This is the travesty of our time: when people look at the Bladerunner what they see is conditioned by the interests of an image-conscious hegemony and a multinational behemoth. In spite of bigoted bureaucratic sanction and corporate exploitation, Oscar Pistorius stands firm as a monument to self-affirmation, self-belief and a refusal to accept limits – in short, to freedom.

Pistorius says of the Paralympics that they "taught [him] so much more about doing your best, while able-bodied sport is just about winning at any cost. [He] can win now and be disappointed, or [he] can come fifth and be happy."

No doubt this is because Paralympic athletes have a much greater appreciation of what it takes simply to be in the starting blocks. They have not forgotten that true inspiration comes not from the fastest runner, but from the spirit of the man that would run without legs.

Great article. Agree wholheartedly. For thos cynics who seriously think Oscar should be banned because he is a better athlete using artificial legs - go and have your legs amputated, get some blades and show us how much faster you'd be. Until someone undertakes such a radical action, then Oscar Pistorius should be allowed to compete against able bodied athletes.

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