Olympic dream in sight? Not for this athlete

Olympic dream in sight? Not for this athlete

01 Aug 2008

Associate Professor Tim Bach
Email: t.bach@latrobe.edu.au

Quote:

"Perhaps anyone who depends for their mobility on a mechanical device is considered other than human; a monster or a Frankenstein. Perhaps people have the idea that technology confers an unfair advantage, like the Six Million Dollar Man…

"Pistorius has prostheses that replace the springiness of normal limbs. His springs may even be better than the springs of natural limbs, but he lacks the calf muscles that generate energy in the first place. His limbs partially restore function, but they do not provide an "overall" advantage. … He is competitive not because his prosthetic limbs provide an advantage, but because he is a truly remarkable athlete."

For a few thousand athletes, the Olympic dream is about to begin. For many thousands more, the Olympic dream is already over. Sadly, one athlete whose progress I have been watching closely is among those who will not compete in Beijing - and the Olympic Games will be diminished as a result.

Oscar Pistorius is a young man from South Africa who has faced more challenges than most athletes. He was born with congenital deformities of both legs that resulted in amputations below his knees when he was an infant. He has used two prosthetic limbs since he started to walk. Despite this, he had a relatively normal childhood and played a variety of sports with his able-bodied peers. In athletics, he excelled. In the shorter distances, his best times placed him among the top athletes in South Africa: 10.91 seconds for the 100, 21.58 for the 200 and recently 46.25 for the 400. The Olympic dream seemed a distinct possibility.

To run, Pistorius uses high-tech carbon fibre prostheses specially designed for amputee runners. Each prosthesis incorporates a device called the "Cheetah Flex-Foot", which mimics the spring-like action of ligaments and muscles. When we run, the spring elements of our legs store the energy of each impact and allow us to recover that energy to help propel us forward. Our legs are like "steel springs", as young Mark Lee was reminded by his grandfather in the opening scenes of the 1981 movie, Gallipoli.

Like may other young athletes, Pistorius had the firm support of his family and his fellow countrymen. He hadn’t counted, however, on the animosity and conservative, parochial attitude of the sport’s governing body, the IAAF.

In March 2007, the IAAF introduced an amendment to their rules which prohibited "use of any technical device that incorporates springs … that provides the athlete with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device". The IAAF then requested biomechanical tests on Pistorius and his prostheses from the German Sport University in Cologne. On the basis of the University report, Pistorius was ruled ineligible to compete in IAAF events because his prostheses contravened the modified rule.

In May 2008, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned the IAAF ruling based in part on additional evidence from MIT and RICE University in the USA. In their judgement, the CAS tribunal was very critical of the IAAF. They noted that the modified rule appeared to have been introduced specifically to exclude Pistorius. They noted that the Cologne scientists were instructed by the IAAF to investigate straight-line running but exclude those parts of the race, the start and acceleration phases, where Mr Pistorius clearly had a disadvantage. They circulated an erroneous report to IAAF members prior to a vote on Pistorius’ eligibility. In the vote, they counted abstentions as votes against Pistorius. The CAS, in a masterful understatement, said that "the manner in which the IAAF handled the situation … fell short of the high standards that the international sporting community is entitled to expect".

It seems that at least some members of the IAAF, like many others in our community, are fearful of people with disabilities. In my work with amputees and other people with disabilities, I often observe uncomfortable reactions in able-bodied individuals who encounter a disabled person, reactions that are probably an everyday experience for people with a disability. This discomfort may simply be the product of ignorance about disability. It may reflect unfounded assumptions about people who are different.

In sport, some people seem to fear that participation of people with physical disabilities will somehow tarnish elite competitions. Perhaps this is motivated by the wish to preserve the ancient Greek ideal of the "perfect body" in Olympic sport. Perhaps anyone who depends for their mobility on a mechanical device is considered other than human; a monster or a Frankenstein. Perhaps people have the idea that technology confers an unfair advantage, like the Six Million Dollar Man.

My colleagues and I direct our research and clinical efforts toward achieving close to full restoration of function in people with physical disabilities. However, the goal remains distant and elusive. Even the recent wonderful advances in myoelectric upper-limb prostheses, driven by the tragedy and political embarrassment of limbless returning American servicemen, provide function that is merely a shadow of an intact limb.

Pistorius has prostheses that replace the springiness of normal limbs. His springs may even be better than the springs of natural limbs, but he lacks the calf muscles that generate energy in the first place. His limbs partially restore function, but they do not provide an "overall" advantage. The CAS recognised this in overturning the ruling of the IAAF. Many amputee athletes around the world use these devices and others like them, but none has achieved nearly the standard that Pistorius has. He is competitive not because his prosthetic limbs provide an advantage, but because he is a truly remarkable athlete.

Oscar Pistorius has not been named in the South African Olympic team. His time of 46.25 for the 400 fell short of the Olympic qualifying standard by 0.70 seconds. Four other athletes with better times in the 400 have been chosen to represent the country in the 4 x 400 relay. We will undoubtedly see Pistorius in the Paralympic Games, but sadly, this remarkable athlete will not be part of the main event.

Dr Timothy Bach is an Associate Professor of Biomechanics in the National Centre for Prosthetics and Orthotics at La Trobe University, Melbourne. He was also a 1972 Canadian Olympian.

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