3Qs: The fastest man on no legs

July 30, 2012 By Angela Herring, Northeastern University
Double amputee Oscar Pistorius will compete in the 2012 Olympic games, despite some concerns over his prostheses providing an unfair advantage. Credit: Getty Images

South African double-​​amputee Oscar Pis­to­rius will com­pete in the 400-​​meter sprint at the 2012 London Olympics wearing high-​​tech carbon-​​fiber pros­thetic legs. Northeastern University news office asked David Nolan, an asso­ciate clin­ical pro­fessor of phys­ical therapy in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, to expound upon the con­tro­versy over whether Pis­to­rius’ pair of arti­fi­cial legs would give him an unfair advan­tage over the field.

Who is Oscar Pistorius and why are people talking about him?

Oscar Pis­to­rius is a bilat­eral, transtibial — or below the knee — . He was born without a fibula in both , and his par­ents made the deci­sion to ampu­tate. Kids who are born without a limb or have a pro­ce­dure done when they’re very young often have an easier time dealing with their dis­ability than if they have a limb ampu­tated years down the road. Pis­to­rius was always very moti­vated to suc­ceed and wanted to be a reg­ular kid, playing rugby and, of course, running.

The con­tro­versy over his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Olympics cen­ters on the carbon-​​fiber pros­thetic legs that he uses to run. When the carbon-​​fiber legs hit the ground, they com­press, which pro­duces an energy return. The people who are not in favor of Oscar com­peting with well-​​bodied folks say that this gives him an unfair advantage.

From your perspective, does he really have an unfair advantage?

Some studies that have exam­ined energy expen­di­ture in amputees have found that they have to make up for the force that would be pro­duced by, say, a leg, by expending energy using another part of their body. I would fall short of saying that Oscar, by being a bilat­eral amputee, has an unfair advan­tage. Car­dio­vas­cular per­for­mance studies indi­cate that he’s at or above the level of many people, which tells me that he’s very well trained, very moti­vated. The argu­ment that he has made in defense of his making the Olympics is that many uni­lat­eral and bilat­eral amputees who use carbon-​​fiber blades to run are not all breaking records. If the devices made the runner, then you’d have hun­dreds of Oscars com­peting at the highest level.

What does this fit into the bigger picture?

The Court of Arbi­tra­tion for Sport’s deci­sion to allow Oscar to com­pete in the Olympics essen­tially allows anyone with any dis­ability with any adap­tive equip­ment the oppor­tu­nity to claim that he or she should be allowed to com­pete. The ques­tion is, where do we draw the line and say, “Sorry you need to be in the Par­a­lympics or the Spe­cial Olympics”?

We live in a society that prides itself on fair­ness. We have laws that offer the same oppor­tu­ni­ties for male and female ath­letes and we expect that in our com­mu­ni­ties there is also fair­ness in the work­place for any person with mental or phys­ical challenges. The same should be true for sport. We should advo­cate for fairness. Allowing Oscar and other ath­letes that have the ability to qualify to com­pete with able-​​bodied ath­letes is fair.

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