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Amputee Makes Olympic - Not Paralympic - History

On Saturday the 4th of August 2012, during the London Olympic games, the first of the Men's 400m races was run in the late morning hours. No different to any other qualifying race, it did however contain one key difference. In lane six, running for South Africa was Oscar Pistorius, the total leg amputee who has been fighting for over half a decade for the right to compete in the olympics. Not paralympics where he has been the four-time champion, purely because he does not consider himself disabled, at all. Rather, the right to compete in the olympics among other world-class athletes with nothing wrong with their bodies. On that Saturday morning, the fight was over. It was all on him now, to prove once and for all, he was the equal of a runner with natural legs.

The line-up for the first qualifying Men's 400m in the 2012 Olympics. Oscar Pistorius in lane six is the one with artificial legs.

He fell short of qualifying by just a few fractions of a second in his final attempt back in July, so things looked over for him. However, his country accepted him as one of their runners for their 4x400m relay team. This boost coupled with his so-very-near score in the qualifiers, meant his country was perfectly within their rights to nominate him as their runner for the individual 400m event. This is what they did, and so, despite all the hurdles, he has his chance to prove himself to everyone - after all, he qualified in this race, by coming second overall. Only the first three to cross qualify to proceed. Already he has out-performed six olympic-class athletes with comple, functioning legs. Five of these are now out of the olympic competition altogether.

He completed the race in just 45.44 seconds, whilst the lead athlete, Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic, who won in 45.04 - 0.4 of a second faster..

Speaking after the race, Pistorius said: "I was so nervous this morning. Thanks to everyone for showing their support. I didn't know whether to cry, I had a mixture of emotions. It was the most amazing experience."

As we have covered before, Pistorius is an unpowered prosthetics athlete. His legs were amputated when he was just an eleven month old baby, so the prosthetics are all he has ever known. They in effect are his legs. This is why he has never considered himself disabled. The 25 year old has won gold four times previous as mentioned, in the paralympic events. Three of these medals was claimed at the 2008 paralympics in Beijing. He tried to qualify for the olympics that year as well, but a mixture of less than satisfactory performance and of all things, legal challenges relating to his legs kept him out. He was actually banned from the Olympics under legal challenge, because the athletics authorities thought his blades gave him an unfair advantage. It took years of scientific testing to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the legs actually put him at a disadvantage versus other runners. As a bonus, he has lost two stone in the intervening years.

Oscar warming up for the race.


His legs are, as perhaps this picture above shows most clearly, just simple carbon-fibre blades. There are no motors, no actuators, no neural controls, nothing. The tips bend to support his weight, and that is advanced as they get. Unlike traditional athletes who have ankle muscles, heel muscles, even functional knees, Pistorius has none of that. All his effort must come from his lungs, his upper body and his thighs. As a result he has far less power than a normal athlete would, and there is no doubt by anyone that Pistorius is an athlete - one of the elite of human performance. His carbon fibre legs earning him the name 'blade runner' for the blade thin struts upon which he runs.

The scientific evaluation is not good enough for everyone of course. There has been an amazing amount of controversy surrounding the first amputee olympic athlete. Some, like reigning Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt, are frantically digging up any and all dirt they can throw, and hurling it at the runner in an attempt to get him - and his legs - removed. Pistorius is understandably exasperated by this individual and others like him. As Pistorius said in a BBC interview when the subject came up:

"You always get the guy who wants to argue that wet is dry or blue is green.

"That's their energy they're wasting. Mine is on the track.

"We've done so many tests. Out of the tens of thousands of prosthetic legs they've made, there's never been any other [Paralympic] 400m athlete to run under 50 seconds. So - if this was such a technologically advanced leg - then how come not everyone's qualifying for the Olympics?

"I've been given this phenomenal talent and I work extremely hard to be where I am."

Pistorius says his goal at the Olympics is to qualify for the semi-finals - as he did at the World Championships in Daegu last year - and to record a personal best.

His presence at the Olympics would seem to remove one of sport's last remaining barriers, but in Pistorius's eyes barriers have never existed.

"My parents didn't give me any scope to feel sorry for myself," he said. "They were just like 'go play with your brother, go climb a tree, go fall off your motorbike, do whatever you want. Don't come crying to us when you get scratched. You've got prosthetic legs - that's very nice. Your brother's going to put on his shoes. You put on your legs and off you go.'

"That was the kind of mentality I grew up with."

The pack leaders as they approach the finish line. The runner who lacks any muscles - or any form of power whatsoever - below his calves, is in second place.

Other detractors have rather different concerns. The slippery slope argument being by far the most common one.

Since Oscar's legs have been approved, doesn't that set precedent for all manner of prosthetics? What happens when they are far better than ordinary human legs? How will ordinary humans cope? He should be banned to protect future generations of athletes!

In reality of course, that does not work. The slippery slope argument never works. Oscar's carbon fibre blades were approved because they were proven to give him less power than normal human legs. On the flipside, his thighs have to lift a third the weight of a 'normal' athlete's legs. It balances out, but is still lower than a normal human's performance would be. The prosthetics are a third the weight of normal legs, due to inherent difficulties in attaching prosthetic limbs to bone in current prosthetic technology. One third the weight of the normal limb is the max possible before the flesh it is anchored to begins to tear - which is rather not good for the person the prosthetic is attached to.

This is where the slippery slope argument fails. The blades are causing an overall loss in performance. So, as the technology improves, the losses will be minimised. It is not possible for an unpowered prosthetic to give the athlete more energy or power than they are putting into their motion in the first place. To do that would require a powered prosthetic, which is an entirely different animal. Just because an unpowered prosthetic is approved, does not mean that a powered prosthetic has to be approved. Instead, each prosthetic is judged on its own merits, the same as each athlete is judged on their own merits. If it gives more power back to the athlete than the human body is supposed to have, there is a problem and it will be disallowed. Designs that simply give the facility to run but leave all power and control issues up to the athletes themselves, won't.

The qualifying athletes in the seconds following the race. Pumped up, excited, exhausted, and treating one another as equals.


To end on a high note, the end of the race was a pleasure to witness. Three jubilated athletes ran their way into the semi-finals. Five athletes who also gave it their all did not. Still, throughout it all there was a sense of camaraderie and inclusiveness. All were athletes, all deserved to be there, and all of them knew it. There was not a trace of discrimination or shuning to any of the athletes, and that is the way it should be.


London 2012: Oscar Pistorius makes history at London 2012 (includes video, UK and commonwealth viewable only)

London 2012: Oscar Pistorius ready for extra Olympic pressure

London 2012: Oscar Pistorius eager to make Olympic mark

Blade Runner (Book)

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