Let’s forget for the moment that Oscar Pistorius is a convicted murder. Oscar Pistorius is a South African sprint runner who was born with a condition called fibular hemimelia, or congenital absence of the fibula, in both of his legs. Before he turned one year old, both of his legs were amputated below the knee. Pistorius did not let this stop him from playing sports as a kid, participating in rugby, wrestling, water polo and tennis. After a serious rugby knee injury, he was introduced to running in 2004. Pistorius went through a few sets of running blades before being fitted for blades by Icelandic company Össur.
Race to the Finish
Pistorius competed in the 2004 Summer Paralympic Games in Athens, placing third in T44 100-meter event. Oscar competed in the T44 category, for single below-knee amputees, even though he qualified for T43 events for double below-knee amputees. Along with competing in other Paralympic Games, Oscar was invited to participate in the 400-meter race at the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) Grand Prix in 2005, which would have been his first international non-disabled event. He was unable to attend, but he set his sights on qualifying for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Unfortunately, he did not qualify to join the South African Olympic team in 2008, but after training hard and winning world championship titles, he qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, becoming the first amputee runner to compete at the Olympic Games.
Though he did not win a medal for the 400-meter race nor the 4 x 400-meter race, many believe that Pistorius should not have been able to compete in the Olympics due to his running blades giving him an unfair advantage.
The Blade Runner
Pistorius wears the Flex-Foot Cheetah prosthetic made by Össur, a go-to prosthetic for Paralympic runners. Carbon-fiber and J-shaped, the blades compress at impact, storing energy and absorbing high levels of stress that would typically be absorbed by the runner’s body. A German study in 2007 reported that Pistorius uses 25% less energy than non-disabled runners, leading the IAAF to ban him from competing. After it became clear that this study was flawed, scientists gathered at Rice University to conduct another study to determine if Oscar Pistorius had an unfair advantage.
“Physiologically similar but mechanically different”
This was the conclusion of the second study of Oscar Pistorius, conducted at Rice University. Limb-repositioning time was one of the factors observed. The average male elite sprinter can move his leg from back to front in 0.37 seconds, with the world-record sprinters being able to do so in 0.34 seconds. Pistorius can do this in 0.27 seconds because his running blades are 3.3 kilograms lighter than a human leg. This allows him to be able to keep his foot on the ground longer to generate more force, and thus speed, that will propel him forward. Some argue that the carbon-fiber prosthetic does not generate the same amount of force as a human leg would, therefore Pistorius must push down harder to achieve the same amount of force. Other arguments against Pistorius competing mention how his prosthetics do not tire like the lower leg of a human would, therefore he does not have to deal with fatigue the way non-disabled sprinters do. However, his metabolic energy was determined to be the same as other athletes in his sport. This second study determined that he used around 17% less energy than a non-disabled runner, a lower estimate than the first study but a significant statistic nonetheless.
One can make their own conclusions about whether Oscar Pistorius, or other prosthetic-wearing sprinters should be able to compete with non-disabled runners. Fair or not, Oscar Pistorius was an extremely talented, hardworking and dedicated runner who is faster than most humans who are lucky enough to have both of their legs.
Though the murder charge and jail time means he won’t be competing again anytime soon.