Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Blade Runner Controvery Dissected

With the Summer Olympic games slated for next summer, the controversy around Oscar Pistorius, aka "The Blade Runner," has been heating up again. Initially denied eligibility to compete in Beijing in 2008 due to the "unfair advantage" provided by his carbon fiber prostheses, he was eventually granted permission through a lengthy appeal process. Unfortunately, the lengthy appeal process reportedly took him away from training and resulted in his failure to qualify for the team.

Pistorius has been a double below knee amputee for most of his life. Born without the fibula in his legs, his parents opted to amputate both limbs when he was only 11 months old. Always active in sports growing up, he considered rugby to be his sport of choice. He sustained a rugby injury during a game and began running as rehabilitation. He has been running ever since.

Since sprinting onto the international racing scene since 2004, Pistorius has been breaking records and leaving spectators amazed. He currently uses two cheetah legs. Upon beating his sound limb counterparts, controversy started to brew about the design of his carbon fiber feet providing him with an advantage over his non-amputated competitors.

An Olympic scientific committee was convened to examine the issue with the findings of the study confirming the "prosthetic advantage." According to researchers, Pistorius cheetah legs provided him with an astounding 90% energy return, considerably higher than the purported 60% by the intact human foot. Immediately the controversy of whether or not carbon fiber prostheses sparked an unfair advantage hit a furious speed.

Researchers involved with the initial study failed to cite the energy return of the human foot with an intact calf muscle (which, in the case of Pistorious is obviously missing). Some researchers have estimated the human foot, with an intact calf muscle, to have an energy return of 254%. All seem to agree that a prostheses cannot provide more than 90% return due to energy lost due to components.

Disagreement not only exists concerning the amount of energy return by the human foot, but also on the best method to obtain that measurement. The controversy was laid to rest in 2008 not because Pistorius was deemed to have no unfair advantage, but simply because he failed to qualify and his eligibility was a moot point.

With Pistorius expected to qualify for the South African Olympic Team for 2012, the debate is expected to heat up. When asked about the controversy, Pistorius responded by saying, "If you think having carbon-fiber legs will make you a faster sprinter, have the operation and we’ll see you at the track." I think amputees world wide would agree with that assessment!

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