By Mike Hurst
COMMONWEALTH Games gold medallist John Steffensen thinks it’s
cool'' that Paralympic sprints champion Oscar Pistorius is bidding to compete at next year's Olympic Games and perhaps in next month's world athletics championships. But the attempt by Pistorius to run using j-shaped blades made of carbon-fibre to substitute for legs has administrators all hot and bothered, in a quandary as they try to separate emotion and compassion from science and cybernetics. Pistorius was born in South Africa without the fibulae in both legs and had his legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. In every other way a gifted athlete, Pistorius, now 20, holds the paralympic gold medals and world records for 100m, 200m and 400m and has outgrown the confines of the world of disabled sport. Last weekend he raced his best event, the 400m, in the British Grand Prix at Sheffield where Steffensen, the race runner-up, observed him for the first time at closehand and formed his own evaluation. It’s hard enough to do this able-bodied,’’ Steffensen told The Daily Telegraph. ``If Oscar wants to do this, it’s pretty cool. Go for it man, knock yourself out.’’
There have been a number of examples of athletes with a disability competing against able-bodied athletes.
American Marla Runyon, legally blind, reached the Sydney Olympic 1500m final. South Africa’s Natalie du Toit, who lost a leg in a road accident, reached the 800m swimming final at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games.
These are mighty achievements, but these competitors did not use performance-enhancing devices.
Pistorius argues his blades minimise his disadvantage and he has some support from science, but the boffins are divided in the absence of enough rigorous and specific testing.
Preliminary studies by the International Association of Athletics Federations has found blades are more aerodynamic than legs and that the energy distribution during the 400m race by Pistorius differs from every other runner in that his fastest 100m race segment came in the home straight.
What makes it extremely complicated is that, because Oscar doesn't have any lower limbs, there is a point about lactic acid,'' IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said. If you don’t have calf muscles or shins or feet you obviously cannot have any lactic acid there, and therefore you cannot experience the problems of tiring that other athletes do because of it.
Steffensen is pragmatic about competing on a level playing field against Pistorius.
He may have an advantage with those blades, but I'd rather have my legs than having something like what he's got,'' Steffensen said. Running 400m is all about `feel’ so I think he’s at a disadvantage there because he’s got no legs so he doesn’t get the feel.
They say he doesn't get lactic acid in his calves because he doesn't have calves but, come on, would you rather have a prosthetic limb or legs? He has a pretty hard time. I watched him closely. He finds it hard to come off the [starting] blocks, to run the turns. You know how hard it is running the curve. How hard would it be running the curve without the ball-and-socket joint in your ankles?’’
For his part, Pistorius is frustrated with the IAAF.
The IAAF haven't spoken to me and they haven't spoken to my physios, who work on my back every day because it's screwed up with so much lactic acid in it,'' Pistorius said. I have to ice my back every day so I can train the next day because of the lactic acid build-up.
I don't have a calf muscle, so another muscle in my body is going to have to do the work for it instead _ and there's no muscle that can do the job of another as well as the one that was intended to do that work. So I don't know how they can say, when I don't have calf muscles to use, that I can be faster.'' There’s no way that my prosthetics can be giving me an advantage. Seventy per cent of Paralympic athletes are using the same ones that I have. Why aren’t any of them running close to my times?’’
Ultimately the question for the IAAF will be to decide whether Pistorius is performing the same skill in the same way as other athletes in the race.
It’s difficult to get around the fact there is a part of his performance facilitated by an unnatural external aid.
What would happen if the Olympic champion decided he too would wear blades? Would he run slower _ or smash the world record?