Olympics 2012: Does amputee sprinter have unfair advantage?

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Oscar Pistorius has been included in the South African 4 x 400- metre relay team for the 2012 London Games. Photo / Getty Images.
Oscar Pistorius has been included in the South African 4 x 400- metre relay team for the 2012 London Games. Photo / Getty Images.

Oscar Pistorius shocked the athletics world this week when he qualified for the Olympic Games - but should he be allowed to race against his able-bodied rivals?

The South African double amputee, who competes on carbon fibre legs, has been included in the South African 4 x 400- metre relay team for the 2012 London Games, and his participation has raised new controversy over the advantage synthetic limbs produce on the track.

Pistorius' Olympic dream took a big hit when he finished .22 seconds over the 400m Olympic qualifying time of 45.30 seconds, but he was consoled today by being named in the relay team.

The 25-year-old sprinter was born without fibulas, which are the long bones on the outside of the legs. His parents were forced to make a difficult choice and opted for surgery to amputate his lower limbs - allowing him the best chance to learn to walk normally.

Pistorius not only learned to walk on prosthetic limbs within the first years of his life, but he ultimately became an elite athlete.

In 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations asked Pistorius to undergo a series of tests. The news was bad. It was reported that his prosthetic limbs gave him a "bouncing" locomotion that required a lower metabolic cost than able-bodied runners. Consequently the IAAF banned him from able-bodied competitions.

But Pistorius did not accept the ruling and underwent a second series of tests at Rice University and appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The arbitrators ruled that the data showed Pistorius used the same amounts of oxygen and "fatigued normally" over the course of an entire 400-metre race. He won the right to compete against able-bodied sprinters despite his synthetic limbs.

Unfortunately, that ruling did not end the debate over whether Pistorius has a competitive advantage.

One point raised by Peter Weyand, a biomechanics professor at Southern Methodist University, is that Pistorius's prosthetic running legs are much lighter than real human legs would be for a man of his size.

He gives the figure of 5.4 pounds for the prosthetic, compared with 12.6 pounds for a real human leg, and states that as a result, Pistorius can move his legs much quicker than those with real legs, and generate more speed.

If this is the true point of contention, why not simply design a heavier running prosthetic, one that models the accurate weight of a human leg, and end the debate? Then there could be no claim that Pistorius was at an unfair advantage.

British 400m record holder Iwan Thomas argued that the recent outbursts of detractors should be silenced and Pistorius' achievement should be celebrated.

"The IAAF has cleared Oscar to run against able-bodied athletes so that's the end of it as far as I'm concerned," Thomas told BBC Sport.

"People might come out of the woodwork now and argue that it's not right but it is only because he is running such fast times.

"What Oscar has achieved also shows people that there are no limits. There may be kids with a disability who look at him and see him beating able-bodied athletes. You need role models in life and he gives people hope. If he can do it, anybody can do it."

Pistorius tweeted today that it was the happiest day of his life.

"Still on cloud 9 but need to keep at what got me here so off to the Gym. Thank you all who shared today with me, I really appreciate it!"

Pistorius' participation at the London Games will be as controversial as it will be exciting to watch, and is sure to be one of the major athletic talking points.

Is Oscar Pistorius an inspiring role model, an athlete with an unfair competitive advantage, or both?

- HERALD ONLINE

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