BLADE RUNNER ; ONE MAN'S AMAZING RACE TO TAKE PART IN THE OLYMPICS ++ Although Oscar Pistorius Had His Both Legs Amputated When He Was a Year Old, He Can Run as Fast as Many of the Quickest Able-Bodied Sprinters - Thanks to a Pair of Prosthetic Limbs. but His Bid to Compete in Beijing May Be Frustrated by the Sporting Establishment. by Mike Rowbottom ++ Paralympic Pioneer
Rowbottom, Mike, The Independent (London, England)
On the face of it, Oscar Pistorius's achievement in finishing second over 400 metres at the South African athletics championships over the weekend was a respectable one. His time of 46.56 seconds was not far off the lower qualifying time for this year's World Championships, and given that he is only 20, it puts him within realistic range of a run at next year's Olympics in Beijing.
But Pistorius's performance assumes astonishing proportions in the light of one additional fact: at the age of one, he had both legs amputated below the knee.
Running on a pair of hi-tech, carbon-fibre prosthetics known as Cheetahs, which have blades rather than feet at their tip, this business student from Pretoria University is blurring the sporting line between the able-bodied and the disabled - not that he has ever cared for the latter phrase.
Having raced against, and beaten, able-bodied opponents for the past two years, Pistorius's aspiration is clear. He intends to become the first disabled athlete to bridge the gap between the Paralympics - where he won gold in 2004 - and the Olympics.
But that ambition looks likely to be frustrated by the imminent introduction of a rule forbidding him to compete with able-bodied opponents. This young man, it seems, has risen too high, too fast, and his unbridled progress has alarmed many within the sporting establishment, with criticism centring upon the unusual means by which he manages to transport himself.
Marlon Shirley, the American single amputee whom Pistorius defeated over 400 metres at the Athens Paralympics, complained afterwards that his rival had an unfair "locomotive advantage" with the contraptions fashioned by a team of Icelandic engineers.
Able-bodied runners, too, may feel threatened by the perceived advantages of the Cheetahs. Some say they are too long, making Pistorius taller than he would naturally be had he not been born without crucial bones in his lower legs, a circumstance which offered his parents, Henke, a zinc mine owner, and Sheila, the choice of having the limbs amputated and replaced so he could walk, or seeing him in a wheelchair for life. Others complain that the blades, which offer him the obvious nickname of Blade Runner, are longer than they need to be, and provide him with excess spring.
Pistorius himself, displaying all the brash sporting ambition that characterises so many of his fellow countrymen, dismisses the debate.
At school he became an accomplished water polo and rugby player, but his ambitions within contact sport were curtailed by a serious knee injury at the age of 14. He decided to make athletics his speciality, and vowed almost immediately to reach the Olympic Games. It seemed an obvious thing to say.
Blond, and beloved of a host of female followers, Pistorius now has a high profile in his country which has brought him widespread commercial backing. His sponsored black sports car - a five-speed Seat Ibiza bearing his name in six-inch white letters on both doors - contains no additional features to make it easier for a disabled driver.
So potent is the Pistorius mission that it has already attracted the attention of Tom Hanks, who is bidding for the rights to his story.
"People ask me all the time if I wish I had the rest of my legs," Pistorius says. "No. I guess it's a kind of an inconvenience, having to put on different legs to do different things, but there's nothing that anyone else can do that I can't do."
Sadly, however, the International Association of Athletics Federations may be about to disabuse him of that notion. All the indications are that his continuing presence within able-bodied competition will come to an end with the introduction of a rule banning the use of any artificial means of running.
That no such rule exists is a testament to Pistorius's extraordinary drive. Before now, it has simply not been needed. But already the IAAF has considered the matter within its technical, medical and legal committees, and it is likely that the Cheetahs, or anything similar, will be ruled illegal for able-bodied competition at the federation's congress at the World Championships in Japan this August.
Such has been the South African's progress - indeed he has improved his time by four seconds since 2004 - that the rule might even be introduced this weekend at the IAAF council meeting which will follow the World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa. The news came as no great surprise to Tanni Grey-Thompson, the multiple Paralympic champion who retired earlier this year and who retains a hardboiled attitude to the political manoeuvrings she has spent a sporting lifetime observing.
"I have been expecting him to be banned," she said. "When he was running less quickly it was all quite jolly, but as soon as he started running fast times, that's it. I think this has provoked a debate about what it is to be disabled, and what it is to be able bodied.
"I think there's an argument both ways. People will say that he can pick the length and style of his prosthetics, so maybe that gives him an unfair advantage. I think it's probably more of a disadvantage to be running with two lower limbs missing. But others will say if he can be racing against able-bodied runners on two false legs, good luck to him. Oscar is a stunning talent. He is as far ahead of his Paralympic rivals as Michael Johnson was over his Olympic 400m competitors 10 years ago. He has been given a glimpse of inclusion but now it looks like being taken away from him.
"The authorities probably shouldn't have let him compete against able-bodied athletes in the first place. They've given him a chance to get out of the ghetto but they are going to throw him back in again."
Grey-Thompson concedes there is logic in the likely IAAF position. "But," she added, "I'd like to see some well-researched evidence that the prosthetics give Oscar an unfair advantage rather than for the decision to be taken because of fear of disability. The IAAF has to take the lead, and if there was scientific evidence it would be a fair cop really. But I would be unhappy if it was just a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that Oscar is now running some very fast times - 'We'll ban him because he's got quick'. Is Oscar being disadvantaged for being good? Probably."
Grey-Thompson believes the Olympic movement may have to wait a little longer to see someone bridge the gap from the Paralympics. "It won't happen by Beijing," she said. "But I think it will by the 2012 London Olympics. Having said that, I wouldn't want the Paralympics to be a stepping stone to the Olympics. It makes us second-class customers and I don't think we are."
Richard Callicott, a director of the British Paralympic Association, shares the same basic position as Grey-Thompson.
"There's no doubt Pistorius is a prodigious talent who trains very hard," he said. "But there is an ethical question to do with the size and nature of the prosthetics he uses. Some people are quite outraged about the fact that there is a possibility they could be competing at the Olympics against a disabled athlete. They regard him as having an unfair advantage. There is a sweet irony that someone with no legs should be considered by able-bodied rivals to be competing unfairly.
"People are falling into two camps on this question. One argument is let him get on with it. Let him carry on proving that having no legs is no handicap compared with natural talent. But others think his prosthetics give him an advantage. Once he gets up to speed his strides are immense, and he gets faster as the races get longer.
"Having Pistorius in the Games would also put ablebodied athletes in an impossible position if they felt he was racing with an unfair advantage. If they complained, people would say they were being spoilt, that they were whingeing and moaning. I don't think they could win, whatever they did. That's why the authorities are going to have to get a grip on the rule.
"Some people will be saying, 'Isn't it wonderful that he should aspire to such heights?' But it's not quite the same, it's a different discipline. The danger is that you could end up with a situations where you say 'let's have a woman racing against the men, and a disabled athlete, and also one in a wheelchair.' It becomes a circus then."
Callicott also points out a potential accompanying danger if Pistorius should race at the Olympics with what some might consider unfair artificial aid - the possibility that some might deliberately alter their bodies in order to achieve a similar effect.
"If he is allowed to compete in able-bodied competition," Callicott said, "there are people out there who would do unbelievable, bizarre things to get their moment of glory".
The likely IAAF position would still allow the possibility of disabled athletes moving into Olympic contention, but that possibility would only be open to runners such as Britain's Paralympic champion Danny Crates, who lost an arm in a motorbike accident. In other words, to those who compete with no mechanical artifice.
Any such ruling would not resolve the continuing disputes that occur within disabled sport, however. They stem from the need to classify competitors within broadly similar groups, and some of the heat generated by Pistorius's previous exploits stems from the fact that he has raced against single amputees after the Paralympic authorities had to combine the two categories because there were insufficient numbers to sustain them separately.
It is a situation with which Grey-Thompson herself was familiar during her career. "There were two athletes in particular, neither of them British, whom I had some concerns about," she said. "Both of them had requested to be moved from a category where competitors have back and stomach muscles to my category, where they were not supposed to have.
"Classifications are made in a snapshot of time, but competitors can work and train and develop until they can exceed the supposed limits of the class. There are some people who think that just because athletes are disabled, they wouldn't do such a thing, that we are all just lovely and nice to each other and what we do is just a bit of fun. That's not how it is."
Pistorius's position, for all its uniqueness, is likely to be challenged in the near future, in Callicott's opinion. "It may be that young Oscar is a one-off, but I suspect that he won't be," Callicott said. "Sadly, the wars taking place in the world right now are creating numbers of fit young men who have had their legs blown off by landmines. I could see in the not-too-distant future that he could be finding real rivals. It's inevitable."…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: BLADE RUNNER ; ONE MAN'S AMAZING RACE TO TAKE PART IN THE OLYMPICS ++ Although Oscar Pistorius Had His Both Legs Amputated When He Was a Year Old, He Can Run as Fast as Many of the Quickest Able-Bodied Sprinters - Thanks to a Pair of Prosthetic Limbs. but His Bid to Compete in Beijing May Be Frustrated by the Sporting Establishment. by Mike Rowbottom ++ Paralympic Pioneer. Contributors: Rowbottom, Mike - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: March 21, 2007. Page number: 38. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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