London Olympics 2012: IOC Must Address Oscar Pistorius And The "Blade Runner" Issue

  on August 05 2012 10:48 PM
London Olympics 2012: IOC Must Address Oscar Pistorius And The "Blade Runner" Issue

Oscar Pistorius has already made history as the first double-amputee ever to compete in the Olympics, running on a pair of carbon fiber blades that has caused fans from around the world to refer to him as "The Blade Runner."  

All eyes were on Pistorius for the semifinals of the men's 400 meters, waiting to see if this remarkable individual could advance to the medal round.  Pistorius, however, missed the medal round and finished 23rd out of 24 competitors, as his 46.54 time was nearly 1.5 seconds off his personal best and well behind that of Trinidad's Lalonde Gordon, whose 44.58 was the fastest of the day.  This ended Pistorius' hopes for winning an individual medal, though he still has a chance to win one as a member of South Africa's 1600 meter relay team.

Pistorius' inability to qualify for the finals of the individual event, however, will likely put off an uncomfortable debate that the International Olympics Committee will have to consider before the 2016 games in Brazil:

Do carbon fiber legs give a runner an unfair advantage?

On the surface, it is easy to dismiss this argument as being highly insensitive.  After all, it is not like Pistorius (and other runners like him) asked to have his legs removed in order to use the prosthetics.  Pistorius has also clearly worked hard to get where he is, as nobody is able to qualify for the Olympics without putting in a lot of time and effort into their event.

A case could be made, however, that these prosthetics could actually give those who use them an advantage in racing.  Runners utilizing carbon-fiber blades (also known as Cheetah blades) will naturally weigh less than their competitors, allowing them to move the limbs at a faster rate than competitors without such blades. This is particularly advantageous in longer races, as runners like Pistorius are known for being able to run the second half of a race faster than the first half - an unusual technique for shorter races.

As of now, researchers are convinced that Cheetah blades do not present a competitive edge, mainly because the advantage later in the race is countered by an inability to start as effectively out of the blocks.  But how long will that remain the case?  The science of biomechanics is advancing at an alarming rate; one day, we could see a runner whose Cheetah blades offer the ability to start faster while maintaining the current advantages of the prosthetics.  It could also be that the current technology is more advantageous for longer distances, which are not as reliant on fast starts out of the blocks.

Supporters of Pistorius say that his Cheetah blades are no different from any other runner wearing shoes.  In fact, Pistorius himself makes that case.  But every runner in the Olympics has the ability to take advantage of the latest in footwear, while very few can do so with the latest carbon-fiber prosthetics. 

By this logic, Cheetah blades do represent a competitive advantage, as they are a kind of equipment that is not available to all competitors in an event.  Therefore, they should not be allowed in the Olympics in their current manner.

On the other hand, Pistorius has provided inspiration for people around the world (amputee or otherwise), and nobody wants to eliminate the potential of another Blade Runner doing the same thing. 

Fortunately, the IOC does not have to look far to find a reasonable solution:  Since 1960, every Olympiad has been immediately followed by the Paralympic Games, which are designed for athletes with disabilities of all types. 

One of the goals of the Paralympic movement is to receive equal treatment between all athletes, regardless of disability status.  So why not move some of the Paralympic track and field events to the main Olympics?

It would not be the first time that Paralympic events were part of the main games; for example, wheelchair racing was a demonstration sport in both the 2000 and 2004 games.  So there is no reason that Paralympic running events cannot be a part of the regular Olympics. 

Adding these events would bring greater coverage to the Paralympic games while also allowing such athletes to compete with their peers on the biggest stage imaginable.  They would also ensure that all competitors would be on an equal playing field, as every runner in the events would have the ability to utilize the Cheetah blades.

I am sure that the IOC never imagined the day where science could possibly give a double-amputee an unfair advantage over his able-bodied peers. But that day is coming, if it is not here already.  Now is the time to address the issue, and adding Paralympic events to the main Olympic Games is the best possible solution to the issue.