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BLADE RUNNER

by Dave Milner | published March 25, 2007

The other night I saw a preview of the Bionic Woman series that will air on NBC this fall. It caused me to think of my childhood crush on Lindsay Wagner, and then of Sleep Number Beds, and then of Oscar Pistorius. In that order.

Oscar who?

Oscar Pistorius. He's a South African sprinter that runs the 400 in 46.56 seconds. Pretty fast. Not quite fast enough to qualify him for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but not terribly far off the ‘B’ standard of 45.95 seconds (the ‘A’ standard is 45.55). And his recent clocking would make him a candidate for the Olympic 4 x 400-meter relay should South Africa qualify. Why is this a big deal? Because Pistorius is a below-the-knee double amputee.

On the track, they call him "Blade Runner." The moniker has nothing to do with a the 1982 Sci-Fi flick starring Harrison Ford, and everything to do with his carbon-fiber prosthetics, custom-made in Iceland. Oscar and his blades, called – get this - Cheetahs, have sprinted into sporting history, headlong into a controversial sporting ethics debate that make the hullabaloo over Spira’s spring-enhanced running shoes last year seem rather trivial in comparison.

The question at hand is this: Do Pistorius’ prosthetic legs simply level the playing field, compensating for his disability, or do they give him a rather sizeable edge, via what some have come to term techno-doping?

The International Olympic Committee allows each nation’s governing bodies to make their own eligibility rules, although though it can intervene. Since 2004, for example, transgender athletes have been allowed to compete in the Olympics. Oscar Pistorius has been dogged by claims that the blades give him an unfair advantage (via a longer, more powerful stride) - something he denies. The Icelandic manufacturers of the blades, a company called Ossur, say they are "passive devices" that lag way behind what biological legs can do. They insist the Cheetahs are not performance-enhancing, but simply give amputee athletes a fighting chance.

At least three disabled athletes have competed in the Summer Olympics: George Eyser, an American, won a gold medal in gymnastics while competing on a wooden leg at the 1904 Games in St. Louis; Neroli Fairhall, a paraplegic from New Zealand, was an Archer in the 1984 Olympics in L.A; and America's Marla Runyan, a legally blind runner, competed in the 1,500 meters at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. But Pistorius would be the first amputee to compete on the track, the focal point of the Summer Games.

And so Pistorius and his bionic legs are forcing the sports world to rethink exactly what it means to be a disabled athlete. Is the Blade Runner so fast now that his Cheetahs are representing an unfair edge over his able-bodied rivals? Is his disability, indirectly, an advantage? And, if so, how does one go about empirically establishing that?

“You have two competing issues — fair competition and basic human rights to compete,” says Angela Schneider, a sports ethicist at the University of Western Ontario and a 1984 Olympic Rowing medalist. The IAAF must objectively define when prosthetic devices “go from therapy to enhancement,” Schneider said. The danger of acting hastily, she said, is “you deny a guy’s struggle against all odds — one of the fundamental principles of the Olympics.”

Are the Cheetahs an artificial enhancements that makes him faster than he would be if he had natural legs? After all, improvements in human performance are normally limited by biology and evolution. Not in Oscar's case. His legs are constantly upgraded and fine-tuned by a pit crew of Icelandic geeks at a sophisticated lab.

No one expects able-bodied runners to compete head-to-head with wheelchair-bound marathoners. The wheels confer an obvious speed advantage, right? In 1975, Bob Hall became the first athlete to complete the Boston Marathon in a wheelchair, clocking 2:58. In 1980, Curt Brinkman wheeled his way round the course in 1:55:00. And three years ago, Ernst Van Dyk rolled Boston in 1:18:27. That's an improvement, in 30 years, of roughly 100 minutes. Largely because of improved equipment. During the same period, the men's course record dropped less than 3 minutes. That’s because the human body is notoriously difficult to enhance. Without drugs. Or, well, better parts.

What will happen if (or when) Pistorius chisels his 400m time down to under 43 seconds and eclipses Michael Johnson’s world record? If the Cheetahs do provide an advantage in the 400, wouldn't that edge be magnified over greater distances. What if he runs a 1:40 800? A 3:30 mile? Will the IAAF and IOC rethink their decision then?

Will able-bodied runners ponder the removal of their lower legs? Oh, that's crazy talk, I hear you say. Is it? The same sobering question was posed recently on the Web site of the Connecticut-based Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. “Given the arms race nature of competition,” will technological advantages cause “athletes to do something as seemingly radical as having their healthy natural limbs replaced by artificial ones?” wrote George Dvorsky, a member of the institute’s board of directors. “Is it self-mutilation when you’re getting a better limb?”

Where should the line be drawn?

One of the hardest things about running the 400m and 800m is that your legs become awash with lactic acid towards the end of the race. In the second half of a 400-meter race, the legs begin to function worse and worse as the race goes on. It’s why sprinters rig up and their form goes to hell in the final 50 meters or so. Granted, Oscar’s hamstrings might have to work harder (maybe twice as hard) as those of an able bodied rival, but his Cheetahs don’t get tired. They work as well in the last 100m as they do in the first. Moreover, he won't suffer from any of the lower leg and foot ailments – Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, compartment syndrome – that often curtail the training of many track runners.

Honestly, I don't know if the Cheetahs give Pistorius an unfair advantage, but I believe that his inclusion in able-bodied races sets a very dangerous precedent. Don’t get me wrong; I have the utmost respect and admiration for Pistorius, as I do for all disabled athletes who strive to be the best they can be in their given fields. I hope he keeps running track, and that he shoots for the stars in whatever his chosen field might be.

I also think its great that the IOC includes a Paralympic Games, where athletes like Pistorius can win medals and set world records. I feel fortunate every day to have been born with two arms, two legs, a healthy set of organs and a brain that fires on all cylinders most days, and wouldn't exchange places with Pistorius for anything.

But I don't believe he belongs in the World Championships or Olympics. After all, he's running on bionic legs, and sooner or later someone else is going to want a pair. At any cost.

TR Editor DAVE MILNER once clocked a 4 x 400m relays split in 52 seconds. He currently has his ears to the ground for the mass production of Ossur's Bionic Achilles Tendons.

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Want to read more? Check out these links:

http://www.wired.com | http://www.nytimes.com