Pistorius likely to surprise the world

2008-05-24 00:00

Last week’s decision by the Court of Arbitration of Sport has cleared “Bladerunner” Oscar Pistorius to compete in the Olympics if he achieves the required qualifying times.

Inspection of the 18-page judgment document clarifies that this was a case of the Law versus Science — and the Law won, with the IAAF coming on for significant criticism along the way. Key to this was that as opposed to Oscar having the burden of proving why he should be able to run, the IAAF were bound to prove their contention that he had unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes.

The IAAF based their case solely around rule 144.2, which restricts athletes from the “use of any technical device incorporating springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage”.

While it is clear that there are advantages when running at speed, the arbitration panel ruled there was not an overall advantage. Oscar’s lawyers contended that the prosthetics are clearly a disadvantage over the start and that the IAAF must prove that the prosthetics provide a net overall advantage over 400 m.

The only sure way to prove this would be to have, say, 10 athletes of around the same ability race 400 m flat out, then amputate their legs, retrain them to similar fitness levels and race them again using the prosthetics. Clearly this is impossible and it is just another case on which human science is based on hypothesis deduced from fact and not on proven or provable fact.

By comparison, the law only requires the defence to create sufficient doubt that Oscar derived any overall advantage, which the lawyers did.

There were two other important clauses to the judgment.

First, this judgment only applies to Oscar Pistorius and only to him using the exact same prosthetics without modification or adjustment. (This addresses the concern raised in my last column over the need to have standardisation and assizing as the sport already has for javelins, discus and other competitive equipment). Second, that the IAAF would have to impartially review the participation of all other amputees with similar or other prosthetics in a similar fashion based on the scientific research available at the time.

This could put a significant burden on sporting federations and will require a considerable leap in the level of research and testing protocol if the law is not to dominate over the science.

In sporting terms, the referee cried foul last year, Oscar appealed and the TV Referee (CAS) came back to overrule the original decision, albeit on legal not scientific grounds. In sport, we abide by the decision so where to from here?

Both Pistorius and South Africa now have an opportunity and we must play to the full extent of the rules we have been given.

Although it’s still early in the northern hemisphere season, the RSA team, of Pieter Smith, Ockert Cilliers, Sibusiso Shisi, and LJ van Zyl, took gold in the African Championships and are ranked eighth in the world at present with their 3:03.58 time. The top 16 qualify for the Olympics.

While there seems a reasonable chance that Oscar could improve his individual 400 m performance from the blocks to a B-qualifying 45.95 seconds, his potential in the relay is considerably greater. Remember this is a man who, unlike able-bodied runners, does not slow down in the second half of the race. If anything, he speeds up. Now give him the momentum of a 20-metre take-over zone, and that baton will have some real speed as he rounds that next lap.

Even when standing jiggling from leg to leg waiting to break into a run, Pistorious has more flex-return than the energy absorbing ankle joints of able-bodied athletes. It will be like priming a rocket.

Selecting Pistorius in the second leg of the relay will afford him the protection of lanes for the first bend, whereafter athletes break to the inside lane. Ironically Oscar may also have something of an advantage even after the break.

There must be some concern that a wayward elbow would send the double amputee flying, but who would want to be the first athlete to be deemed responsible for that? Remember the fracas over the Mary Decker-Zola Budd clash? This would pale into insignificance were Oscar to be tripped or jostled to the deck. And who wouldn’t be fearful of being spiked by the extra long low bounding action of blades from behind?

There is every chance that Oscar would enjoy an invisible protection zone on his travels. How much time is it all worth, only testing, practice and training will tell.

Perhaps his greatest challenge is going to be focusing. Oscar is inundated with offers from all angles. People are searching for his contact details. Milan is bestowing him with the freedom of their city and there are even some organisers considering inviting him to race their marathon.

With only weeks to the end of the qualification period, and if Pistorius’s goal truly is to get to Beijing, he should be working with ASA, and working on the most efficient stand, acceleration and baton takeover in a 20 metres zone. The world and CAS may be surprised what they have let loose by August 24 when we watch the Olympic Games closing ceremony.

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