Pistorius’s Olympic hopes crash

2007-12-22 00:00

The prospect of Oscar Pistorius competing in the 400 metres at the Olympic Games seemed set to be one of the biggest international sports stories of 2008.

With his image being beamed around the globe, he was already being seen as an important example of courage and achievement in adversity for many millions of people around the world.

Now, it seems, he will be staying at home.

Earlier this week, a German sports scientist concluded that the 21-year-old South African without legs gains “a considerable advantage” by running on artificial blades, and his report will almost certainly prompt the IAAF, the world governing body of athletics, to ban Pistorius from running in able-bodied events.

“The findings are clear,” Professor Peter Bruggemann told Die Welt, a German newspaper, tackily leaking his findings before the athlete had been informed. “The prosthetics return 90% of impact energy, compared to 60% of the human foot.”

The instinctive human response to this news is disappointment that an extraordinary saga should be denied its storybook Olympic ending, yet the judgment somehow feels right.

Pistorius was born without the fibula bones that connect knee to ankle, and each of his legs was amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. He grew accustomed to his artificial limbs, and as a teenager at Pretoria Boys’ High School, excelled in water polo, wrestling and rugby.

He injured his knee playing rugby in January 2004 and took up athletics during his rehabilitation. Eight months later, kitted out with J-shaped, carbon-fibre legs, he won the gold medal in the 200 metres at the Paralympic Games in Athens, setting a new world record. This feat earned him somewhat predictable nicknames such as “Bladerunner” and “the fastest man on no legs”.

Endless hours in training began to yield rewards as he claimed more Paralympic titles, breaking no fewer than 26 world records in the process. Towards year-end his personal best times have edged closer and closer to marks set by the world’s best athletes.

In the course of 2007, Pistorius has run the 100 metres in 10.91 seconds, the 200 metres in 21.58 seconds and the 400 metres in 46.56 seconds. This latter performance earned him second place at the SA national championships and apparently set him on course to secure, at least, a place in the South African 4x400-metre relay team at the Olympic Games in Beijing.

The spiky-haired tyro made no secret of his ambition to erase the lines separating Paralympic sport from the mainstream. “I can do everything able-bodied athletes can do,” he told the media, confirming he refuses to park his car in places reserved for the disabled.

In July this year Pistorius accepted invitations to compete in fully-fledged, able-bodied Grand Prix events in Rome and Sheffield, and his case started to provoke worldwide debate.

The IAAF abruptly amended its competition rules to prohibit the use of “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that may provide an unfair advantage”, and then agreed to pay R400 000 for the South African to attend an intensive testing programme under the eagle eye of Professor Bruggemann in Cologne.

The German boffin now claims to have detected a mechanical advantage, but you don’t need to be a scientist to see that artificial limbs threaten the core integrity of sport.

In its purest form, an athletics race is a simple, beautiful, equal contest between eight individuals running from the start to the finish. This basic ideal may have been polluted by drug abuse, maybe more than we know, yet it must still be worth protecting. Allowing prosthetics would transform the sporting contest into an engineering challenge. What next? High jumpers with springs for heels? Swimmers with mechanical flippers?

Pistorius has talked of appealing against a ban — giving up is not in his nature — but perhaps he should be content with becoming one of the greatest Paralympians, with being admired as a great South African who has reflected immense credit on his country, and with being hailed as an important example of courage and achievement in adversity for many millions of people around the world.

•Contact Edward Griffiths at www.onesmallvoice.co.za

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