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Akron Univ. School of Law

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Olympic Dreams for Disabled Runner

The New York Times reports the good news that a disabled Olympian runner will be permitted to compete. Joshua Robinson and Alan Schwartz write,

     When an international court ruled Friday that a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa was eligible to compete in this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, the stage was set for disabled athletes to meet their own trailblazer.   

The watershed ruling made the runner, Oscar Pistorius, the first amputee to successfully challenge the notion that his carbon-fiber prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage and assured his right to race against able-bodied athletes in the Olympics, should he qualify. Previously barred from competing in such races by track and field’s world governing body, Pistorius will continue to stoke the debate over the competitive issues created by evolving technology in sports. . . .

In overturning a ban imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s governing body, the court deemed that there was not enough evidence to prove that Pistorius’s flexible j-shaped blades, attached below his knees, gave him an advantage . . . .

“In the world of prosthetics, with so many variables, they need a stipulation for down the road, when we come to the day and age when bionics come to the fore,” Frasure said. “If they say it’s O.K. for all amputees to compete in the Olympics, they would be setting themselves up for even more controversy, more than Oscar dealt with, in the future.”

The I.A.A.F. thought it had made that stipulation when it barred Pistorius in January, despite clearing him to compete with able-bodied athletes last spring; he ran at international meets in Rome and Sheffield, England. . .  .

Pistorius was born without the fibula in his lower legs and with defects in his feet, and his legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. He went on to set Paralympic world records in the 100, 200, and 400 meters, but did not draw attention until he started competing with able-bodied athletes in South Africa in 2004.

So last November, the track and field governing body’s cooperation with Pistorius was uncharted territory. The I.A.A.F. sponsored three days of testing on Pistorius, who gave his consent, in Cologne, Germany, under the supervision of Peter Brüggemann, a professor at the German Sport University.

Brüggemann found that the Cheetah prosthetics were more efficient than a human ankle. He also found that they could return energy in maximum speed sprinting and that Pistorius was able to keep up with a few able-bodied sprinters while expending about 25 percent less energy.

Pistorius’s lawyers, however, argued that the results of the study did not provide enough evidence to make a decision, and they lodged an appeal in February. Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer with the New York-based firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, who agreed to take the case on a pro bono basis, led Pistorius’s defense.

“The I.A.A.F. had not at all followed proper procedures in conducting any of its review,” Kessler said. “Many of its results were in many respects pre-ordained.”

To test how much mechanical energy a runner uses, researchers study forces on the ankle, knee and hip joints. They do this with video cameras to record the joints’ motions and plates along the running path that record the force on the joints. When the athlete’s foot, or prosthesis, touches a plate, it measures the forces in three directions: up and down, right and left, and front and back.

The measurements, combined with oxygen consumption, are a reliable indicator of the runner’s economy — and whether the prosthetics are providing an advantage, said Roger Enoka, a biomechanics researcher at the University of Colorado.

The researchers who examined Pistorius were instructed to study only his performance while running on a straightaway — when he was at his fastest. That approach was deemed unfair by the court. In its published opinion, the court censured the I.A.A.F. for its handling of the case, saying that from the outset, it had its mind made up.

“The manner in which the I.A.A.F. handled the situation of Mr. Pistorius in the period from July 2007 to January 2008 fell short of the high standards that the international sporting community is entitled to expect from a federation such as the I.A.A.F.,” the panel said.

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