'No Advantage to Being an Amputee': A Defense of Oscar Pistorius's Prostheses

Some think the Olympic runner has an unfair edge over his competitors, but the man who designed his limbs says otherwise.

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Reuters

Before Oscar Pistorius ever set foot inside London's Olympic Stadium, before he prepared for the 400-meter race by connecting two carbon fiber blades to the stumps of his legs, he had to move heaven and earth just to be allowed to compete. Pistorius, a South African sprinter who was born without fibulas and had both legs amputated just below the knee when he was 11 months old, had tried to enter the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, only to be rebuffed by track's international governing body. His prosthetic legs allegedly gave him a biomechanical advantage.

Pistorius quickly appealed the ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled in early 2008 that he was eligible to compete in the Olympics (Pistorius missed qualifying for Beijing by 0.7 seconds). Pistorius continued to improve his times and qualified for London, racing in the 400 meters and advancing out of the preliminary round with a season-best time of 45.44 seconds on Saturday. Though Pistorius failed to qualify for the finals in the event, he will race again later this week as a part of South Africa's 4x400-meter relay team.

Pistorius is not the first amputee athlete to compete in the Olympics. Fellow South African Natalie Du Toit, who finished 16th in the 10K marathon swim in Beijing, lost her left leg below the knee in 2001. But Pistorius is the first Olympian amputee in track and field, and unlike Du Toit, he uses prosthetics.

Even as the 25-year-old South African pushed his body beyond reasonable physical limits and ultimately made it to London, scientists debated whether Pistorius' Flex-Foot Cheetahs—the J-shaped carbon blades that he runs on—give him a competitive advantage over able-bodied runners.

To the man who has designed Pistorius' prosthetics for more than 10 years, there is no debate.

"In my opinion, there's no advantage to being an amputee," said Francois Van Der Watt, the prosthetics manager at Ossur Americas in Houston. "[The Cheetah] is not anything that's internally powered. There's no advantage that comes out of wearing it."

Van Der Watt first met Pistorius when the young runner was in high school. Back then, Pistorius sprinted in his everyday prosthetic feet, which broke easily under the strain of competitive running, Van Der Watt said.

The prosthetic expert began working with Pistorius to build an ideal apparatus for his weight and body type, refining the design as the sprinter rose to prominence in South Africa.

Pistorius now uses the Cheetah Flex Foot, the Ossur-designed carbon blades that Olympic watchers saw on Pistorius as he sprinted around the track in London this weekend. But despite earning the nickname "Blade Runner", Pistorius is working at a severe competitive disadvantage from the moment the starting gun goes off.

Because he has no ankle motion with the Cheetahs, Pistorius cannot achieve the energy gained from flexing the ankle against the starting blocks and then powering off. Of the 47 runners to finish the preliminary round of the 400 meters in London, Pistorius had the fourth-slowest reaction time at the start, no surprise given the awkward motion he must make to begin the race.

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Jake Simpson is a New York-based writer.

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