by Fanie Heyns

The day of the blades

Pistorius reached an agreement with the International Association of Athletics Federations IAAF

London Paralympics 2012
paralympics1.jpg

The unbridled joy about South Africa’s twelve medals in the first week at the Paralympics were overshadowed by claims by an irate Oscar Pistorius that the Brazilian Alan Oliveira, who beat him in the 200 metre T44 final, had an unfair advantage with longer carbon fibre-prosthetics that gave him an extra kick towards the end of the race. Competing in both the Olympics and the Paralympics seems to have tripped up Pistorius. 

To be able to compete with able-bodied athletes, Pistorius reached an agreement with the International Association of Athletics Federations IAAF, according to which he may not lengthen his blades to compete against able-bodied athletes. Paralympic rules are a lot more lax in this regard, reported the Cape Times.
The incident has re-opened the debate about the use of prosthetics. Pistorius banned from competing against able-bodied athletes until 2008 and the agreement with the IAAF. Beaten into second place in the T44 final, Pistorius called for the rules governing prosthetic legs to be more strictly governed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
Pistorius said there are restrictions on the length of blades and that some athletes, like Oliveira, have made their heights a lot taller in the past few months. 
Several other single-leg amputees have also asked the IPC to tighten up the rules after Oliveira and the American double-leg amputee Blake Leeper, added about 10 centimetres to their blades, giving them an unnatural height and an advantage.
In reaction, the IPC defended its policy on artificial running blades, insisting it was the best possible system, reported AFP and www.supersport.co.za.
Oliveira also told The Guardian that his actions were above board and legal.
He said he measured 177cm in his non-racing prosthetics, but changed to new blades three weeks before the Paralympics, which increased his height to 181cm. 
Under IPC rules he is allowed to run on blades that give him a height of up to 184.5cm.
"The coaches and I decided to try a higher blade. I tried the new height for the first time last year and it was difficult to get used to them. 
“I decided to try them again earlier this year and it went a little bit better. Three weeks ago, we decided to really go for it.
"The prosthesis don't run alone. Of course they are good for an improvement but there is not a significant time difference," he said.
Peter Van der Vliet, the IPC's medical and scientific director, admitted that the rules may still need to be looked at. But rejecting Pistorius’ claims, Van der Vliet said the rules were designed to ensure artificial limbs are proportional to an athlete's body. "It is the best system in place and to the confidence and satisfaction of all involved," says Van Der Vliet.
Upper limits for artificial leg lengths are calculated using a mathematical formula based on the length of an athlete's arm span as well as the distance from their sternum (chest) to the tip of the affected limbs.
An additional 3.5% of that calculation is factored in to replicate running action, where a non-disabled athlete runs on his or her toes, he explained. 
The measuring system used to calculate limb length was developed in consultation with athletes, coaches and federations before being sent to the IPC's governing body for approval.
Classification and the use of adaptive equipment tailored to the individual needs of each athlete's particular impairment are unique to Paralympic sport.
Athletes are grouped according to the nature and extent of their impairment, but a lack of athletes in one category can mean they compete with those from another.
Pistorius, for example, is a double below-the-leg amputee (T43) athlete, but often runs against T44 (single below-the-knee amputee) competitors in the same race.
Van der Vliet said determining the categories and rules on equipment was a complex and constantly evolving process.
"In the length of prosthetics, we fall back on existing scientific literature in establishing the best length. That is translated into rules and regulations. 
"You can't compare two sets of (running) blades, two sets of prostheses. They're all unique," he added.
Pistorius himself has had to prove that his J-shaped Flex-Foot 'Cheetah' blades, made by prosthetics firm Ossur, did not give him an unfair advantage when running against non-disabled athletes.
But in claiming that he was only beaten because he could not compete with his rivals' superior leg length, he has re-opened the debate.
"You can't help but see the irony of it, really," said David James, senior lecturer at the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University. 
"Pistorius has always insisted that his blades don't enhance his performance, merely enable it.
“Now he's arguing that this other guy's (Oliveira) performance has been enhanced by his blades," he told AFP.
Pistorius had been banned from competing against able-bodied athletes until 2008, amid claims that he expends less energy than an able-bodied competitor running at the same speed.
But he successfully challenged that by putting forward arguments that this was cancelled out by his slower start from the blocks and acceleration.
James maintained that Pistorius does have an advantage over able-bodied athletes because blades, costing up to 10 000 euros (R105 766) each, are lighter, allowing a faster stride.
But prosthetist Donna Fisher said, "It's not the blade that does the running – it's the person who uses it."
Fisher, who works for Ottobock, which provides repairs for Paralympic athletes, added: "The blades will give energy back out, but the energy is equal to the energy that goes in – and that's powered by the athletes."
Pistorius apologised about the timing of his rant, acknowledging that he did not want to detract from another athletes’ moment of triumph.
The IPC has already agreed to meet with Pistorius to discuss his grievances over the formula used to calculate the acceptable length of blades.
The Guardian questioned Pistorius’ claim that he could not compete with Oliveira’s stride length. Ironically, the newspaper claimed, Pistorius’ stride length was 2.2 metres per stride, longer than Oliveira’s 2 metres. Oliveira took 98 strides, and Pistorius only 92. So it was the speed of his leg movement that resulted in his faster speed, culminating in the Brazilian edging the famous South African blade runner for the title, the newspaper claimed.
Unfortunately for the popular South African, he not only lost his first ever 200m race at the Paralympics and had to settle for silver, but he also ended up with egg on his face.
Meanwhile, Charles Bouwer won his third swimming medal and Union Sekailwe bagged a bronze on the track on Monday to increase South Africa’s medal tally to twelve.
Bouwer added a second silver medal to his collection, which boasts one gold, in the men's 100m backstroke S13 final.


Fanie Heyns

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