Amputee could run in Olympics
An unexpected decision Friday by the Court of Arbitration for Sport cleared the way for South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius to compete for a berth on his nation’s Olympic track team, although he may need to run faster than ever before if he is to succeed in that quest.
The court, an international panel that has final say over legal matters in sport, ruled that the 21-year-old sprinter’s state-of-the-art carbon fiber prosthetic blades give him no advantage over able-bodied runners.
The unanimous ruling overturns a ban set down last fall by the International Assn. of Athletics Federation, which believed the j-shaped “Cheetah” legs did provide an advantage. Pistorius had appealed that IAAF ruling to the Swiss-based CAS.
A star in his country where he is known as “Blade Runner,” Pistorius holds the Paralympics world record in the men’s 400-meter run with a time of 46.56 seconds and has a personal best of 46.34. Both times, however, are short of what is needed to compete in the individual 400.
In fact, in the last two years no South African in the 400 has met the required “A” time of 45.55. And if Pistorius is the runner South African athletic officials want at the Beijing Games, he will have to meet the “B” time of 45.95 to run the open 400.
Those same officials said that, in light of Pistorius’ legal fight, they waived the requirement that Olympics-bound athletes had to compete in the national championships in March and plan to accept any qualifying time from a sanctioned event, anywhere in the world
Pistorius also could be added to the South African 4x400-meter relay team without a qualifying time but it also wasn’t clear that team would be fast enough to be in the Games since only the world’s top 16 teams qualify.
Even so, Leonard Chuene, president of Athletics South Africa, told the Associated Press, “We are very much hopeful that he will be part and parcel of our team.”
That didn’t temper the joy or lessen the concern among Paralympians.
Linda Mastandrea, who set world records in the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter wheelchair races and is the Paralympics athlete representative on the 2016 Chicago Olympics bid committee, called Friday’s ruling “fantastic.”
But she also fears that as the technology for prosthetic arms, legs and feet improves, some able-bodied track athletes might choose to replace their own limbs with prostheses.
“I can’t say somebody wouldn’t try it,” Mastandrea said. “It would be pretty desperate, but, again, with this competitive thing what people are tempted to try, nothing would surprise me.
“But I think if anybody asks Oscar if he had the option of having two good legs to run on or his Cheetahs, I think he would choose two good legs.”
Yet last summer, the Sunday Times of London published a profile in which Pistorius said this:
“If you ask me today if I’d want to have my legs back, I’d have to sit down seriously and think about it. Being an amputee, growing up with my disability has made me the person I am.”
Pistorius, who was in Milan, Italy, when the ruling was announced, was ecstatic.
“When I found out, I was crying,” he told reporters. “It is a battle that has been going on far too long. It’s a great day for sport. I think this day is going down in history for the equality of disabled people.”
Born without fibulas -- the bone running between the knee and ankle -- Pistorius had both legs amputated below the knees when he was 11 months old. Last summer he competed against able-bodied athletes at a meet in Rome and at a Grand Prix meet in Sheffield, England. That led the IAAF to review his case.
The IAAF made its original ruling only after Pistorius underwent three days of testing in Germany. Peter Bruggemann, a professor at the German Sport University, supervised the tests, the results of which suggested to the IAAF that the Cheetahs were more efficient than a human ankle and that Pistorius exerted 35% less energy than some able-bodied sprinters.
But that same research helped win the case for Pistorius.
Attorney Jeffrey Kessler, whose New York-based firm represented the runner on a pro bono basis, called Friday’s decision “exhilarating” and also not a surprise.
Kessler, who worked as the lead attorney, said Friday that the IAAF had never asked the right questions because Bruggemann’s research “never showed that Oscar gained a net advantage or disadvantage with the Cheetahs. Our argument has been that Oscar is only trying to have a fair playing field to compete. The CAS agreed.”
In a statement Friday, IAAF President Lamine Diack said: “Oscar will be welcomed wherever he competes this summer. He is an inspirational man and we look forward to admiring his achievements in the future.”
Clyde Hart, who has coached former U.S. Olympic star and 400-meter world-record holder Michael Johnson and current Olympic gold-medal favorite Jeremy Wariner, said he watched Pistorius run last summer in England.
“I have no problem with the ruling,” Hart said Friday. “The normal high-level athlete gets advantages -- better shoes, lighter shoes, a better arrangement of spikes on the shoes. But I think this is going to have to be on a case-by-case basis. Certainly if an athlete has, say, some type of artificial arm with a spring in it that would enable him to throw the javelin farther, it would have to be a case-by-case thing.”
Duke University law professor Paul Haagen, who specializes in sports law and policy and who has written about the CAS, said that Friday’s ruling states that if a federation can show an advantage, the athlete is not allowed to use his device.
“The specter of a group of bionic athletes who are going to have an extraordinary competitive advantage and who would be allowed to compete seems unlikely immediately,” Haagen said. “This ruling treats as a given that there needs to be an accommodation for persons who are disabled.”
Troy Engle, former head track and field head coach at Occidental College and now head coach of the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field team, cautioned that this ruling may not be the final word.
“Everybody wants to ensure the proper science was done, that a level playing field is maintained and that if two people line up and the one who throws the furthest, jumps the highest, runs the fastest, it is fair. I don’t know if these questions of technology have been completely closed.
“What we do know is that Oscar is a great athlete and he deserves every recourse and has all along.”
Special correspondent Philip Hersh contributed to this report.