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Why `Blade Runner` has sport on edge of a moral dilemma

13 July 2007


Throughout his ascendance from a school athletics track in Pretoria to the cusp of Olympic competition, Oscar Pistorius has gained strength from an uncomplicated maxim. "You're not disabled by the disabilities you have," he says. "You are able by abilities you have."

The 20-year-old South African has only been a competitive sprinter for three years, a fact belied by the speed of his progress, and the flippancy with which he dismisses the physical hindrances he has overcome.

Born without fibulas in his legs, Pistorious became a double amputee a month short of his first birthday. Two decades on, and a clutch of medals and titles to his name, he is known as the "world's fastest man on no legs".

Now, with brash determination, he stands before the international governing body of athletics, stating his case for the right to participate in the greatest competition of all.

The question of whether the sprinter - whose life story is to be made into a Hollywood film, reputedly by Tom Hanks - should be permitted to race against the global elite raises a wider dilemma: by allowing his entry into the Beijing Olympics - some contest that the purity of sporting competition could be irretrievably compromised.

This evening, in the rarified surroundings of Rome, the "Blade Runner" will savour his first race abroad against able-bodied athletes. Come Sunday, he will take on world and Olympic 400 metres champion Jeremy Wariner in Sheffield. Though competitive as the next man - with a personal best of 46.34, the Springbok is close to reaching the 4x400 relay team in Beijing - the focus is not on Pistorius's placing in the races, but rather the manner by which he runs them.

Such concerns stem from the ?2,000 carbon fibre Cheetah Flex-Foot blades which hurtle him towards the finishing line. The Icelandic technology , a discomfited International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) fears, may not simply compensate for his physical disability, but afford him an advantage, courtesy of a longer stride.

It is an issue fraught with contradiction. The IAAF, while placing limits on devices that assist athletes, has at the same time embraced technology, allowing, for example, athletes to sleep in tent-like structures designed to improve their ability to carry oxygen.

Quite how science might determine a definitive answer in Pistorius's case is unclear. Scrutiny of the biomechanics of amputee athletes is in its infancy. In Sheffield therefore, the IAAF will employ three video cameras to analyse the movement of his J-shaped prosthetics.

Nick Davies, IAAF spokesman, is adamant no decision has been taken yet. "Only when we've done the research and we can prove - prove strongly - that [Oscar is] getting an advantage should we be talking about bans. Until then, innocent until proven guilty."

For his part, the blond, spiky-haired Pistorius - the Paralympic 200 metres gold medallist and world record holder at 100, 200 and 400m - contends that his stride is of a normal range. In fact, he reasons, the blades temper his full capabilities, given his knees cannot flex fully, and in wet conditions, he has an unsure grip.

With the IAAF having initially banned him from open competition, Pistorius is warning the organisation against taking supposition for scientific fact, and is understandably eager to seek redress this weekend, lest he be forced to take legal action.

He said: "I think that amputee sprinters and disabled people worldwide have been pretty taken aback by some of the comments the IAAF have made in the past three, four months."

Pistorious rejects being defined as disabled, eschewing, for instance, the use of special parking bays during day-to-day-life. His coach Ampie Louw supports fully his resolve to compete in full-blooded competition.

"For the spectators, it's a very inspirational thing when he runs. You can hear it when they announce the athletes. Even when he's not in front," he said. "There's nobody in the world like him, and it may stay that way for the next maybe ten to 20 years."

Phil Lane, chief executive of the British Paralympics Association, said: "As long as research shows Oscar has no unfair advantage, he should be able to compete. He's a remarkable athlete who's blowing boundaries."

Yet with the onward advance of prosthetic endowments, it is possible the dilemma surrounding Pistorius may impact on the notion of equality in other sports. That is the contention of George Dvorsky, a director at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which seeks to further the use of technology to expand man's capabilities.

"A certain arbitrariness exists when it comes to determining which technologies are acceptable," he says. "Given the strong likelihood that advanced prosthetics will greatly surpass what is natural, at what point do we concede defeat and allow 'cyborgs' to compete alongside 'natural' [athletes]?"

Jon Ridgeon, managing director of Fast Track, the marketing and sponsorship agency which promotes all major athletics meetings in the UK, rejected accusations that Sunday's Norwich Union British Grand Prix was a novelty. The race, he argued, will permit the IAAF to examine the fairness of Pistorius's participation.

Mr Ridgeon told The Scotsman: "Oscar has already achieved a level of performance which puts him way ahead of his competitors in elite disability sport. The race gives him an opportunity to take a considerable step towards realising his dream."

For his part, Mr Dvorsky is adamant trailblazers such as Pistorius will redefine the very nature of sport.

"The long-term impact of enhancement in sports is still unclear," he added. "There may be schisms within specific sports causing the emergence of rival leagues. There may be leagues for enhanced athletes and those for able-bodied. Over time however, the natural athletes will appear anachronistic. It's the disabled after all who will inherit the earth."

It is a bold, and some might argue, extreme prophecy. But when he takes to the Don Valley Stadium's starting blocks on Sunday, in a city famed for its steel, the Blade Runner will seek to make considerable strides towards its realisation.

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