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IAAF angry at being portrayed as the villain in Pistorius affair

17 July 2007

Oscar Pistorius Oscar Pistorius
Rick Broadbent

Oscar Pistorius was told to “calm down” as the debate over whether his carbon-fibre blades give the double-amputee an unfair advantage descended into an unedifying spate of mud-slinging. The simmering bitterness boiled over when the man known as the Blade Runner accused the IAAF of acting like the FBI, but the federation’s initial research into his case seems likely to result in the end of his Olympic dream.

Elio Locatelli, the IAAF’s director of development, admitted that preliminary studies of film from Pistorius’s 400 metres B race at the Golden League meeting in Rome last Friday suggested his blades, called Cheetahs, did give him an illegal boost. “It seems there is an advantage to come from the elasticity of his blades,” Locatelli said.

Should further tests confirm that more energy is returned to Pistorius from his prosthetics with less cost to his energy system than is the case with able-bodied athletes, he will fall foul of the IAAF’s rule on technical aids.

It is an emotive case and the 20-year-old South African is breaking new ground, but his confrontational approach has irritated the IAAF, which has borne the brunt of his criticism. Nick Davies, the communications manager, was reluctant to be drawn into a slanging match, but pointed out: “We are giving him the benefit of the doubt by doing research on his blades. I just think he needs to calm down a little bit and to respect us as well, and the fact that we’re paying for the research ? he isn’t.”

The immediate prospect of Pistorius running at the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, next month is slim. He recorded a time of 47.65sec before being disqualified for running out of his lane in the Norwich Union British Grand Prix in Sheffield on Sunday and has a best of 46.34sec, but needs to achieve the qualifying standard of 45.95sec by August 13, when South Africa must name their team. Pistorius’s main aim is the Olympics, either in Beijing next year or London in 2012. It may yet be that the case will end up in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Dr Ross Tucker, of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, said that the media attention had focused on the human interest story at the expense of the science, adding that he had offered to conduct research for Pistorius two years ago. His remarks have provoked a backlash, with one person e-mailing him and telling him to amputate his own legs. “I have taken some heat,” he said. “But I think we’re in danger of opening a Pandora’s box and introducing a new realm of performance-enhancers.”

Tucker suggested that if companies such as Nike and adidas started developing carbon-fibre blades then a sub-40sec 400 metres would be achieved within five years; the present world record is held by Michael Johnson at 43.18 and has stood for eight years.

According to Tucker, Pistorius’s case founders on the issue of muscle contraction. He says that Cheetahs are designed to return energy to the runner passively, whereas an able-bodied athlete must contract the muscle to capture and return the energy. “The oxygen demand from the muscles will be reduced in Oscar,” he said. “Until proven otherwise, this is a clear advantage.” Tucker also dismissed Pistorius’s claim that he suffers from a back problem because of a build-up of lactic acid.

Locatelli added that his studies of the Rome race, when Pistorius finished second, showed that he spent less time in the air than an able-bodied athlete, although they also disproved rumours that his stride length exceeded three metres.

Pistorius cut a disgruntled figure on Sunday night when he finished last in the much-hyped race in Sheffield. He said the IAAF was guilty of making “unprofessional” and “unacceptable” statements. Plenty of his fellow athletes have paid tribute to Pistorius’s trailblazing stance, but whether they would be so accommodating if they were losing to him is questionable. He is a remarkable man, but the IAAF is angered by the way it has been cast as the villain of the piece.

Davies said the IAAF had nothing against disabled athletes and, indeed, Marla Runyon, a blind American runner, competed in the 1,500 metres at the Sydney Olympics. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t, Pistorius is not about to go quietly.

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