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What Are The Implications Of Prosthetic Limbs In Sport? (Part 1)

The Blade Runner

I am going to write a few posts on the topic of prosthetic limbs in sport. This first post I want to spark some discussion on the topic: What is your opinion? What do you think should be allowed and not allowed? Should track and field allow Paralympic athletes and able bodied athletes to race together? Should other sports do the same?

My opinion is that in about 30 years the best able bodied athletes (track and field) will not be fast enough to qualify in the events where individuals have some sort of leg prosthetic: ankle down, knee down etc. The world records will all be held by what we now call Paralympic athletes.

I ask you two questions based on my opinion:

  1. Is it in our natural evolution to become bionic?
  2. Should the able bodied be able to “accessorize” with bionic-like spring shoes or bio-implants of some sort – to become bionic themselves?

What Is Happening In The Real World

The second the Court of Arbitration ruled that Oscar “blade runner” Pistorius was able to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (with double prosthetic limbs) they secured the fact that amputee athletes will eventually own all running world records. The current day 100m world record, held by Usain Bolt at 9.58 seconds (as of 2011 current) is the most secure but will eventually be broken by an amputee athlete.

Let Me Tell You Why Amputee Athletes Will Be Golden

The Ossur Flex-Foot Cheetah prosthetic limbs main disadvantage is the starting blocks. The longer the race becomes the less this disadvantage comes into play. As such the shortest race, the 100m, is the safest world record – for now.

The landmark ruling by the Court of Arbitration, back in 2008, was for Oscar’s case only. They made it very clear that if in the future the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) could prove prosthetic limbs a clear advantage then a new ruling would need to be made.

I find this statement by them interesting; although I am no lawyer (I am a mechanical engineer familiar with these types of studies) I know that after one study is deemed “not proof enough” all future studies will need to show beyond a reasonable doubt the advantages of the limbs. Beyond any reasonable doubt is hard to achieve. Keep in mind many modern day scientific theories are accepted but still not proven beyond a reasonable doubt: Evolution and Einstein’s relativity being two.

So good luck to the scientists who undertake the challenge.

The Beijing Olympics: Prosthetic Limbed Athletes Allowed

The IAAF originally ruled, in January 2008, that the Ossur Flex-Foot Cheetah, which is the prosthetic limb that amputee athletes like Oscar Pistorius – double leg amputee and  Jerome Singleton – single leg amputee use “should be considered technical aids which give them an advantage over other athletes not using them.”

The IAAF based their decision on an independent scientific study (outlined in detail: Science and Engineering Evaluation of Advantages of Double Prosthetic Limb Athletes) that they sponsored. The study explained in detail several advantages of the prosthetic limbs: Spring design of the limbs, reduced limb mass, stride length and frequency. It also brought to fruition the disadvantage at the starting spot given the prosthetic’s decreased surface area meaning they can not generate friction to overcome inertia and propel forward as well as a normal human foot. Essentially they ruled that the advantages outmatched the disadvantages and it was “unfair” for Oscar to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Pistorius made an appeal and the Court of Arbitration ruled the IAAF sponsored study did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the advantages of the Flex-Foot Cheetah prosthetic limb. If Oscar could run an Olympic qualifying time of 45.55 seconds (for the 400m race) he could compete. Oscar ran several races over many months leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics: running a personal best of 46.25 seconds. Unfortunately that was not good enough and he failed to qualify. He did, however, go on to win gold at the Paralympic games 100m, 200m and 400m events.

The Future of Prosthetic Limbs in Sport?

A Dog With A Prosthetic Limb, O My

In my next post on prosthetic limbs in sport I will look at the progression of prosthetic limb technology and where it may be in twenty, thirty, even one hundred years time.

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