Pistorius-Oliveira controversy just part of Paralympics' evolution | Sports | CBC Sports

ParalympicsPistorius-Oliveira controversy just part of Paralympics' evolution

Posted: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 | 11:39 AM

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Oscar Pistorius, left, congratulated Alan Oliveira on winning the men's 200m at the London Paralympics, but later complained about the length of his rival's prosthetic legs. (Michael Steele/Getty Images) Oscar Pistorius, left, congratulated Alan Oliveira on winning the men's 200m at the London Paralympics, but later complained about the length of his rival's prosthetic legs. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

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Oscar Pistorius made headlines by objecting to the length of the artificial legs used by rival sprinter Alan Oliveira to win the men's 200m in London. But this is not the first time that these types of accusations have been levied in Paralympic amputee sprinting, a sport that is constantly evolving.
It's pretty exciting for anyone involved in the Paralympic movement in Canada to see the CBC's Peter Mansbridge talking about the Paralympics on The National as we witnessed on Monday night.

The story about Oscar Pistorius's objection to the length of the artificial legs used by one of his opponents, reported by Susan Ormiston, shows that the appetite for Paralympic sport news has grown exponentially with the emergence of a superstar.

In a nutshell, Pistorius complained that 200m gold-medal winner Alan Oliveira's carbon-fibre prosthetic blades were too long. There is a process for determining an acceptable length for artificial legs for double-leg amputees: the athlete sits on a chair, his seated height is measured, and that number is used to extrapolate how tall he would be if he had both of his legs, within a range.

Pistorius seems to feel that the formula is flawed, and that Oliveira's height, as well as that of American Blake Leeper, has been raised above reasonable limits.

This is not the first time that these types of accusations have been levied in Paralympic amputee sprinting. In the early 1990s, American Dennis Oehler - a single-leg amputee - was the undisputed fastest man in the world with a prosthetic leg. Oehler, using then revolutionary "Flex Foot" technology, sprinted the 100 metres at the 1988 Seoul Paralympic Games in a breathtaking time of 11.72 seconds.  

Then along came another American, Tony Volpentest, who was not only a double-leg amputee but a double-arm amputee as well. Volpentest used an early version of  sprinting "blades" to break Oehler's world record, running the 100 metres in 11.36 seconds at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Oehler argued that Volpentest had raised his height from 5-foot-9 (which seemed to be his natural height) to well over 6 feet, and thus increased his stride length.

These complaints prompted the International Paralympic Committee to introduce the previously mentioned formula to measure an athlete's height. I was an amputee athlete racing in that atmosphere throughout the 1990s.

A quick examination of the classification system in Paralympic track and field reveals yet another twist in this already convoluted equation. The "3" in Oscar Pistorius's T43 classification denotes that he is a double-leg amputee, whereas his countryman Arnu Fourie is a T44 (meaning single-leg amputee).

In classification terms, the second number represents the level of the disability. For example, a T42 is considered more disabled than a T43, who is considered more disabled than a T44, etc.

Using that as a guide, let's examine the 200-metre medal winners in the T43/T44 combined class. The gold went to Oliveira in 21.45 seconds, the silver to Pistorius in 21.52, and the bronze to Leeper in 22.46. All three are T43s, indicating they're "more disabled" than the top T44 finisher, South Africa's Fourie, who ran a 22.49 time that set a new World record in his category but was slower than the medal winners, who technically are supposed to be at a disadvantage in relation to him.

To me it's clear that there is a technological advantage at work here. But it may not be the advantage that Pistorius is claiming.

The question is what to do next? Should the categories be split again so that T43 and T44 run separately?  Maybe, but I believe the sport will evolve in the coming years and T44 runners (single-leg amputees) will learn how to optimally utilize a single prosthetic and to match its actions with those of the unamputated leg, as it were.

Great Britain's Jonnie Peacock might well be the man to bring the T44s back to level. He is a 19-year-old who, under the guidance of acclaimed coach Dan Pfaff, has blazed to a 100-metre time of 10.85 seconds. If he duplicates that feat in London on Thursday night, I believe he will stand on top of the podium and he will put a whole new twist on a debate that is just getting interesting.

This is just one of many fascinating plotlines that make London the best place to be in the world right now.

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