Oscar Pistorius was told he couldn't compete in the 2008 Olympics because his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage. The ban was eventually lifted, but the debate lacked an authoritative conclusion until early this month, when a team of six researchers -- a CU professor, student, and former student among them -- saw their study on the effect of the prostheses published in Biology Letters, a medical journal. As it turns out, having no legs is, in fact, a disadvantage in sprinting.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) used a study by German professor Gert-Peter Brüggemann to ban Pistorius. The study said that Pistorius required considerably less energy to produce considerably more forward motion.
Many other scientists smelled bullshit, including CU's Rodger Kram. An associate professor in the department of integrative physiology and 25 year veteran of the field, Kram remembers his desire to set the record straight when he started work on this project nine months ago. "I thought that the previous study that they based their ban on had a lot of problems, a lot of mistakes," he says.
The outcry at the time led to a repeal of the ban by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Pistorius wound up not qualifying for the team in his native South Africa, but he's only 22 and has only been running for five years. He'll try again for the 2012 games in London, and thanks in part to Kram and his colleagues, no one should be accusing him of getting a mechanical boost above the competition.
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The study was co-written by Kram, Alena Grabowski (a former student of Kram's) and Hugh Herr of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Craig McGowan of the University of Texas at Austin, and William McDermott of The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray, Utah. Matt Beale, a student at CU, contributed to the study as well, analyzing video from the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics.
The major part of the study analyzed six unilateral amputees, comparing their flesh and blood leg to their prosthetic one. They found the prostheses produced an average of nine percent less force than the leg. They found no difference in leg swing times.
Obviously there are other factors to consider. Maybe the IAAF is worried that they'll be opening a floodgate and that in 20 years we'll have people with rocket launchers for arms competing in shot put. But we now have definitive proof that Oscar Pistorius is fighting an uphill battle even with his prostheses. Not that we needed it.