Commentary

The Olympics loom for Oscar Pistorius

The next year will be fascinating now that he's met the qualifying standard

Originally Published: August 5, 2011
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Oscar PistoriusMartin Hunter/Getty ImagesThis is Oscar Pistorius' medal haul at the IPC World Championships in January. Next: the IAAF worlds.

You hope the murmuring and arguing that has already restarted now that Oscar Pistorius has done the remarkable, the extraordinary, the heretofore unfathomable will not drag him down between now and the 2012 London Olympics. Because what Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter, was able to do on a muggy night in Lignano, Italy, on July 19 is the sort of mind-blowing achievement that shouldn't be unfairly derailed by this unsettled debate. He thought he had already navigated it once, but now it's likely to trail the 24-year-old South African all the way to next year's Olympic Summer Games.

The preposterous-sounding question that continues to chase Pistorius with each step he takes has to be the most counter-intuitive argument ever made in sports: Could it possibly be true that a double-amputee is able to run faster than world-class able-bodied sprinters because of -- and not in spite of -- his carbon-fiber prosthetic legs that attach just below his knees?

Oscar Pistorius
AP PhotoThis race in Lignano, Italy, qualified Pistorius to compete in the World Championships later this month.

Disbelief alone doesn't necessarily make it untrue. But some of the best scientists in the world continue to disagree on whether Pistorius' rudimentary prostheses (his nickname is "Blade Runner") give him an advantage, even though he has twice voluntarily submitted to rigorous physiological and biomechanical testing on everything from his rate of fatigue (which is the same as other world-class runners) to the power he generates with each footfall (appreciably lower) to his leg stride frequency (which he repeats faster than biologically intact runners do).

And until science has a better idea of how to quantify a marvel such as Pistorius, the only choice seems to be -- has to be -- to let him run.

Right?

So why is all of this an issue again? Because when Pistorius shaved an extraordinary half-second off his personal best in the 400 meters and ran a winning time of 45.07 seconds against able-bodied athletes at that small meet in Lignano last month, it put him below the "A" qualifying standard of 45.25 that allows him to race for the first time at this month's World Championships (Aug. 27-Sept. 4 in South Korea) and is also used for the 2012 Summer Games. Pistorius needs to run the "A" standard twice next season before the London Games to meet the South African Olympic Committee's automatic selection criteria; he could also run in the Games if his 400-meter time is in the top three among his countrymen.

The re-ignited debate around Pistorius is sure to pick up even more steam when more people realize his time in Lignano would have placed him fifth in the 400-meter final at the 2008 Beijing Games and fourth at the 2009 World Championships.

As Pistorius' defenders dryly note, he has become almost too good for his own good.

"What concerns me is not only that this is just going to regurgitate the bile that came up before, but there is almost a witch hunt pace to it," said Aimee Mullins, a retired American Paralympic sprinter who is also a bilateral amputee and 10 years ago competed on the same "Cheetah" prostheses Pistorius uses now.

Mullins, who later became president of the Women's Sports Foundation and is scheduled to serve as a chef de mission for the U.S. team at the London Olympics, added, "At times, I think, 'Wow.' We're really still living in this place where people get away with saying, 'I don't want to play with you,' because in whatever way -- be it consciously or, I think, perhaps more subconsciously -- they think, 'I see you as my inferior. I can't lose to you.' There's so much of that in this issue, it reminds me in some ways of what happened in the 1950s with Jackie Robinson and racial integration in baseball, or Billie Jean King and gender integration in sports."

[+] EnlargeOscar Pistorius
Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty ImagesWarming up before a meet in the Eastern Czech city of Ostrava in May.

Roger Black, a former British 400-meter runner, said in a BBC interview Pistorius should not race because, "We are not seeing 'like' against 'like.'"

But Britain's best active 400-meter man, Martyn Rooney, who finished sixth in Beijing, told England's Observer newspaper that if he were beaten by Pistorius in London, "I wouldn't be too bothered. I'd be a lot angrier if, say, someone who had failed a drugs test beat me. Oscar has not gone out of his way to cheat. This is his situation: He needs to run with those blades. He can modify things in ways that we can't, but there's things we can do that he can't. So it balances out quite well.

"The athletes who complain are the ones who aren't running fast enough."

Even the seven experts on a volunteer team that Pistorius marshaled to win his 2008 appeal of an IAAF (the world governing body for track and field) decision to ban him from running against able-bodied athletes don't concur on what the science shows.

All of them provided their unpaid help to Pistorius on the condition they would independently reach their own conclusions and retain the right to publish their work when his last-resort appeal of the IAAF ruling to the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) was done.

While all seven agreed the specific scientific report the IAAF used to ban Pistorius was faulty -- which was the only (and very narrow) criteria argued in his appeal before the CAS -- the same experts have since admitted they disagree on the bigger issue of whether Pistorius gets any sort of advantage from his prostheses. The different views are succinctly explained in this point/counterpoint debate that appeared in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Perhaps the most contentious assertion, Peter Weyand, an associate professor of applied physiology and biomechanics at Southern Methodist University, and Matthew Bundle, now an assistant professor at the University of Montana, have argued that, among other things, Pistorius enjoys as much as a 10 to 12 second advantage in a 400-meter race using his prosthetic legs, for reasons Weyand says have to do with the frequency of how quickly Pistorius is able reposition his lightweight legs as he strides; the force he exerts; the longer length of time each of his prosthetic feet remains on the ground; and reduced ground force requirements to attain the same sprinting speeds.

[+] EnlargeOscar Pistorius
Franck Fife/AFP/Getty ImagesIn an IAAF Diamond League meet in France in early July, Pistorius, right, finsihed fifth. The Bahamas' Christopher Brown, second from left, won; American Jeremy Warner, left, finished fourth.

"You can collect more data, but the answers about Oscar Pistorius are in, in my opinion," Weyand said in a phone interview Tuesday. "He is able to run faster than many of his competitors even though he does not hit the ground as hard."

To which Hugh Herr of MIT, another member of the Pistorius research group, retorts, "It baffles me why Weyand and Bundle continue to say that."

Herr, an associate professor and director of MIT's biomechatronics research group, argues, "You really have to have rigorous, peer-reviewed, published, carefully examined scientific evidence. [Weyand-Bundle's argument] is simply a calculation, nearly a back-of-the-envelope calculation. To label it as a scientific study is very misleading. … Their calculation was never published in a peer-reviewed paper. It was in the point/counterpoint article, which was not rigorously peer-reviewed."

So the debate about Pistorius lives on. But how much does it still matter?

Other than perhaps inhibiting his training -- as the IAAF controversy and CAS fight did back in 2008, when he admitted it dragged him down emotionally ("It's been completely on this kid's back to prove everything himself so he can run," Mullins says) -- the griping needn't stop him.

"As far as we are concerned, the CAS decision is final and the case is closed, as long as he continues to compete on the same prosthetic legs the CAS ruled on," insisted Jeffrey Kessler, the New York-based attorney who took on Pistorius' case on a pro bono basis and represents the National Basketball Player's Association and NFL Players Association in their labor negotiations. "I spoke to Oscar on the phone the other day and I've committed to him that when he runs in London, I will be there. To me, this is about the rights of the disabled. He is one of the most inspiring people I've ever met in my life."

Weyand has been careful to stress that he admires Pistorius, too, and finds the man and his accomplishments "absolutely extraordinary." But Weyand considers himself just a scientist doing his job, and added that nothing he has asserted, "should in any way diminish what Oscar has done."

But Herr -- again stressing what science still doesn't know -- said, "To ban a human being from the Olympic Games, you really have to know what you're talking about. In the case of Oscar Pistorius, current scientific evidence does not suggest such an overall advantage, and thus a ban on Oscar Pistorius is not justified."

[+] EnlargeOscar Pistorius
Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty ImagesCould be that the people opposed to Pistorius competing against able-bodied sprinters are the ones who can't beat him.

It's hard to imagine Kessler would allow Pistorius to submit to further tests since he's been already won the right to compete.

Whatever trouble Pistorius is likely to encounter going forward is most likely to be in the court of public opinion. And anyone inclined to form an opinion -- or just interested in seeing a human being do something remarkable -- really should watch the video of his Lignano race.

The camera vantage point is situated behind the runners as they load themselves into the starting blocks. When they rise at the crack of the gun, it's hard to tell which of them is Pistorius until he comes spinning out of the first turn in Lane 2 -- the first good view of his L-shaped prostheses. By the time he's done powering down the backstretch, a voice on the video starts to excitedly say, "That's Pistorius!" He is gaining ground, gaining ground then passing the runners around him.

By the time they come sling-shotting out of the final turn and are heading into the homestretch -- always the greatest moment in a good track race -- Pistorius has passed the last of his opponents. And when he hits the finish tape and looks at his time, he breaks into a dazed smile, as if he is thinking, "Could this really be happening?"

Pistorius later admitted it felt "surreal" to see he had met the Olympic qualifying standard. Second-place finisher Lanceford Spence, a Jamaican, comes rushing up to Pistorius, clapping and smiling and finally embracing him in a bear hug that sends both men falling to the track.

Pistorius had done it, all right.

And he is not done yet.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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