Scientific arguments aside, here's the simple truth about Oscar Pistorius: even with lighter legs, he isn't fast enough to beat the best.
The South African sprinter is seeking to become the first amputee to run at the Olympics, going all out for a berth in the starting blocks at London 2012. But 'the fastest man on no legs' is racing against time to qualify for the 400m, still a second short of meeting the standard with just over a month to go before the window closes.
Pistorius is an inspirational story, and a controversial one. Born without either fibula, the bone that runs from knee to ankle, Pistorius had both legs amputated below the knee when he was just 11 months old. Undaunted, he embarked on a rich and varied athletic career, playing water polo and tennis, boxing and wrestling, even earning a spot on his high school rugby team.
Things changed in 2003 when a serious knee injury put his rugby career on hold, landing him in rehab at the University of Pretoria's Sport Science Institute. On January 1, 2004, in as auspicious a New Year's moment as you can get, Pistorius took part in his first training session with Pretoria coach Ampie Louw, and fell in love with sprinting. Nine months later, he was a Paralympic champion. Dubbed the 'Blade Runner,' he went on to set Paralympic world records in the 100m, 200m and 400m.
Before the Beijing Games in 2008, track and field's governing body tried to get Pistorius banned. After appointing a respected sports scientist to examine his performance, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) claimed the carbon fibre blades Pistorius competes on, the Flex-Foot Cheetah, gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners.
Needless to say, Pistorius didn't agree. He hired lawyers to take his fight to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and underwent additional performance evaluation in a bid to gather evidence that would refute the arguments against him. Thanks in large part to a ham-handed legal performance by the IAAF, the three-judge CAS panel ruled unanimously in Pistorius's favour and cleared his path to compete, assuming he could make the qualifying time. He couldn't, and Beijing came and went without him.
Still, the CAS ruling was unsatisfactory, chiefly because it did not seek to make a definitive statement on whether Pistorius’s prosthetics gave him any edge, but rather sought only to answer the narrow arguments brought by the IAAF (that he required less oxygen and fewer calories than an able-bodied opponent).
Left unanswered, at least officially, was what benefit Pistorius gained from having such light lower limbs (about six kilos less than a pair of human feet and calves), even when compared to the disadvantages caused by diminished stability while running around a curves, or a lack of comparable power when bursting out of the starting blocks.
Those shortfalls notwithstanding, the measured effect of the reduced weight proved the most damning indictment of Pistorius's claim that his blades presented no benefit. One of the researchers who studied Pistorius for his CAS defence determined that the amount of time the South African needed to reposition his legs for each stride was so unnaturally quick, it was "quite literally off the biological charts." In fact, Pistorius's leg swing time was measured more than 15 per cent faster than most of the steroid-fuelled sprinters to claim Olympic medals in the last quarter century, a list including Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis, Maurice Green, Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin.
Those findings say a lot about how Pistorius has developed his own body, building muscles that many other athletes don't have occasion to develop. But even by out-stepping his opponents around the track, he can't keep up. If Pistorius were an able-bodied runner posting the times he does on his blades, he'd be just another faceless hopeful on the fringes of international competition, not a cause celebre.
Racing alongside American LaShawn Meritt, the gold medallist in Beijng who later served a two-year doping ban, Pistorius placed last at a meet in the Czech Republic last week, more than two seconds in arrears. He'll try again at meets in the U.S. over the next two weeks, and at the African Championships in late June, to shave his time down.
Wherever you stand on his eligibility, there's no denying that Pistorius is a remarkable and motivational example for all athletes, able-bodied or otherwise. But ultimately, I find him hard to cheer for; a marginal talent who, despite his mechanical advantage, can't keep up with the men who'll fight for medals.