Amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, known as the world’s ”fastest man on no legs”, is understandably nervous ahead of his first race abroad against able-bodied athletes, due to take place in Rome on Friday.
But how he races, scientifically speaking, could be far more important than who crosses the finish line first.
Scientists working for the world’s sports governing body will be analysing Pistorius to see whether his carbon-fibre limbs are giving him an unfair edge that allows him to perform beyond his natural ability.
Essentially, they want to know if he’s cheating.
And their conclusions could make or break Pistorius’ dreams of competing in the Olympics, and set the future boundaries for disabled athletes around the world.
”We have to really verify what is the advantage, or not, of this technological tool that he’s using,” said Elio Locatelli, who will lead the video analysis in Rome on behalf of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
Pistorius (20) was born without either calf bone and was already on prosthetic limbs before he really learned to walk.
But learning to run really, really fast came much later, in 2003, after his coach pulled him from rugby after an injury.
Since then, Pistorius has gone on to break three records among disabled athletes. He holds the double amputee world record in the 100m, 200m and 400m.
He also raced against able-bodied athletes at the South Africa Championships earlier this year, coming second in the 400m race.
He is also known as ”blade runner”, since his artificial limbs look like long slender blades, curving at the bottom where his feet would be.
Sound like movie material? Well, Hollywood is watching. Actor Tom Hanks is just one of the people interested in making a film about Pistorius’ life story, Pistorius told Reuters.
”For the spectators, it’s a very inspirational thing when he runs. You can hear it when they announce the athletes. Even when he’s not in front,” Pistorius’s coach Ampie Louw told Reuters.
”There’s nobody in the world like him — and it may stay that way for the next maybe 10, 20 years.”
But the controversy over Pistorius’ legs, and whether they constitute an unfair advantage, has recently turned ugly. Pistorius this week accused the IAAF of discriminating against handicapped people, something the organisation denies.
Moreover, he says the debate about whether his limbs are unfair has cast a shadow over handicapped sports generally.
Innocent until proven guilty
”It’s created a lot of doubt in people’s minds, you know, not only about myself but [about] Paralympic sports in general,” Pistorius told Reuters during a break from training ahead of the Rome race.
”I think that amputee sprinters and disabled people worldwide have been pretty taken aback by some of the comments the IAAF have made in the past three, four months.”
Locatelli will be using at least three video cameras at the Rome race to test Pistorius on everything from his stride — is it unnaturally long? — to whether the ”foot” of his prosthetic limb stays on the ground longer than a normal foot would.
The IAAF also wants to know whether Pistorius’ speed varies like normal athletes, who peak in the race and then grow tired.
”You have to look at it from the other side of the coin, and say, ‘Oscar if you are allowed to run, someone else won’t run in that lane … even if you’re only gaining a half-second advantage,”’ said IAAF spokesperson Nick Davies.
”Only when we’ve done the research and we can prove — prove strongly — that he’s getting an advantage should we be talking about bans. Until then, innocent until proven guilty.”
Pistorius has a personal best in the 400m that is still just shy of the 45,9 seconds he needs to qualify for the Olympics, but he hopes to meet that target this year.
The world record stands at 43,18.
In the meantime, he is trying to keep focused on running. On Sunday he will take on world and Olympic 400m champion Jeremy Wariner at an IAAF meeting in Sheffield, England.
”I’m pretty nervous, got a lot of butterflies and things. But this is what I’ve worked for over the last three and a half seasons,” he said.
”I just hope by running against guys who are faster than me it will push me to run quicker times as well,” he said.
His tough-talking coach was more blunt.
”There is no way that he is going to win,” Louw said. ”He is going to battle but he will give his best. That’s the way he is.” Ã¢â‚¬’ Reuters