Pistorius and Semenya's running battle to reach starting blocks

The forecast for Saturday in the South Korean city of Daegu is for a fine and dry day, which will please Oscar Pistorius more than any of the other athletes competing in the first weekend of the world athletics championships.

An average August in Daegu sees 23cm of rainfall, which would not suit the South African 400m runner as he becomes the first athlete to compete for a world title on the track using artificial legs. The curved carbon-fibre blades on which the 24-year-old runs do not take kindly to a wet track.

Pistorius learned on Friday that he will be allowed to represent his country in the 4x400m relay as long as he and his blades are restricted to the first of the four legs, when the competitors are still running in separate lanes before converging to fight it out for track space.

“This person is a special case,” Lamine Diack, the president of the IAAF, the sport’s world governing body, said. “If he wants to run in the relay, he must run the first leg in order to avoid danger to other athletes.”

Pistorius, who was born without a fibula in either leg and had both limbs amputated just before his first birthday, has been giving the IAAF headaches since 2008.
That was the year in which, after extensive biomechanical tests, they banned him from competing against able-bodied athletes, only for the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne to overturn the ruling a few months later.

Pistorius failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, but in Italy last month, needing a time of 45.25sec to qualify for this year’s world championships, he ran 45.07sec. It was the 18th best time of the season, more than half a second faster than his personal best, and he will line up in Sunday’s heats.

Human potential
The 100m world record-holder Usain Bolt and Britain’s world heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis will be among those in South Korea over the next week, but Pistorius is one of two South African athletes who will make the Daegu stadium the focal point of debates that go far beyond assessments of mere athletic prowess and into questions of human potential and gender differentiation.

The other is Caster Semenya, the 800m runner who turned up in Berlin two years ago and, aged 18, destroyed her rivals in a final that took place a few hours after the media got wind of the IAAF’s decision to subject her to a gender test. The next thing to be destroyed was a year of Semenya’s career.

Both athletes have forced the IAAF to modify their regulations.

Pistorius’s appearance led them to prohibit the use of “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels, or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device”.

Earlier this year, six months after lifting Semenya’s suspension, they approved new regulations concerning hyperandrogenism, the condition in which women experience an overproduction of male sex hormones. As a result, a woman athlete is now eligible to compete if her level of the hormone controlling the development of male sexual characteristics is below the “male range”.

The two South Africans run in the same colours and were born during the final years of apartheid, but their backgrounds could hardly be more different. Pistorius was born in Sandton, then one of Johannesburg’s most exclusive white suburbs. Semenya was born in Ga-Masehlong, a village in the northern province of Limpopo, where she grew up barefoot running on dirt roads.

‘She’s my little girl’
Semenya’s appearance brought sharp remarks from her beaten rivals in Berlin. “She is a man,” said Elisa Cusma, the Italian who finished sixth, prompting a response from the winner’s father: “She’s my little girl.”

The controversy evoked a particular set of memories: of Stella Walsh, who won the 100m at the 1932 Olympics and was proved at an 1980 autopsy to have been a man all along; of Irina and Tamara Press, the heavy-duty Ukrainian sisters who mopped up gold medals in shot putt, discus, hurdles and pentathlon in 1960 and 1964, only to vanish when chromosome testing was instituted; and of Jarmila Kratochvilova, the burly Bohemian whose 400m world record still stands, after 28 years.

The results of the tests on Semenya in 2009 have never been released, and her relatively modest performances since returning to competition a year ago gave birth to rumours that she has been undergoing treatment to rebalance her hormones and bring her within the IAAF’s new parameters.

The case of Pistorius is more clear-cut but just as complicated, and there are no precedents. Is there a trade-off between the handicap of a slower rise from the starting blocks and the tireless nature of carbon-fibre, which does not experience fatigue like human muscles and means that he will be the only runner not slowing down as he nears the finish? And what about technological progress?

The company that makes the blades says that they have not been modified since he started using them—but another company, working on behalf of another athlete, might one day produce devices offering a greater advantage.

“Having Oscar Pistorius excelling is a very good thing for the kids to be watching,” Sebastian Coe said on Friday. But many able-bodied athletes who would normally applaud Pistorius’s courage and ability might not feel quite so generous were he to deprive them of a medal, just as another success for Semenya would reawaken a sense of injustice among some of her rivals.

Those without such a vested interest might feel that just as sport was an agent of social change when it played a role in ending apartheid, so this pair of athletes, by placing question marks against previously accepted boundaries, are pointing the way to a less prescriptive future for the human race. - guardian.co.uk

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