'Bladerunner' Barred from Olympics

Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, will not be allowed to compete in the Olympics. Track and field's world governing body ruled that his prosthetic legs give him an unfair advantage on the track. Amby Burfoot, former winner of the Boston Marathon, breaks down the ruling and talks the physics of prosthetics.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So they call him the Bladerunner, the fastest man on no legs. Oscar Pistorius is a South African sprinter, a double amputee running on prosthetics who have been eyeing the Beijing Olympic Games.

For the past year or so, the world record-holding runner has been battling with the International Association of Athletics Federations - that's the IAAF - about whether or not his prosthetics give him an unfair advantage on the track.

Yesterday, the group ruled that they did, and that Pistorius is ineligible for the 2008 games.

So we were curious about just what these prosthetics - carbon fiber Cheetah Flex feet, they're called - might be doing for Pistorius. We've called up Amby Burfoot of Runner's World to help us sort this whole thing through.

Hi, Amby, are you there?

Mr. AMBY BURFOOT (Editor at large, Runner's World): I'm sure am.

MARTIN: Thanks for joining us.

Mr. BURFOOT: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So can you explain to us the IAFF had Pistorius go through a whole lot of tests last fall to determine if he indeed had an advantage? Do you anything about those tests? What were they looking for?

MR. BURFOOT: Yes. They were looking for two things. If he had a mechanical advantage, which we'll talk about in a moment, and also if he had an oxygen advantage since human beings run on oxygen, not gas. The less oxygen you use while running, the better off you are. And the mechanical in the oxygen are connected to each other.

STEWART: Okay. And so what did they find?

Mr. BURFOOT: They found that he - that in both cases, he has a mechanical and an oxygen advantage over a able-bodied runner, let's say. It's kind of hard for people to imagine how a guy with two artificial limbs can have an advantage. But you have to remember that he has these high-tech carbon fiber legs. I think the easiest thing to visualize is if you or I climb on a box and jump off. When we hit the ground, we're just planted there. Nothing happens because our body absorbs all that shock. If Oscar Pistorius climbs on box and jumps off, when he hits the ground, he bounces back because his legs are springy.

STEWART: So he's got momentum that's happening.

Mr. BURFOOT: He's got springs for legs.

STEWART: Springs. Okay.

Mr. BURFOOT: And just as wheels help you run fast - go faster - somebody with roller skates, of course, can go faster than someone without. And even wheelchair racers are much faster at most distances than track runners. The same is true of someone who's got springs for legs.

STEWART: And it also means he doesn't have to work as hard, right? This is where the oxygen comes in. He's using the air more efficiently.

Mr. BURFOOT: That's where the oxygen comes in. They - because he's got - getting energy return - which is what we call it - when he runs, he's using less oxygen to cover the distance.

STEWART: So does all this mean that if you take Oscar's talent, work ethic - he's currently worked very hard - all else being equal, they've determined that he'd actually be slower if he was running on natural legs, not prosthetics?

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, I don't know if you can exactly make that statement. But what they're saying is that he has the potential to be much faster than the athletes who will be in the Olympics. He's not now. In fact, he's a second or more behind the best 400-meter runners. And that's…

STEWART: With only a second. That's amazing.

Mr. BURFOOT: Yes. It is amazing. And he is amazing. We never want to lose sight of that. He holds multiple world records in the Para-Olympic Games for the challenged athletes. But this study finding apparently reveals that with more training - and he's only 21 - he hasn't been running for long. With more training, he would have a distinct advantage that could allow him to beat today's best runners.

STEWART: Hmm. How's - is this a unique case? Is this the first time the IAAF has heard a case like this or is he the first disabled runner to get so fast?

Mr. BURFOOT: I think he - it's the latter. He's the first disabled runner to get so fast.

STEWART: Wow.

Mr. BURFOOT: Which is a tremendous accomplishment due to his ability, his hard training and, apparently, the fact that he has these very high-tech legs.

STEWART: But what does this mean for this athlete who is clearly at the top of his game? He's competitive with people who are able-bodied. What does this mean when you look at a disabled athlete? Let's say there's a young child who is perhaps an amputee, maybe a double amputee. And he wants to run. And you say to this kid, you know, you can do anything. You can be anything as long as you compete with your own kind.

Mr. BURFOOT: Yes, that's exactly what we seem to be saying here. And when you put it that way, it sounds really, really terrible. And everyone would agree with you. On the other hand, it would make no sense to have an Olympics in which a bicycle rider could compete with a runner or a wheelchair athlete or someone on roller skates. And what the IAAF is saying that his - he is the equipment of that. He doesn't have wheel but he's got springs. And that gives him an unfair advantage.

STEWART: Amby, have you thought about how this plays into the steroid scandal? I mean, a lot of people would make the argument, hey, you can't tell these days who's using steroids. And that advantage is much more behind closed doors. Pistorius' so-called advantage is right in your face. You can't ignore it.

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, I think that's exactly true. And of course, the IAAF would like to get their drug testing to the level where the drug cheats aren't getting through. At this point, as we know, unquestionably, they are in track and in other sports as well. And so the idea is to get a level playing field both with regards to drugs and with regards to any artificial means of getting around the track.

STEWART: Where does this - what does this mean for this elite athlete? He's clearly worked very hard. There's nothing he can do to change his situation.

Mr. BURFOOT: Right.

STEWART: Can he go - is he going to go back to competing with other disabled athletes? Where does he go? Where does he go to compete?

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, he can certainly compete with other disabled athletes. Although, interestingly…

STEWART: He's going to win every time, though.

Mr. BURFOOT: Perhaps. Although, interestingly, if you're a one-legged amputee, he might have a distinct advantage over you because counter-intuitively, it may be better to have two prosthesis than one. So I think it is impossible that within Paralympics circles where he's competing now that there may be some protests from the one-legged athletes.

MARTIN: Huh.

Mr. BURFOOT: So it's a very tough situation for Oscar and I think all of us feel for where he is right now but at the same time, we also believe the sport should be played on a level field.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, he is. His Oscar - his agent says he is going to appeal the decision so we'll see where that goes.

Amby, thanks.

Amby Burfoot is editor-at-large at Runners World, and he's a former Boston Marathon winner. Thanks very much, Amby.

Mr. BURFOOT: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Take care.

Hey, coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, a blog, you know what those are. You've heard of them.

STEWART: It should have been 90 years in the making. A man is toasting his grandfather's letters from World War I. We'll give the details.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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