Amputee's Lost Bid for Olympics Stokes Debate

South African Oscar Pistorius, a record-setting double amputee, was barred this week from competing at the Beijing Olympics. Sports commentator Stefan Fatsis talks about why track's governing organization, the IAAF, ruled against Pistorius.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The world's fastest runners will crouch in the starting blocks at the Olympics in Beijing this summer, but Oscar Pistorius will not be among them.

Pistorius is a 21-year-old record-setting, double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, and this week, he was barred from competing against able-bodied runners in internationally sanctioned events. His case is fostering discussion about science, competition and the notion of a level playing field.

And joining me now to take part of that discussion is our regular sports commentator Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal. Hello, Stefan.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Staff Reporter, The Wall Street Journal): Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: First, tell us a little bit about Oscar Pistorius and what he's managed to accomplish.

Mr. FATSIS: Well, he's a business student at the University of Pretoria. He was born without fibulas. Before he turned one, doctors amputated his lower legs at the middle of his calves. He didn't begin running competitively until about four years ago, and now he uses carbon fiber prosthetics that are shaped like the letter J, and on them he has set Paralympic world records in the 100, 200 and 400 meters. Of late, he's been competing against able-bodied runners. He actually finished second in the 400 in South Africa's National Championships last year.

SIEGEL: I gather those prosthetics are known as cheetahs, and Pistorius wanted to start competing against able-bodied athletes. The IAAF, the governing organization of track and field, launched an inquiry, no?

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, that was last summer. And initially, they did let him compete pending scientific testing. Pistorius went to Germany; he was tested for two days alongside able-bodied sprinters who ran as fast as he did. The results showed that the prosthetics returned more energy and lost less energy compared to the able-bodied runners. In other words, Pistorius used less energy to achieve the same results. He used less oxygen to run the 400, and that translates to a physiological advantage.

SIEGEL: Yeah. And the conclusion was that the prosthesis amounted to technical aids for Pistorius and that made him ineligible to try to qualify for the Olympics.

Before we go on to some of the issues raised by this, did he actually have a shot at qualifying for the Olympics or doing well there?

Mr. FATSIS: Not in an individual event. His best time in the 400 is about forty six and a half seconds, which is a second short of the Olympic qualifying time, more than three seconds off of the world record. But because of that second place finish in South Africa's nationals, he did have a chance to make the country's 4 by 400 relay team; that won't happen even though he does plan to appeal. He's going to have more testing done. It just can't happen in time for Beijing.

SIEGEL: So where does this ruling leave us in track and field for the future with - not only prosthesis at issue here, I should think.

Mr. FATSIS: I think there's a lot to sort out. What are the disadvantages of using prosthetics like these? There have to be some. What's the level playing field? What's an unfair advantage? What's the Olympic ideal? Is it stopwatch times? Is it inspiration? And what's going to happen in the future? It's a moving target here. There are going to be new drugs. There are going to be gene therapies. There are going to be other devices that subtly enhance or alter performance.

One way, I think, to think about Pistorius and these prosthetics - there wasn't a need to investigate this until a disabled athlete was able to challenge the best able-bodied athletes in the world. Some of that is science; a lot of it is body and will. I'm not sure how we're going to sort these things out in the future.

SIEGEL: And, of course, the fact that it concerns a sprinter, it means that we're talking about margins of a hundredth of a second, for example. That advantage - the slightest advantage is real in that event.

Mr. FATSIS: And you watch someone like Oscar Pistorius or someone like the American sprinter Marlon Shirley - who's run the 100 meters in under 11 seconds, the only disabled athlete to do that - there isn't that much difference. These are very, very, very minute bits of time.

SIEGEL: Okay. Have a good weekend, Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert. You, too.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis joins us on Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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