Double-Amputee Can Pursue Olympic Dream

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius competing in the men's 400m race i i

hide captionParalympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has been dubbed "The Cheetah" — he sprints on carbon fiber artificial limbs called the Cheetah Flex-Foot.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images
South Africa's Oscar Pistorius competing in the men's 400m race

Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has been dubbed "The Cheetah" — he sprints on carbon fiber artificial limbs called the Cheetah Flex-Foot.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

An international sports arbitration panel has ruled that paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius will be eligible to compete in the Beijing Olympics. Pistorius, 21, is a double-amputee. He runs on legs made of carbon fiber — which some say gives him an unfair advantage.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Twenty-one-year-old South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius has a lifelong dream, to compete in the Olympic games, an ambitious goal for any athlete and seemingly out of reach for someone whose legs were amputated at the age of 11 months. Oscar Pistorius runs on carbon fiber artificial limbs called the Cheetah Flex Foot, thus earning him the nickname, the Cheetah.

Last year, the International Association of Athletics Federations decided the artificial legs gave Pistorius an unfair advantage and ruled he could not compete against able-bodied runners. He then appealed to the Court of Arbitration For Sport, and last week, that body overturned the ban. Oscar Pistorius is now eligible to compete, but there is no guarantee that he will qualify for the Beijing Olympics in August. He joins us in just a moment.

If you would like to speak with him about the ruling, about what it's like to run on carbon fiber legs, or about his plans to compete, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Oscar Pistorius joins us now from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa. And nice to have you on the program. Congratulations.

Mr. OSCAR PISTORIUS (Sprinter, Double Amputee): Thanks very much, Neal. Nice to be on your program.

CONAN: I guess now the hard part begins.

Mr. PISTORIUS: Yes. You know, everybody's saying, well, the pressure's off now, but I think the pressure's actually just begun, you know. The one thing I can say, though, it's a positive pressure now, you know, that it's something that I enjoy doing, at least.

CONAN: And, as I understand it, you're going to have to improve your best time in order to qualify.

Mr. PISTORIUS: Definitely. You know, I'm not even in the best shape that I was last year. At the moment, we've been dedicating so much time to the court case and to the various tests that we've been doing that my training has kind of taken a second seat for the last couple of months. But we're looking to the next couple of weeks of extreme hard training.

CONAN: And again, at least you like it, and you're back doing something you know how to do.

Mr. PISTORIUS: Definitely. And I think everybody's saying, you know, the pressure's on and that sort of thing, but, you know, the last five months, I've kind of been kept in a box from, you know, something I love doing, the passion of my life. And I think now, getting the opportunity to once again do it, you know, has just given me more fire and more go ahead to just give it more, give it gas.

CONAN: And I also know that, well, there's a certain curiosity factor, and that you have been invited to participate in meets fairly soon. Are you planning to go?

Mr. PISTORIUS: Yeah, I'm leaving next week, Wednesday, for Europe. I've got a couple of Paralympic meets, and then, in the beginning of July, I'm running in Milan and in Rome and in Switzerland in able-body international meets once again. So I'm extremely happy about that, and I'm really looking forward to it.

CONAN: And at that point, well, you've got your career back.

Mr. PISTORIUS: Yeah, I mean, that, for me, you know - when we found out on Friday, when we found out there's a short ban in December from the IAA, it was a huge disappointment, and really - something that really got me down and dragged up a little speculation about the legs. And little did I know, it was going to be five or six months of the hardest of my life.

And you know, we went through the different tests and the different trips and a lot of scientific studies and things, you know, and we proved that the prosthetic legs don't give me an advantage. But, you know, we're very lucky, and I'm very relieved, when the decision came out last week, Friday, just to be able to do what I love again, and you know, just to get back in shape.

CONAN: There are people who are upset with this. We have an email from one of them, Ryan in Alexandria. This is a pure case of apples to oranges versus apples to apples. Allowing Oscar Pistorius to compete in Beijing is unfair. I commend him for becoming a superior athlete despite the loss of his legs, but studies on the blades he uses reveal a competitive advantage. I would be very upset if I trained my whole life and lost a race to him on what I believe to be an uneven level of competition.

Mr. PISTORIUS: Yeah, I mean, you know, it was just that the tests that we conducted were done by some of the top biomechanic and climatic scientists in the world, and we did the tests over 21 days. But you know, obviously, these emails don't react (unintelligible).

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a listener on the line, and this is Brett, Brett with us from Champaign, Illinois.

BRETT (Caller): Hey, how you doing, Oscar?

Mr. PISTORIUS: Hey, I'm good. And yourself?

BRETT: I'm doing well. I actually have a prosthetic leg, so I commend you, and I really look up to you.

Mr. PISTORIUS: Well, thank you so much. That really means a lot to me.

BRETT: Well, I actually didn't lose my legs when I was little. I had an accident about two years ago, and I fell about 75 feet and lost my legs. And you know, I'm never going to be able to run again, but I really look up to you for all that you've done. And I think it's really unfair for someone to say that it's an advantage because - or it's an advantage to you with the Cheetahs because I think that's totally off.

CONAN: Brett, give us some idea what's it like to learn how to walk much less run on artificial legs?

BRETT: It really was just an experience for me that, you know, it was hard. It was about a year and a half of therapy and, you know, learning to walk again at 18 years old isn't something that I looked up - or, you know, wanted to do, obviously, but even though running - I mean, I can't imagine that. And, you know, I've been following Oscar very closely, and I just want to say thank you for all the inspiration you've shown to me.

Mr. PISTORIUS: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And Brett, good luck to you.

BRETT: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Oscar Pistorius, this happened to you when you were so young. I'm sure you don't remember.

Mr. PISTORIUS: Yeah, I mean, a lot of people ask me what's it like having prosthetic legs, and to me, you know, I kind of say, well, what's it like having real legs, you know? Because I've never had any other - never had a recollection or memory of having anything different. So to me, it's become second nature. I mean, my prosthetic legs are as much as extension of my body as a hand or an arm would be, so, I mean, I'm pretty used to them by now.

CONAN: Yet, these special carbon-fiber J-shaped legs that you run on now, the flex foot Cheetahs, they were only developed, I guess, in their first from what, about 10, 15 years ago?

Mr. PISTORIUS: Yes. They were developed in 1997, and they've been around since then. The majority of the Paralympic sprinters use them. It's not necessarily just a sprinting leg. It's designed as a high-activity sports leg, so it's basically anything from, you know, if you just wanted to do jogging, to do golf, that sorts of thing.

CONAN: Do you remember the first time you put a pair of them on?

Mr. PISTORIUS: Yes. The first time I put a pair of them on, I was very unsettled because they don't have a heel, so the balance was very difficult from them. And I started running on them, andn I was running on a cricket oval. And on the perimeter of cricket oval, it had about a half a meter high brick wall, and I couldn't slow down. I didn't know how to and, you know, that's the essence of the heels. And I ran straight into this wall at, I think, about seven or eight meters per second, and I took all the skin off my shoulder and my wrist, and, you know, I never thought I would never ever run on any of these things ever again. I mean, it was extremely hard to balance in them and, you know, use them, and I think, after a couple of months of just persevering and adapting to them, you know, I got a bit more confident and sort of thing and yeah.

CONAN: Is it suddenly like being equipped with a kangaroo's legs? Are they very bouncy?

Mr. PISTORIUS: I guess - no, they're not bouncy at all. It's a passive prosthetic, but it can generate more energy than is put into it, made of 18 layers of carbon fiber more or less. And it conserves about 70 percent of the energy that you load into it. And so, if you imagine like a typical pirate's peg leg, you know, that wouldn't retain any energy. But, in the same sense, if it doesn't withstand a 100 percent or more of the energy, if it created its own energy, then it would be an active prosthetic.

What they often refer to as a prosthetic is sometimes being active, where you have the bionic to the prosthetic leg. So this is a very passive prosthetic, the Cheetah, and I guess the difference between this leg, you know, the Cheetah and the everyday walking leg is the Cheetah doesn't have a heel on the back, and it doesn't have any cosmesis. But it's a little bit light, and it's more sports-specific.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Tony, Tony with us from Sioux City in Iowa.

TONY (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call. It's the first time I've ever been on. I love your show, and, Oscar, I just wanted to say that you're really inspiring. I am completely out of shape, so I have to hand it to you for being in shape and competing at that high of a level.

Mr. PISTORIUS: Thank you so much.

TONY: I just wanted to say - and I apologize in advance. I don't mean to be rude because I really, I - me and my friends have been talking about this, and we're actually really excited about it. The first time I heard about your story. But I just was wondering why, when they first told you that you could not compete because it might - it may or may not give you an unfair advantage, but then, another decision handed by the - I think you said it was the arbitration board of sports, I think...

Mr. PISTORIUS: Board of Arbitration.

TONY: Yes. Yeah. And they said that you could compete. Why is that? And did it-û just to dispel any rumors, did it have anything to do with, I guess, trying to, you know, open up the Beijing games a little and give them some more positive publicity? I mean, would it have had...

Mr. PISTORIUS: No. Not at all. It's a completely independent sports governing body. And basically, what the court of arbitration does is they do a lot of the preliminary hearing and that sort of thing. And it's usually involved with the sports governing body as the one party and then the athletes as the other party, and both represent, you know, your take or your side of the story with you evidence and your testing and that sort of thing. They make an independent decision. And it's basically world-acclaimed judges from different countries all across the globe, and they do it independently. So it's completely independent of any country or governing body. They make the decision.

CONAN: Isn't this the same body, for example, that decided about Floyd Landis?

Mr. PISTORIUS: Yes, that's more or less the same.

CONAN: Yes.

TONY: I see. That definitely clears that up for me. I kind of suspected that was the case. And then, just out of curiosity, why did they decide that it would not give you an unfair advantage?

Mr. PISTORIUS: We had to do several tests in America after the (unintelligible). And the aspects that the IWF looked at were really only, you know, a tiny percentage of the overall picture. So the tests we did - the tests that the IWF, did they did with one scientist over two days. The tests that we did were 10 of the top scientists from the world in kinetics and biomechanics over 21 days.

CONAN: And...

Mr. PISTORIUS: It's far more in depth and far more - they didn't only look at the prosthetics. They looked at my legs (unintelligible), the volume of oxygen, and they looked at the video analysis. They used pressure plates. They used, you know, different measurements for the prosthetic legs as far as energy turn and contact form on the treadmill and on the track.

CONAN: And correct me if I'm wrong. As I understand it, one test suggested that you did get an advantage on a straight away, but then, the other test said, well, that doesn't necessarily apply to the acceleration phase or to taking the turn, which you have to do in the 400 meters. And so overall, there was no advantage.

Mr. PISTORIUS: The (Unintelligible) test indicated that I use less energy at constant speed. But they used a formula which is Vo2 mass, which is the volume of oxygen used, and volume of oxygen used you can only use to indicate aerobic exercise, which is endurance exercise. Sprinting isn't an aerobic exercise. It's an anaerobic exercise, meaning that you use the cells in your body to create energy, not oxygen. So they - I mean, they admitted in the end that they'd used the wrong form of, you know, hypothesis and the wrong...

CONAN: The wrong measurement.

Mr. PISTORIUS: The wrong measurement, basically, to test, and they took that back in the end. But, you know, it was unfortunate because they actually only looked at the advantages during steady state running. They didn't consider the acceleration phase or any disadvantages, you know, the net advantage or the net disadvantage. And later on, I found out proof that the only advantage, the single advantage that they had was - wasn't even an advantage. It was a disadvantage.

CONAN: Tony, thanks very much for the call.

TONY: Yeah, thank you both. It was really great to be on.

CONAN: We're talking with Oscar Pistorius, the amputee athlete who's been cleared to compete against able-bodied runners. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Alan. Alan's with us from Princeton, Illinois.

ALAN (Caller): Hi. I had actually been wondering about how they determined that the prosthetic didn't give you an advantage. You explained that, but I'm kind of curious. Would it be possible to design a prosthesis that would be more efficient than a normal - the leg of a normal-trained athlete?

CONAN: Engineering can do amazing things.

ALAN: Well, can it? That's what I'm wondering.

Mr. PISTORIUS: Yes, I mean, definitely. I mean, they've already got prosthetics that, you know, the difference - what I was trying to explain earlier, the difference between passive and active prosthetics. I mean, they've got - all the top prosthetic companies at the moment, but it's led to (unintelligible) of bringing off active prosthetics as far as hydraulics and battery operated and that sort of thing, which are far more active. I mean, they can generate their own power. They've got some that are even operated with battery packs and hydraulics and that sort of thing.

CONAN: Sort of like an Iron Man suit?

Mr. PISTORIUS: Yeah, definitely. It's a good movie, by the way. But, you know, I think, just as far as, you know, technology goes, there's never going to be a limit on it, but that's exactly one thing that the court of arbitration has definitely specified in the ruling, that each prosthetic leg is going to have to be reviewed by the IWF before they make a decision on it, which I think is also very important. You know, you don't want someone going and creating a prosthetic leg or using a prosthetic leg that would give him an advantage in that sort of competition.

CONAN: Thanks, Alan.

ALAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's see if we can go to Kirk, Kirk's with us from Chicago.

KIRK (Caller): Hi there. I just wondered if the prosthetic legs that he uses to run, are those the same legs that he uses in his day-to-day life?

Mr. PISTORIUS: No, no. They're not at all the same. The ones I use in my everyday life have got a heel, and it's got cosmesis on to make them look like real legs. And the ones that we run on haven't got a heel. They're basically like a bigger model of them, and they're a little bit lighter because, you know, the lack of cosmetics.

CONAN: Can I ask a dumb question? Do the regular legs come with shoes built onto them, or do you go out and buy shoes to fit them?

Mr. PISTORIUS: No, you can go out and buy shoes. I'm very lucky for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Ok. Thanks very much, Kirk.

KIRK: Thanks

CONAN: Let's see if we could squeeze one last call in. This is David, David's with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

DAVID (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call. You know, I'll tell you. I've been following this story now since you were first told that you couldn't compete, and I'll tell you, I couldn't be happier for you. I'm very, very excited.

Mr. PISTORIUS: So am I.

DAVID: And you know, I'm an athlete myself. I'm a cyclist. And, you know, I have a fused ankle and some other orthopedic issues, but you know, it just proves to show that, if you have the guts and the gusto to go for it, that you can do anything that you want. So, you know, you definitely have my support.

CONAN: A little talent probably helps, too.

DAVID: And the talent, exactly. Now, I think my cardiovascular status is a little less than what Oscar's is there, but - the question that I have...

CONAN: And if you can make it really quick because we're running out of time.

DAVID: Definitely. How often do you have to change the foot palms? You know how - when you run, that impaction - how fast does that impact the carbon fiber itself?

Mr. PISTORIUS: With the Cheetah, I've had now since June 2004. I haven't changed it. I have had the exactly same ones, and my balance has slowly progressing and buffered on that. But the bottom heel pad I probably change maybe two or three times a season.

CONAN: David, thanks so much for the call.

DAVID: Thanks so much. Good luck.

CONAN: And Oscar Pistorius, I just echo David's words, good luck to you.

Mr. PISTORIUS: Thanks so much, Neal. I really appreciate it.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time. Oscar Pistorius, with us on the line from his home in Johannesburg in South Africa. He hopes to compete in the Olympic Games this summer on artificial legs. I am Neal Conan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News in Washington.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: