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The technology that makes walking possible for amputees is on display at this summer's Olympics. On Saturday in London, South African Oscar Pistorius will run on artificial limbs in the 400-meter sprint. Pistorius is a double amputee who runs world class times on his carbon fiber legs. NPR's Howard Berkes looks at the technology that helps him compete.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Last month in Eugene, Oregon, at the Prefontaine Track and Field Classic...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Gentlemen, on your marks...
BERKES: ...the runner on the inside lane at the start of the 400-meter race leaned forward on his knees and fingers and slipped his feet into the starting blocks. Well, they're not actually feet. Oscar Pistorius slipped the flat and spiked bottoms of his curved, carbon fiber legs into the blocks.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...set...
BERKES: All the blocks to his right held running shoes tied tight around flesh and blood and bones.
(SOUNDBITE OF A GUNSHOT)
BERKES: Did you hear that tap, tap, tap, tap, tap? Listen again carefully. It's just the first second after the gun goes off.
(SOUNDBITE OF A GUNSHOT)
BERKES: That's the sound of carbon blades hitting the track as Pistorius races past. His gait is fluid like a gazelle, but he looks otherworldly: a man's body from head to knees, fixed atop curved carbon blades. His nickname, in fact, is the Blade Runner.
BERKES: Pistorius finished last in this race, but he's qualified for the Olympics, and he'll run with the best able-bodied runners in the world.
OSCAR PISTORIUS: It's not that I don't want to run Paralympics or disabled races or, you know, races for those athletes who are handicapped or amputees, but this is just a challenge for me. And any good sportsman that wants to be better has to face up to challenges that aren't always as easy as some of the others.
BERKES: There's actually some question about whether Pistorius has it easier or has some advantage over runners with biological legs. Before the last Olympics in Beijing, the International Track and Field Federation refused to let him run. He launched a challenge. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled he had no advantage and couldn't be barred from the Olympics if he ran a qualifying time. That ruling was based on the work of prosthetics researchers, including Alena Grabowski at the University of Colorado.
ALENA GRABOWSKI: Yeah. So we had him come into the lab. We measured his oxygen consumption or how much energy it takes him to run. We did a series of different speeds and compared him to elite athletes of similar caliber and found that his metabolic energy is the same as other elite athletes. So we didn't see any differences there.
BERKES: Grabowski and other researchers found there's a big difference between carbon fiber and bone and muscle. They put Pistorius on a treadmill going about 25 miles an hour.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).
GRABOWSKI: He was able to swing his legs a little bit faster, so he had a little bit quicker turnover, but he wasn't able to exert as much force on the ground during top speed sprinting. And so we actually perceived that as a disadvantage. If you're not able to push off on the ground as hard as other people, it could be that that device is actually limiting that ability and you're not able to sprint as fast.
BERKES: Researchers at another lab brought in other runners. Each had one biological leg and one artificial leg. The biological legs generated nine percent more force. So at the start and around the track, the stiffer artificial leg had less power. Still, Pistorius ran fast enough to make the South African Olympic Team. He told the BBC in an outdoor interview recently that he's alone with that distinction, which indicates something about natural ability.
PISTORIUS: Out of the tens of thousands of prosthetic legs they have made, there's never been any 400-meter athletes run under 50 seconds. So if this was such a technologically advanced prosthetic leg, then how come not everyone's qualifying or coming close to the qualification time then?
BERKES: Pistorius is not posting times that put him close to a medal. And if he competed for a country with a deeper field of runners like the United States, he wouldn't likely make the Olympic team. Still, he and his cheetah legs will make history Saturday in a preliminary heat, breaking an Olympic barrier because together, they run fast enough. Howard Berkes, NPR News, London.
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