Having made Olympic history, Oscar Pistorius hurts cause with anger over rivals' limbs

Sep 05, 2012, 3:56 PM EDT
AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

Imagine if an athlete checked into a clinic to get his legs artificially lengthened, then came back to beat Usain Bolt over 200 meters on surgically improved limbs. Is such a day far off?

Certainly there would be disquiet, warnings that technology is destroying the essence of sport, perhaps commissions of inquiry and new rules to bar medically enhanced impostors — that's how some would view them — from competing.

This, roughly, is what Oscar Pistorius felt happened to him at the London Paralympics. In the 200 meters, an event he'd never lost in Paralympic competition, the South African sprinter had his title and some of his aura stripped away Sunday by a Brazilian speeding like a freight train on prosthetic legs that apparently were recently lengthened.

What Pistorius did next — complain vociferously that Alan Oliveira's legs are "unbelievably long" and that the race was unfair — wasn't sportsmanship at its finest but perhaps it was understandable, maybe even necessary. Bolt, too, would surely complain equally bitterly if rival Yohan Blake turned up somehow suddenly taller and whipped him.

But, longer term for Pistorius, his sour grapes could hurt him.

Because Pistorius, of course, also runs on prosthetic limbs. And his frustrated suggestions that lengthening them by a few centimeters can turn an also-ran into a world-beater went to the heart of a very thorny debate about how prosthetic technology can affect outcomes in sport and alter more-or-less level playing fields.

That, in turn, prompts broader questions about whether runners with prosthetics and those without can and should compete more together in the future. Most of all, it renews doubts about Pistorius himself — because he, more prominently than anyone, has so successfully bridged and blurred divides between Olympic and Paralympic competition.

Sooner or later, this had to happen. Expected improvements in medical and prosthetic technology in years to come will force sport to rethink the meaning of fair competition, what it allows and what it does not. When bionic legs or artificial limbs fused onto bone allow Paralympians to beat Olympians' best times, the debate about whether flesh-and-bone athletes and those with technological adds-on should compete together is one we'll need to have.

It has already begun, in part because of Pistorius and his successful campaign to race on his carbon-fiber blades against non-disabled athletes. But the debate also was put partly on ice while he fulfilled his goal of competing at the World Championships in 2011 and at the London Olympics this August. Because Pistorius loses to the best Olympians, the thinking on this issue also hasn't moved as far forward as it surely would if he or another runner on blades started to beat them.

To applaud Pistorius' historic runs in the 400 at Olympic Stadium — and I was among the 80,000 spectators who did — one had to bury in the back of one's mind the whole question of whether his J-shaped prosthetic legs might somehow give him a competitive edge over his non-disabled rivals. Pistorius insists they do not and track and field's governing body, when it tried unsuccessfully in 2008 to ban him, failed to prove him wrong.

So, in London, the feel-good side of Pistorius' story took over. He seemed, first and foremost, to be an exceptional athlete, not one somehow made exceptional by his Flex-Foot Cheetah blades.

But now, because of his complaints about Oliveira's height, Pistorius looks to some like a hypocrite, someone at ease with prosthetic technology when it allows him to compete but not if it allows him to be beaten.

Pistorius wants people to recognize the sweat he's poured into improving his performances, to view them at face value and not just as good for a disabled guy. For him to then suggest that Oliveira's winning time of 21.45 seconds might have as much to do with longer blades than anything else therefore looked ugly and two-faced.

"A year ago, these guys were over here," Pistorius said, holding his hand level with his nose. Then, raising it above his head, he added: "They're a lot taller and you can't compete (in) stride length."

"He's never run a 21-second race and I don't think he's a 21-second athlete."

Pistorius subsequently apologized for the timing of his comments, which because of his iconic status in the Paralympic movement took some shine off the achievement of 20-year-old Oliveira.

But some other Paralympians say Pistorius was right to speak out.

"What he said needed to be said, even if it does bring a bit of heat on the doubles (meaning double amputees). If he wasn't going to say it, someone was eventually," said Jack Swift, an Australian with a prosthetic lower right leg who raced against Oliveira in the 200 heats and will also compete over 400, during a phone interview with The Associated Press.

"It just doesn't make sense to be walking around on your day legs at one height and then you're six inches or so taller on your running prostheses," he said.

"You don't want the sport turning into a circus where, you know, doubles walk in with barely any training under their belt and they are running able-bod (able-bodied) qualification times."

Oliveira stands 1.77 meters (5-foot-9) on his everyday legs but, three weeks before the Paralympics, switched to blades that boosted his height to 1.81 meters (5-foot-11) in competition, the London Guardian reported.

"I tried the new height for the first time last year and it was difficult to get used to them. I decided to try them again earlier this year and it went a little bit better. Three weeks ago, we decided to really go for it," the newspaper quoted him as saying. "The prosthetics don't run alone. Of course they are good for an improvement but there is not a significant time difference."

That's perfectly legal under Paralympic rules which estimate the height athletes might be if they had their own legs, by measuring the length of their forearms and from chest to the tip of their middle finger and adding an extra margin of 2.5 percent.

Under those formulas, Oliveira could boost his height to 1.85 meters (6 feet) if he wanted. And Pistorius could totter around at 1.93 meters (6-foot-4) on prosthetic limbs should he choose.

But he doesn't. His representatives say Pistorius always stands 1.84 meters, whether racing or not, and they issued this statement to the AP to explain why he doesn't take up the option to use longer limbs in Paralympic competition:

"Oscar believes in the fairness of sport. He does not feel it would be fair for other athletes should he change the height of his artificial legs. Every time another athlete runs against Oscar they know what they will be competing against, what height Oscar is racing at. Oscar believes that performances on the track should be down to hard work and talent."

That seems logical, laudable even. But the unspoken message in that statement, and the one that came across more loudly in Pistorius' post-race comments, still appears to be that artificial limbs tweaked by a few centimeters here or there can give athletes a competitive edge.

In short, Pistorius seems to want it both ways. He wants to be accepted wholly as an athlete. He wants sport to believe that his own artificial limbs don't unfairly boost him when he runs against non-disabled athletes. But he also wants to be protected from any unfair skewing of results by the same technology he uses in winning acceptance.

Should other Paralympic runners want to follow the path he has blazed into non-disabled competition, they could now also face extra scrutiny because of what he said. And having helped push the debate over prosthetic technology to the background with his campaign that led to his historic performances at the Olympics, he's brought it to the fore again one month later and ensured that it can only rumble forward from here.

"It's a Catch-22 for him," said Swift. "It's just thrown up in the air that these guys on the double blades they do, to some degree, have an advantage."


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester