Feature

The Olympics: Denying a runner’s dream

“All Oscar Pistorius wants is a shot at the Olympics,” said Raf Casert in the Associated Press. It’s a wildly improbable dream, given that the South African man was born without the smaller bones of the lower legs, and was 11 months old when both legs wer

“All Oscar Pistorius wants is a shot at the Olympics,” said Raf Casert in the Associated Press. It’s a wildly improbable dream, given that the South African man was born without the smaller bones of the lower legs, and was 11 months old when both legs were amputated below the knee. But Pistorius, 21, has never let his disability stop him from living a normal, active life, and a few years ago he was fitted with a Space Age set of prostheses for handicapped runners called “Cheetahs.” After rigorous training, he set Paralympic world records for 100, 200, and 400 meters on the J-shaped metal prostheses with times that rival those of the world’s top able-bodied athletes. In last year’s South African National Championships, he came in second against a two-legged field. He’d been training to run in the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer, but this week, the International Association of Athletics Federations crushed Pistorius’ dream. After elaborate tests, the organization found that his Cheetahs give him a “demonstrable mechanical advantage,” and ruled him ineligible to run in the Olympics.

It would have been wonderful to hear the cheers as Pistorius approached the starting blocks, said George Vecsey in The New York Times, but he shouldn’t be allowed to run in Beijing. His carbon-fiber blades aren’t artificial legs in any conventional sense, but “exquisitely powerful and resilient” devices that propel him along with an efficiency that the human leg cannot match. In fact, tests conducted for the IAAF found that the Cheetahs return 90 percent of the energy he exerts with each stride, while the human leg and foot return 60 percent. To run as fast as an able-bodied athlete, Pistorius needs to consume less oxygen and work less hard. Having that kind of unnatural advantage seems “outside the bounds of competition.”

How “small-minded,” said Jeff Powell in the London Daily Mail. Pistorius “carries a banner of hope for the world’s disabled population,” and letting him run against the world’s best sprinters would have been a historic moment that touched millions. The only reason to keep him from competing, said Greg Couch in the Chicago Sun-Times, is that handicapped people frighten and unnerve the able-bodied. But Pistorius is no superhuman cyborg who’ll smash all previous records. He’s just a valiant athlete who’s overcome a substantial handicap. “Don’t be afraid of the man with no legs. He just wants a chance to run.” Why not give it to him?

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