The “Blade Runner” and the 2012 Summer Olympics

July 08, 2012
From Jack H. Scaff Jr., M.D., F.A.C.S.M.

I realize that I have a captive audience at the Honolulu Marathon Clinic, and audience members do not have a fair chance to respond if I say something they do not agree with, and that is not really the way to engage in these kinds of discussions.  However, I’ve been researching and lecturing in many venues on the Mainland, and my goal has always been to challenge people.  In other words, I like to make an egregious statement and then have you challenge it and eventually finding it either correct or wrong.  And if I am wrong, fine, I’ll incorporate it into my next talk, but at least you’ve thought about it.  So we’re challenging thoughts.  You don’t have to agree with anything I’m saying, …except for the information on how we prevent injuries and things like that.  You can argue with those things all you want, we will be able to tell if you were wrong by your limp!

With the Olympics coming up, you may have heard that Oscar Pistorius, The “Blade Runner” of South Africa, will be competing in the 400 meter and 4×400 meter relay events for his country.  Pistorius was born without fibulae and could not walk, so both of his legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old.  Today he is known as “The Blade Runner” because he runs on a set of carbon fiber prosthetic blades in place of feet.

Recently, Pistorius qualified for the Olympics.  The London Committee, which previously had not approved of his participation in the Olympics has accepted him.  But now we have a real problem.  I’m not sure he is a disabled runner, but we have a runner wearing prostheses and he may win.

The Olympics is pretty important, and if Pistorius wins the first thing that would probably come up is, “What about the poor able-bodied runner who trained all his life and had his chances taken away?”

Does Pistorius have an advantage?  Somebody was pointing out that he had a little bit of trouble at the start.  But remember our previous talk about stretching (Doc’s Talk June 03, 2012) and we discussed the rebound effect, the hamstring effect.  Pistorius’ blades are PERFECT!  They give you TREMENDOUS return of energy on each blade-strike.  And, there is something else.  When we talked about weight (Doc’s Talk May 05, 2012) we noted that weight is 4 times as expensive below the hips as it is above.  If you don’t believe that try putting on a 4-pound weight belt and see what it does to your running.  If you put a 2-pound weight on each of your ankles (the same total weight of 4 pounds), you can’t go anywhere.

Published research shows that if you cut off a person’s leg below the knee, it may weigh between 5 and 7 pounds.  The carbon-fiber blades Pistorius is using weigh about 2 pounds.  That gives him an up to 5-pound weight advantage over the other athletes!

The media coverage has made Pistorius’ participation in the Olympics into such a touchy feely story.  You can see they are already getting ready for the movie of his life.  There’s a lot of money in this.  But Pistorius has an advantage.

As you know we are all right legged or left legged, like being right handed or left handed, one limb is a little bit stronger.  So researchers took many 1-legged blade runners and hooked them up with transducers and measured the economy and efficiency of running with the normal leg versus the carbon-fiber blades.  The blade leg was ALWAYS better.  Runners burned less and they got more back from the blade.

So, as mentioned, now we are dealing with a real nice touchy feely story of a fellow who has a better than average chance of winning.  How you feel about that is up to you, but this leads us into the question of, well, maybe we should let men enter women’s races in the Olympics.  Of course they’d win all the races because the men are stronger.  You get into these kinds of issues when you start mixing athletes up.  We might even get into a situation where a family somewhere in the world has a child born with deformed legs and decides, ‘Well, let’s whack his legs off and make some money if he becomes a good high school athlete,” and so on and so forth.

So there are a lot of issues in all of this.  As I said you don’t have to agree with any of it, but it’s food for thought.  Just make up your own minds as to how you think this should be handled.

Finally, I imagine if Pistorius does very well (or wins) there will be a protest, and we will have to see how it is handled from here on.  I have my own opinions, but at least you see the balanced arguments.

The bottom line is it IS an advantage to have a carbon-fiber blade when you are sprinting or running.