When science and sports collide
State-of-the-art prosthetics have caused controversy in sports, and raise questions about what it means to be human.
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South African Oscar Pistorius runner failed to qualify for the Olympic games by just 7/10 of a second. Pretty good -- especially for a man without legs. But his state-of-the-art prosthetics, called "Cheetah legs," have caused controversy in the world of sports: for some, they raise questions about what it means to be human.
"Studio 360's" Ave Carrillo looks at science and sports.
Aimee Mullins, is president of the Women's Sports Foundation and a double amputee: "The first time I saw the Cheetah Legs, I said, 'you want me to do what with those?' I was like, 'you're crazy!'"
She's a record-holding track star. In 1995, she competed with two wooden legs that looked like there were straight out of the 1930s, and she still broke records. Soon after, she was one of the first to test out prototypes of the Cheetah Legs: "As soon as I put them on and I stood up, my hamstrings were contracted, my gluteals were contracted -- I know I can't stand still in them ... they're meant for sprinting."
Each leg is cut from a flat sheet of pressed carbon fiber, and molded into a fluid J-like curve that connects at the base of the knee and runs all the way to the tip of toe, and there it curls up, like a leprechaun shoe.
Mullins: "You know, I think they're stunning, and that opened a whole world for me ... where suddenly I launched into fashion, and the idea of a sensuality that people felt from looking at the legs, and ... the confusion in that."
Mullins became the first amputee to walk down the runway as a fashion model, and was even voted on of "People" magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.
When she began racing with the Cheetah legs, rumors within the disabled athletic community started flying around that she had an advantage -- they thought she was using the legs to lengthen her stride, so she just got a pair of shorter prosthetics: "I made myself shorter, and I got faster -- that shut everybody up."
And then, along comes South African track star, and double-amputee Oscar Pistorius, who was fighting for the right to compete with able-bodied athletes. And he was doing well. When he ran in the South African National Championships, and he came in second.
Ross Tucker has a PhD in exercise physiology and started the blog, The Science of Sport -- he's posted some pretty vitriolic rants against allowing Pistorius to compete in the Olympics: "His final 300 meters of his 400-meter race are completely unnatural. His second 200 is two seconds faster than his first 200. Now that's unusual because no 400 meter runner in history is able to do that."
What he's saying is that when Pistorius starts a race, he struggles for the first 30 meters, and then he hits his stride and then in a sense shifts into high gear. As all the other runners tire and slow down, Pistorius speeds up.
That led track and field's governing body, The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), to do their own testing. They determined the Cheetah Legs gave him an unfair advantage, and banned Pistorius from competing.
In a public statement, Pistorius cried discrimination: "On behalf of myself and other disabled athletes, to stand firmly and not allow one organization to inhibit our ability to compete using the very tools without which, we can simply not walk, let alone run."
Peter Weyand at Rice University specializes in the physiology of biomechanics and energy expenditure: "Every muscle in your body, like a calf muscle, is obviously attached to a great big achilles tendon. Because these tendons work so well as elastics, the design that's evolved in these good runners -- race horses, ostriches -- is that they've gotten rid of the muscle and they just have tendon at the distal part of the limb. The Cheetahs have essentially mimicked the biology in that respect.
"The original basis for why the IAAF said that Oscar Pistorius had an advantage, is that they were claiming that the carbon fiber blade, the Cheetah, does it a lot better -- that its energy return is far more efficient than the human limb."
The IAAF researchers claimed the Cheetahs were 30 percent more efficient than the human limb -- that's a huge number. But they were only studying the human ankle. Weyand and his colleagues pointed out that there are dozens of other muscles and tendons used in running, and that technology today, is simply not advanced enough to monitor them all.
The IAAF also claimed Pistorius used 20 percent less energy than the other athletes. But Weyands' testing found that he uses the same amount of energy than everyone else. He explains why: "When a runner with intact limbs comes out of the blocks and accelerates, an important part in the ability to accelerate is being able to push off with your foot and your ankle.
"Because Oscar doesn't have any calf muscles to do that, he's disadvantaged. The reason he finishes relatively fast is because he starts relatively slow."
Pistorius used all these findings in his appeal to the court of arbitration for sport, and he won back the right to try for the Olympics. But then he failed to meet the qualifying time by 7/10 of a second.
Blogger Ross Tucker: "The credibility of the sport is what's at stake here. This was always a matter of the technology being introduced to the sport. As soon as you open the door and introduce technology and sport, then you have a problem on your hands."
Cyborg athletes and bionic men and women like Amy Mullins and Oscar Pistorius are simply scary for a lot of people.
Mullins: "To me disability is where race was 50, 60 years ago. And if you've taken notice at what's happened across the world of sports -- you know, Tiger Woods getting two lasic surgeries to perfect his vision in a target sport ... Arnold Palmer getting a titanium hip so he can still play in the senior PGA tour ... athletes will do a lot for a competitive advantage. You're not going to see anyone going out and amputating their feet, so they can wear carbon fiber prosthetics because it provides you such an advantage."
This segment first aired on "Studio 360" in August 2008.
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