Last Sunday, Paralympic favourite Oscar Pistorius was beaten to the gold medal in the T44 200-metre final by Brazilian Alan Fonteles Oliveira. Pistorius called the race unfair, saying Oliveira ran on excessively long blades that boosted his stride length.
To comply with regulations laid down by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), athletes’ prostheses must not convey an “unrealistic enhancement”. But working out exactly where enhancement begins is tricky. Officials can use limb measurements from able-bodied non-disabled people, and guess how long the legs of double amputees should be by looking at their body measurements, such as the distance between the sternum and the fingertips.
To give themselves the best advantage within the rules, double amputees are likely to pick prostheses as long as is legally allowed. Oliveira increased the length of his by 4 centimetres three weeks ago. Despite the extension, however, The Guardian points out that Pistorius’s strides were 2.2 metres long on average, whereas Oliveira’s only averaged 2 metres.
"I can see where [Pistorius] is coming from," says David James, a sports engineer at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. "You can tell by looking at [the athletes] that they can’t really stand up – it seems they’ve taken their heights to unnatural levels."
Others have less time for Pistorius’s argument, pointing out that the sprinter is thought to have has deliberately kept his blades shorter than the maximum limit in order to also qualify for the Olympics. Pistorius had previously argued that his blades don’t give him an advantage over his able-bodied competitors.
"Unfortunately, Pistorius has invalidated his reasons for being able to run in the Olympics as well as the Paralympics," says Steve Haake, also at Sheffield Hallam University. "To run in the Olympics, his team claimed that he had no advantage over non-amputees. Pistorius is now saying that you just need to lengthen your prosthetics to go faster – something non-amputees cannot do."
James agrees: “Pistorius was given the green light to run in the Olympics on the basis that his blades give him no advantage,” he says. “He seems to be devaluing his own argument.”