In light of the recent spotlight on Oscar Pistorious, a double amputee who competed in the 400m race of the London Olympics, I would like to revisit the debate of whether the “high tech” carbon fibre prosthetic legs which Pistorious competes in offers an unfair advantage.
As usual, I would like to being your attention to a research study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. This one was done back in 2009 but I believe that it is still relevant. The authors conclude that: “…running on modern, lower-limb sprinting prostheses appears to be physiologically similar but mechanically different from running with intact limbs.”
What does this mean?
In terms of metabolic consumption, the authors claim that with the prostheses, energy cost was up to 17% lower compared to able bodied elite 400m runners. Therefore, I am not sure why the authors state that running on modern sprinting prostheses vs able legs are metabolically similar. To me, a 17% reduction in energy cost over the time course of 400m could be quite a significant advantage.
In terms of mechanical differences, the study showed that the vertical ground reaction force that can be generated in lower with the prostheses. However, the lightness of the prostheses compared to intact limbs allows the legs to repositioned up to 15.7% faster. Whether this tradeoff amounts to an unfair tradeoff is yet to be determined.
To summarize, the research is not black and white. However, in my opinion, I do think that the prostheses offer an advantage. It is just logistically difficult to conduct comparative studies between able bodied and disabled athletes. But even if Pistorious does gain an unfair advantage, his story should be an inspiration to all. I salute him.