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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

Man or Technology?

The May 2008 Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling opened the way for South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius to attempt to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games. The implication of the CAS ruling could alter the world of track and field as it currently exists. Pistorius, a double amputee, had been banned from competing in International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) sanctioned events against able-bodied athletes in January 2008. At issue for the IAAF, track and fields world governing body is whether Pistorius’ use of technology provided him with an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners (CAS, 2008).

The technology in question, carbon-fiber cheetah flex-foot prosthetics, according to the IAAF, violated a competition rule prohibiting the use of technical devices that incorporate springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage (IAAF, 2008). The IAAF’s decision was based on an Italian laboratory’s examination of a videotape of a Pistorius race held in Rome and a two-day biomechanical examination conducted in Cologne, Germany (CAS, 2008).

The examination conducted in Cologne, Germany compared Pistorius with five able-bodied control athletes. Those test results showed that Pistorius was able to compete at the same speed while using less energy than the able-bodied athletes. Also there was less energy loss for the cheetahs compared to that of the human ankle joints sprinting at maximum speed and the prostheses required less mechanical effort as it relates to vertical movement in raising the body (IAAF, 2008).
Citing the results obtained from the Cologne tests the IAAF determined that the cheetah prosthetics were technical aids and should therefore be banned. Pistorius argued that no advantage was gained through his use of the prosthesis and appealed to the CAS to overturn the IAAF ruling (CAS, 2008).

The CAS agreed with Pistorius, faulting the way some of the tests were conducted and partly basing its decision on IAAF’s inability to prove on the balance of the evidence that an advantage was gained by using the cheetah flex-foot technology (CAS, 2008). Although the CAS ruling was specific to his situation and a particular model of the cheetah flex-foot, that decision has the potential to alter the sport of track and field.

No one can deny the hard work, training, dedication or accomplishments of Pistorius. In his attempt to qualify for the Beijing Games he ran a personal best of 46.25 in the 400 meter event (LA Times, 2008). Although that time is a significant accomplishment for an athlete running on prosthetic limbs, can one truly identify if the results are due to the man or the technology.

High tech industrial engineering provides the means to enable amputees to compete in track events. Breakthroughs in technological advancements will continue to occur. What may have been considered revolutionary 10 or 20 years ago in most instances is obsolete today. The prosthetics used by Pistorius today may incorporate sensors, artificial intelligence or microprocessors tomorrow. Private companies, academic researchers and the federal government are currently in the process of conducting research to build better prosthetics (Ruiz, 2007).

There can be no doubt that advanced prosthetic research will find its way into the competitive sports world. Ossur, the prosthetics-design firm that created the cheetah has researchers incorporating Bluetooth technology into prosthetic limb development (Adelson, 2008). Scientists are examining whether the nerves that remain from amputated limbs can be wired into artificial legs and arms to make them part of the body. The goal is to create a prosthetic that allows an amputee to turn, cut and twist, movements that are difficult with today’s technology (Adelson, 2008).

The technology that may equal the playing field for one disabled athlete may not be enough for another. Additional modifications may be needed and will those modifications create a disadvantage for the able-bodied athlete? If so will able-bodied athletes look to technology to level the playing field? The steroids era is proof enough that some athletes will do almost anything for a competitive edge.

Yes, there are currently rules in place to prevent athletes from using aids to gain an advantage. This ruling provides a precedent to place a small crack in those rules. Right now it is difficult to determine if Pistorius’ success is due to hard work or technology. Because of his unique circumstances, having his legs amputated at such a young age, there is no baseline to compare his track times. What happens to the competitive sprinter who loses a limb and has it replaced with future technology that makes him or her faster? Will he or she be denied the right to utilize that technology?

It is clear that further biomechanical research is needed to determine if the prosthetics provide an advantage or simply compensate for a disadvantage. Credit must be given to the CAS for leaving open for the IAAF the option of conducting additional tests on prosthetic technology. Advances in testing protocols and scientific equipment may provide the key to make a thorough determination as to whether or not it is the man or the technology.


Adelson, E. (2008). Let ‘em play. ESPN The Magazine. Retrieved August 6, 2008 from http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?id=3357051

Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). (2008). Oscar Pistorius v International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Arbitral Award delivered 5/16/2008 retrieved August 2, 2008 from http://www.tas-cas.org/d2wfiles/document/ 1085/5048/0/amended%20final%20award.pdf

IAAF. (January 14, 2008).Oscar Pistorius-Independent Scientific study concludes that cheetah prosthetics offer clear mechanical advantages. IAAF news release. Retrieved August 3, 2008 from http://www.iaaf.org/news/printer,newsid=42896.htmx

LA Times, (2008, July 18). Olympic run ends for Pistorius. LA Times Retrieved August 4, 2008 from http://latimesblog.latimes.com/olympics_blog/2008/07/Olympic-run-end.html

Ruiz, R. (2007) Imagining a bionic future. MSNBC. Retrieved August 3, 2008 from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21901445/