Double-Amputee Allowed To Compete for Olympic Bid

"Now that the ban's been lifted, my focus is back on athletics. I'm psyched about that," says South African Oscar Pistorius, who still must shave a half-second off his time in the 400 meters to earn a spot in Beijing. (By Denis Farrell -- Associated Press)
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By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 17, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, May 16 -- An international appeals court on Friday cleared the way for double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius to make a historic bid to appear in the Beijing Olympics, ruling that his carbon-fiber running blades are -- for purposes of competition -- indistinguishable from human legs.

The 18-page judgment from the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, reversed a ban issued in January by the International Association of Athletics Federations, which said that his J-shaped Cheetah Flex-Foot prosthetics gave him unfair advantages over other runners. The appeals court found no demonstrable difference after reviewing evidence from a team of American researchers.

Though the ruling applied only to Pistorius, athletes with disabilities said it was a landmark in their battle to compete equally with the able-bodied and would ease the stigma long associated with artificial limbs.

"It's a glorious day," said Dick Traum, an amputee marathon runner and president of the Achilles Track Club, the world's largest association of disabled runners, speaking from New York. "This means that when I'm walking around, people don't necessarily look at me as being frail."

Pistorius, a strapping, gregarious 21-year-old student who has become a hero in sports-crazed South Africa, still must shave a half-second from his best time in the 400-meter sprint to qualify for the Olympics. It is a significant margin behind the world's top able-bodied runners, but he has displayed a drive and determination that have won over detractors.

He expressed enthusiasm Friday that only his ability, rather than legal barriers, will determine whether he appears at the Olympics in August.

"It's still going to be difficult. I've missed lots of races," Pistorius said from Italy, where he was traveling. "Now that the ban's been lifted, my focus is back on athletics. I'm psyched about that."

Pistorius was born without fibulas and had his legs amputated at mid-calf before his first birthday. But he set world records for Paralympians -- as top athletes with disabilities call themselves -- in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints. Along the way he picked up a global following and a pair of nicknames -- "The Blade Runner" and "The Fastest Man on No Legs" -- that he says he doesn't much like.

Even the International Association of Athletics Federations, whose ban would have blocked Pistorius not only from competing in the Olympics but most major able-bodied competitions, appeared to celebrate its loss at the appeals court. The association's Web site on Friday posted a picture of Pistorius blazing around a track, his muscles rippling beneath a green-and-yellow track suit.

"Oscar will be welcomed wherever he competes this summer," the association's president, Lamine Diack, said in a statement. "He is an inspirational man, and we look forward to admiring his achievements in the future."

Three athletes with disabilities, including an American gymnast who won a gold medal in 1904 despite having a wooden leg, have competed in the summer Olympics.

In initially banning Pistorius, the International Association of Athletics Federations relied on tests conducted last year at the German Sports University in Cologne. They found that Pistorius's J-shaped prosthetic legs demanded 25 percent less energy than human legs.

After the ruling, Pistorius publicly declared his chances for competing in Beijing dead. Yet batteries of tests conducted at Rice University in Houston revived his hopes.

Key were measurements of the amount of oxygen Pistorius consumed while running on a treadmill at about half of his full sprinting speed. There was no significant difference compared with the energy consumption of other elite runners, said Hugh Herr, a prosthetics expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the researchers studying Pistorius. He said it was not possible to test energy consumption at higher speeds.

Herr said that despite major advances in the development of racing prosthetics, human legs remain at least as effective at producing speed for a sprinter.

"It's always, of course, very difficult to do better than the human body," Herr said.

The appeals court ruling called on the International Association of Athletics Federations to continue monitoring, on a case-by-case basis, whether other athletes using prosthetic limbs had unfair advantages. And while the court lamented the possibility of imposing new responsibilities on the association, the ruling said, "if it does create an additional burden, it must be viewed as just one of the challenges of 21st Century life."

To qualify for South Africa's Olympics team, Pistorius must improve his best time in the 400-meter sprint from 46.56 seconds to 45.95 seconds. The world record for all sprinters is 43.18 seconds.

South African officials also could name Pistorius a member of the country's 400-meter relay, but the national team is unlikely to be good enough to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.

South African athletic officials said that, in light of Pistorius's legal fight, they have waived the requirement that Olympics-bound athletes compete in the national championships in March. They plan to accept any qualifying time from a sanctioned event, anywhere in the world. Pistorius has several races already scheduled in Europe before South Africa must announce its Olympics teams in July.

"The young man is a fighter," said Leonard Chuene, president of Athletics South Africa, the national Olympics affiliate. "Let's give him opportunity and support, and I believe very strongly he will make it."

Pistorius said he would soon return to South Africa, and to the weight room, the exercise bike, the dietician, with the goal of qualifying for Beijing. Should he fail, Pistorius said, he will turn his attention to the London Olympics in 2012. At that time he will be 25 -- still in his prime as a sprinter.

"The fact that the doors are open for my future is something I'm ecstatic about," Pistorius said.

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