What sorts of prosthetics will you see in the Paralympics?

The Controversial Runner

Oscar Pistorius burns up the track at a 2012 IAAF World Challenge meet in Hengelo, Netherlands.
Oscar Pistorius burns up the track at a 2012 IAAF World Challenge meet in Hengelo, Netherlands.
Helene Wiesenhaan/Getty Images

Oscar Pistorius, a South African runner who was born without fibulas (one of the two bones in calves), was less than a year old when his legs were amputated below the knees. Six months later, he was walking. Now he's tearing up the track at the Paralympics and, in 2012, he headed to his first Olympics as a member of the 4x400-meter relay team.

Nicknamed Blade Runner, he has also ignited an international controversy due to the prosthetics he wears. Some have claimed his J-shaped, carbon-fiber calves give him an unfair advantage over other athletes. The Flex-Foot Cheetahs, which Paralympic athletes have been sprinting on since the late 1990s, are certainly speedy, but when Pistorius runs on them, it's like Hermes has hit the track. At speeds of 45.07 seconds in the 400-meter, it's hard to argue that his artificial attachments don't serve him well. But are they unfair to the competition?

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) thought so. That's the organization that has the top say in everything track-and-field-related. In 2008, the association ruled that Pistorius was not allowed to compete against able-bodied runners. Pistorius, not one to take anything lying down -- or moving at less than lighting speeds, for that matter -- appealed the decision. His lawyer and a bevy of experts argued in his favor at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which repealed the ruling. The court has the final say in all matters of sporting competitions.

Pistorius runs differently from other world-class athletes not equipped with prosthetics. Their feet touch the ground for a tenth of a second or less. Designed the way they are, Pistorius' Cheetahs are on the track longer, so he has to compensate with superior hip strength and faster limb movement. He also must immediately come to an upright position; athletes without amputations start low to build up initial speed [source: Sokolove].

But some still think Pistorius enjoys special advantages. In fact, one of the researchers who studied Pistorius' running style before his appeal believes that's the case. For one, Pistorius' carbon-fiber substitutes are much lighter than the lower limbs of able-bodied athletes. His Cheetahs weigh about 5.4 pounds (2.4 kilograms). Athletes with intact calves must deal with an extra 12.6 pounds (5.7 kilograms) on average. That means he can reposition his legs about 15 percent quicker than some of the fastest male sprinters in history [source: Sokolove].

Many, however, feel that such a viewpoint is nonsense. They see Pistorius, wobbly on his Cheetahs when not flying down the track, and have nothing but admiration for what he has accomplished.