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Blade New World: Oscar Pistorius and Awesome Prosthetic Technology

Posted: 07/09/2012 6:10 pm

PRETORIA -- If you haven't already heard, South Africa's Oscar Pistorius is about to set an historical precedent that will mark not only a moment of personal triumph, but a milestone in human achievement. Pistorius, born without tibias and fitted with two below-knee prosthetics, will run in the men's 400 meters and the 4x400 relay representing his country in the London Olympic Games, marking the first time an amputee has competed at the Olympics against able-bodied athletes. Pistorius was selected by his country as its 125th and final team member after falling just .2 second short of posting his third Olympic 'A' qualifying standard this year. Earlier in the year he posted a personal best of 45.07 followed by a 45.20. For context, either of those times would have ranked sixth at the recently completed U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials.

Oscar Pistorius, the Blade Runner, is a world class athlete. No need to qualify that -- he's not a world class disabled athlete. He's world class, period.

I've been following Pistorius closely of late. He's a personal inspiration, the kind I can use, being myself about three months into the mastery of a prosthetic leg that still gives me fits at times. I'm not aiming to run the 400, but watching him do so helps motivate me to at least figure out how to negotiate a flight of stairs. Most recently, however, my interest in the Pistorius story has taken on an added dimension, that of abstract possibility.

Ordinarily I shy away from abstractions. The concrete world confuses me sufficiently without the complications of speculation. But in the case of a guy with no feet who can keep up with the fastest men in the world over a quarter-mile, I'll entertain a certain degree of fantasy.

It happens that for a time Pistorius was barred from international track and field competition. That's a fact. Five years ago, the IAAF, track's international governing body, determined that Pistorius' blades gave him an unfair advantage and ruled him ineligible to compete in sanctioned events, a determination overruled a year later by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

I think we can all agree that Oscar Pistorius is faster with his prosthetics than he would be without them (duh), but the IAAF wasn't concerned with his advantage over nature; it was concerned with his advantage over other runners. On that score, whatever putative 'advantage' carbon fiber blades might confer above feet, I think we're a long way from athletes seeking out black market surgeons to cut off their healthy feet in the hope of improving their performance. But what if they did?!

The fact is that today's prosthetics are so far ahead of just a quarter-century ago, there might be no limit to what dedicated amputee athletes can achieve in the near future. Watching video of Pistorius in action, UCLA's Vijay Gupta, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering told the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke, "Whoever designed those legs is very smart," noting that the design of the blades allows Pistorius to remain in contact with the ground slightly longer than a runner with feet. But still there are other factors including what Gupta called "... some instability in the biomechanics ..."

Said Reggie Edgerton, professor of integrative biology and physiology, "There might be a slight advantage, but it is outweighed by the obvious disadvantage..." Yes, but for how long? I'm willing to wager that some creative geniuses out there are already looking at tape of Pistorius and figuring out how to remove those disadvantages with tweaks and upgrades and a perfected design and whatever they come up with could very well be something as good as or even better than the legs most of us were born with.

I hope I live long enough to see the technology that grants functionality to me and 1.8 million other American amputees evolve to the point that artificial limbs can actually outperform their biological counterparts in athletic competition. I want to see double below-knee amputees like Pistorius running the 100 meters in eight flat. I want to see sub-three-minute amputee milers. I want to see power lifters missing both arms at the shoulders throwing up 900 pound clean-and-jerks and cyborg beasts grunting out 200-foot shot puts.

I'd like to see the various world sporting bodies call urgent meetings and take decisive action to bar all athletes one or more under par in the limb department from international competition and then I'd like to see the Paralympics swamp the old, boring, able-bodied Olympics in popularity, revenue and viewership. That's not inconceivable, really.

While manimals like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi and Jose Canseco were swatting away at the end of the '90s, did any sensible baseball fan really not suspect there was some chemical skullduggery beneath the bulging forearms? Of course we all knew and the truth is most of us didn't care. I don't want young people messing with drugs of any sort, but for the sake of my entertainment on a dull afternoon I don't care if a multi-millionaire shoots Drano in his veins, as long as he keeps knocking 500-footers out of the park. I wanted to see someone clout 80 round-trippers in a season. Sadly, that won't happen now. I also wanted to see Shawne Merriman get so monstrous while playing for my San Diego Chargers that eventually a running back he struck in the backfield would just explode. But the NFL, for whatever reason, enforces its drug policy, and now Merriman, at 28, is a benchwarmer for the Buffalo Bills.

Drugs are one thing -- wicked cool prosthetics are another. It just might come to pass that state-of-the-art competitive limb design surpasses the best organic limbs in the world. And if and when that does happen, I'm getting a leg that will allow me to high jump nine feet, and I'd like it to include a cup-holder and a plasma cannon with a retractable barrel.

For the time being, I'd settle for not being too clumsy to climb stairs normally. Patience is a virtue after all, but seriously -- plasma cannon super jump leg! It's gonna be awesome.

 

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