Oscar Pistorius can run a quarter mile in 45.07 seconds — fast enough to qualify for the 2011 World Championships and 2012 Olympics. He does it without feet.
Born missing the fibula bones that attach ankles to knees, doctors amputated the South African's legs halfway down his calves as a baby. Now, 24 years later, Pistorius runs on specialized prosthetics, crescent blades made of carbon fiber that attach to his knees called "Cheetah Flex-Feet." Nicknamed "the Blade Runner," he holds double-amputee world records for the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. In 2007, he began competing against — and beating — world-class, able-bodied athletes.
This Sunday he will settle into the starting blocks as the first amputee athlete to ever compete in an athletics World Championships, racing the 400-meter dash and possibly running the first leg of the 4x400-meter relay. After this contest, he will set his sights on the London 2012 Olympics.
But amid his incredible success, some of Pistorius' opponents objected. Late in 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that his artificial limbs were actually giving him an unfair advantage — that their springiness allowed him to push off the ground more efficiently than does a normal human ankle, letting him coast along at higher speeds using less exertion than other sprinters. He was banned from able-bodied competition.
Recently though, thanks to research and testimony from biophysicist Hugh Herr, head of the Biomechatronics Research Group at MIT, the IAAF overturned the previous ruling. At the end of July, Pistorius set a personal best time in the 400-m (45.07 seconds; the world record is 43.18 seconds, held by American sprinter Michael Johnson). He'll compete in this year's World Championships (starting Aug. 27) and, thanks to the IAAF's new ruling, the 2012 Olympics next summer.
So why did the IAAF change its mind? And at the highest level of competition, in races designed to test the extreme limits of human abilities, are the Blade Runner's prosthetic blades really fair? Herr, an inventor of advanced prosthetic limbs, told us why the answer is "yes."