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Fastest Human, Under Construction

Prosthetics may zoom amputees past 'able bodied' sprinters.

By Ian Gregson 16 Mar 2006 |
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In the mid-1980's, a breakthrough in the world of prosthetic limbs occurred. An amputee by the name of Van Philips, disillusioned with the response of his existing foot, set about reinventing the prosthetic foot. As a result, the Flex Foot was born; a lightweight foot [that looked nothing like a foot] made from carbon fibre, the consequence of which has improved the lives of thousands of amputees around the world.

The Flex Foot has gone through several refinements since the 1980's, as a result, amputee sprinters are racing towards an Olympic showdown with their non-amputee counterparts.

Amputee runners benefited from the technological advance almost immediately. The first proponent of running on the Flex Foot was former soccer player Dennis Oehler. Oehler shaved seconds off 100m, 200m and 400m at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul. However, in 1992 and 1996 a new phenom by the name of Tony Volpentest took over the crown, made even more phenomenal by the fact Volpentest was a double arm amputee and leg amputee below the knee.

In the summer of 2003, American Marlon Shirley became the first leg amputee to break the 10 second barrier for the 100 meters. In 2005, Shirley's records were surpassed by South African Oscar Pistorius who clocked a 21.4 for the 200m and 47.34 for the 400m. Pistorius' time in the 400m surpassed the gold medal winning time in the men's 400m event at the 1928 Olympics. At the current rate of improvement, a leg amputee could at least qualify for the 2012 Olympics with possible records being broken shortly thereafter.

However, a significant barrier must be broken before any amputee sprinters gets anywhere near an Olympic qualifying heat.

'Challenged' or 'assisted'?

As it stands, there are numerous examples of where athletes with disabilities have been denied competition against their "able-bodied" counterparts. In 1976, a Canadian above knee amputee qualified for the Montreal Olympics 10 meter pistol shooting event. Shortly after qualifying at the Canadian trials, the shooter who garnered 3rd place behind the amputee shooter complained the prosthetic leg was a "support device". As a result of the challenge and the slow moving process of interpreting the problem, he was denied the right to compete at the '76 games, even after qualifying.

Other similar instances of rules being inappropriately applied have arisen, with amputee athletes bearing the brunt of the inappropriateness.

Given this past history, chances are amputee sprinters will never make it to an Olympic sprint final, regardless of how fast they run. The narrow position between "challenged" and "assisted" is practically non-existent; amputee sprinters will be interpreted as one or the other. As long as there is a disgruntled athlete willing to use rules to this end, amputee sprinters will have to face this hurdle sooner or later at the Olympic level. History shows us that rules eventually get changed, slowly and only after the fact.

Sport is often held as a mirror to our society, sport often reflects our changing societal values and vice versa. If and when this particular change happens, it could well be interpreted as the most important technological improvement on the human body; the ramifications of this event are staggering. Combined with a worldwide media audience of millions, how we as a society accept or reject the validity of prosthetic limbs as an improvement to the human body will be subject of many philosophical debates far beyond the scope of sport and "disability".

Ian Gregson's book Irresistible Force: The story of disability sport in Canada, published by Raincoast books. He operates the internet's most popular amputee oriented web site.  [Tyee]

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