A man who was born with no bones in his lower legs has won the opportunity to run against - and possibly beat - able-bodied athletes at the track and field world championships.
Oscar Pistorius, the South African amputee sprinter who runs on blade-like prosthetics, dropped almost a half second to run his best time in the 400 metres and qualify for the world track championships in Daegu, South Korea next month.
Almost as soon as the 24-year-old double amputee crossed the finish line in Lignano, Italy, on Tuesday, controversy and criticism were on his heels. Roger Black, the British Olympic and world silver medalist at 400 metres, cast suspicion on Mr. Pistorius's blades as a source of springy power and propulsion on the track.
"Emotionally, I would love to see him race," Mr. Black said. "But if I had to go one way or the other I would say he shouldn't be able to race - we are not seeing like against like."
Canada's top Paralympics coach, Ozzie Sawicki, says Mr. Pistorius has earned a spot alongside able-bodied athletes. And both Mr. Pistorius and Canadian track coach Les Gramantik said the South African needs to be consistently fast to really throw a scare into able-bodied athletes.
The blades are known as the Flex-Foot Cheetah. They are J-shaped replacements for feet, made of light but strong carbon composite, according to maker Ossur of Iceland. The concept is that the prosthesis - which the company says Mr. Pistorius has worn to break more than 30 Paralympic records - stores and releases energy upon striking the track, simulating the action of an anatomical foot and ankle joint. Designers came up with the Flex-Foot in 1997.
"They have not been have around long enough. We don't know if Oscar is an amazing athlete, or a very good athlete with an advantage," Mr. Black told the BBC. "This is a whole grey area. It is a celebration of human endeavour on his behalf - but you will see a lot of 400-metre runners complaining."
Mr. Sawicki welcomes Mr. Pistorius - who will be the first Paralympic athlete in prostheses to run at an able-bodied world championship.
"The first perspective I look at is the technical and, if an individual can meet the standard, he has every right to be there," he said. "Second, is he supported by his national federation? He is. We had the same situation with [vision-impaired Olympic cross-country skier]Brian McKeever."
Mr. Pistorius will not be the first Paralympic athlete to compete in an Olympics or world championship. Mr. McKeever, who has macular degeneration, or visual impairment known as Stargart's disease, qualified for Canada's Winter Olympic team as a cross-country skier. South African swimmer Natalie Du Toit has competed in world championship distance swim races without her prosthetic leg. New Zealand archer Neroli Fairhall competed in the Olympic target sport from a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident.
Mr. Pistorius, many times a Paralympic gold medalist, reached his five year-long goal of earning a starting place in an able-bodied global championship by winning the 400-metre race in 45.07 seconds. His performance was well inside the 45.25 qualifying.
Mr. Pistorius, who was born without fibula bones and whose lower limbs were cut off when he was six months old, had run 45.61 run in March. The drop in time is massive for an elite sprinter. "Never in my life did I think I would beat my personal best by such a big margin," he said.
Mr. Sawicki, the Canadian Paralympic coach, says big singular improvements happen in Paralympic and Olympic years when training becomes most serious. Consistency is another matter. Pistorius has yet to show it, and he knows it's a drawback in taking on able-bodied athletes.
"In a championship when you've got five races leading up to a final, these guys are able to run these races every day. It's still going to be a huge challenge," Pistorius told the BBC. His time in Italy would have put his fifth in the Beijing Olympic final and fourth in the 2009 Berlin world championship. It ranks him 21st this season. Would he hold up under intense rounds - preliminaries, quarterfinals and semifinals - is the question.
"We shouldn't look at the times in the final but at the three rounds you need to run to get there," said Gramantik, who was coach of Canada's Paralympic sprinter Earle Connor and is coaching heptathlete Jessica Zelinka. "He'll probably have to run his personal best three more times to get to the final."
Gramantik said the artificial legs are "superior quality, to what they had five years ago, and so are the athletes who test and give advice on them."
Still, no one is afraid that Pistorius and advancing prosthetic technology will turn sports competitions from contests of flesh and blood to man v bionic machine. "I don't think anyone sees it as a (technological) threat," Gramantik said. Pistorius's plan in straightforward: train harder and run faster.
To make the South African Olympic team, Mr. Pistorius needs to run a qualifying standard of 45.25 seconds or less twice before the London Games.
"There's no reason why he can't keep on doing it," Athletics South Africa chairman James Evans said. "The way we've treated Oscar has always been: We are not going to do him any favours, and we are not going to hold anything against him."
Mr. Pistorius' road to the worlds and the Olympics included fighting a ban by the International Association of Athletics Federations after it ruled his carbon-fibre blades gave him an unfair advantage because he was able to have a long stride and didn't tire or cramp up like a runner with flesh-and-blood lower legs. Mr. Pistorius took his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which overturned the IAAF's ruling, stating that the body hadn't taken into account the slow start Mr. Pistorius gets on blades. He won the right to compete against able-bodied athletes in 2008, but fell short of making the Olympic team for Beijing.
Mr. Pistorius is also the face for a futuristic new advertising campaign for Thierry Mugler fragrance A*Men.
With a report from Beverley SmithReport Typo/Error
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