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'Blade runner' case is only the beginning

Aug 9, 2012 - By Harvey Shapiro and Chris Waddell, For MCT News Service

Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee South African "Blade Runner," made an unprecedented Olympic debut Saturday in the 400-meter qualifying heats. The starter's gun fired a shot heard throughout the sports world and a watershed event for legions of disabled athletes.

To get there, he ran a tortuous course of legal proceedings with the International Association of Athletic Federations. Pistorius, a multiple Paralympic gold medalist, was forced to challenge a recent IAAF rule that forbids lower-extremity "spring" assist units.

Despite the years of contention, scientific study and the court's decision allowing Pistorius to run, a crucial question remains unanswered: Can using "adaptive sports equipment" unfairly tilt the playing field? Is it, in other words, akin to doping?

The court's determination applies only to Pistorius, equipped with his current model of Cheetah blades. It does not speak to succeeding disabled athletes, using other devices. Instead, the lawyers suggested case-by-case evaluations, essentially shifting the burden of proof to individual athletes. This approach will create an untenable choke point in processing a flood of eager young war amputees wanting to compete at all levels, and it does nothing to assure athletes and fans of a level playing field.

What can and can't be allowed should be treated similarly to doping in sports. The anti-doping agencies publish banned substances lists, develop scientifically vetted laboratory tests to determine their criteria and respond to ever-evolving doping techniques.

Already, the Olympic concept of one naked person running barefoot in the marathon has morphed for all athletes. Using technical advances in gear, they have taken advantage of fiberglass vaulting poles, frictionless "sharkskin" swimsuits, mechanically superior bobsleds, more agile skis, better bikes, springy shoes, sleeker sailboats and a host of other assists. Faster, stronger blades cannot be far off.

Pistorius has become, perhaps by design, an advocate for all disabled athletes. He has challenged an unprepared sports establishment to equip itself with the appropriate science to establish and enforce widely applicable guidelines governing prosthetic devices. Only in that light will history determine whether his blades gave him an unfair advantage when he ran against sprinters with flesh-and-blood legs, or won his Paralympic gold medals competing against those equipped with only one blade and a normal leg.

Pistorius's battle to compete with the fastest runners, on track's biggest stage, forces all of us to rethink our concept of doping: It may not only include what we ingest but also exotic external performance-enhancing equipment.

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