NEVER MIND that they have only one healthy leg between them. What with the barely veiled charges of cheating, the constant jostling for a technological or mental edge, and a competitive drive that threatens to push their sport to places never thought possible, there's no more compelling rivalry in track than the one between Marlon Shirley and Oscar Pistorius. In Athens the 17-year-old Pistorius, the only bilateral amputee in the field, crushed Shirley in the 200 and then erased Shirley's 4 1/2-meter lead and nearly beat him in the 100. The battle for turf hasn't stopped since.
Shirley charged Pistorius with "running tall," using prostheses that raised his natural height and gave him a longer stride. Pistorius found Shirley's cocky front comical ("A bit of an act," he says) and giggled at Shirley's attempts at gamesmanship.
Pistorius, now 18, won the 100 and 200 at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, England, last weekend. Shirley had pulled out of the event because of continuing trouble with his right hamstring. The next time the two sprinters are likely to meet is at the IPC European Championships in Helsinki in August. In the meantime Shirley plans to compete in the long jump at an event in Turin, Italy, on June 2, and in the 100 in Paris a month later.
When, in March, Pistorius heard that Shirley might withdraw from the Manchester 200, he grinned. "Then," he said, "I'm going to train now only for the 100." Naked hunger is always refreshing, and so is the thought of blazing speed in someone born without a fibula in either leg. Pistorius, who grew up playing rugby and water polo, didn't run in his first international track meet until eight months before the 2004 Paralympics. From March to September his time in the 200 fell from 24.8 to 21.9--a mammoth drop that Pistorius attributes to fast learning and Shirley attributes to running on legs longer than they should be. The length of Shirley's prosthesis is determined by that of his sound leg, but a bilateral amputee can lengthen his legs beyond their natural measurement. "He's able to manipulate something that's out of other athletes' control," Shirley says. "Just because he has a double amputation, why should he have a different set of rules?"
Brian Frasure, the Paralympic sprinter who is also a prosthetist, says that in the summer of 2004 in North Carolina he fit Pistorius for legs that made him 6'1" but that the South African arrived in Athens standing between 6'3" and 6'4". Pistorius doesn't deny it. He and his current prosthetist, Fran√ßois van der Watt, say they miscalculated in adjusting Pistorius's legs for Athens: Oscar, they say, stood a centimeter or two short of where he should have been. In other words, if Shirley thinks his rival was tall in Athens, just wait. "It's going to be a circus," he says. "Yeah, I want to see Oscar run 20 seconds in the 200. You've got a 6'6" guy running 20 seconds: That's cool. But that's an act, not sports. I'm afraid that what Oscar's doing will hurt the chances of Paralympians competing against able-bodied athletes, because people will say the prostheses are an advantage--and they're not."
Over the last decade lightweight carbon fiber and improvements in the design of the prosthetic racing foot have so improved performance that some people believe a human being without legs could have an advantage over one with them. But there's no scientific evidence for this. Estimates on the energy return from a racing prosthesis top out at 98%, compared with 141% to 241% from a foot and ankle powered by muscle and tissue.
Meanwhile, the International Paralympic Committee is trying to determine the proper length of prostheses and expects to have an "Oscar Rule" in place for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. But Pistorius may well be beyond the Paralympics by then. Last year he ran the sixth-fastest 400 by a South African, able or disabled. It was the first time he had ever run that distance. Most observers feel that because Pistorius, owing to his two prostheses, gets out of the blocks slowly, the 400 is the race that suits him best. Neither the IOC nor track's governing body, the IAAF, has rules prohibiting a disabled runner from competing against able-bodied runners; in fact the IAAF has invited Pistorius to run in the 400 at a Grand Prix event in Helsinki in July.
Will it happen? Many predict that Pistorius will end up in a courtroom fighting endless protests. But others would welcome him. "If you can reach the time legally? You should be able to run," says Olympic 100-meter champ Justin Gatlin. "I'll race those guys. Marlon and [Pistorius] are pioneers. In a couple years you'll see Paralympians running times almost equivalent to mine. I take my hat off to them. They work twice as hard as me, and they have a lot more to worry about."
Pistorius has speed to burn, but are his prostheses unfairly long?