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Original Issue

Artificial Aid?

A new study says Oscar Pistorius's carbon fiber legs give him an edge

Eighteen months ago South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius's eligibility to compete against able-bodied runners seemed to have been confirmed once and for all. In May 2008 the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that Pistorius, who was born without lower legs, gained no unfair advantage from the crescent-shaped carbon fiber "Cheetahs" he runs on. Once cleared, Pistorius came within .3 of a second of qualifying for the Beijing Olympics in the 400 meters, then set his sights on the 2012 London Games.

But the Olympic dreams of the man known as the Blade Runner are again in danger with the publication last week of a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology that claims that the lightness of the Cheetahs—which weigh about half of what a lower leg does—allows Pistorius to stride 9.3% faster than the world's best 100-meter runners. "Oscar is off the charts," says Peter Weyand, one of the authors and an exercise physiologist at SMU. Weyand and co-author Matthew Bundle of the University of Wyoming estimate that Pistorius, who has a personal best of 46.25 in the 400, would be 10 seconds slower with normal legs, landing him in the realm of middling high school runners.

The study won't be easy to ignore, because Bundle and Weyand were part of a seven-scientist CAS team that last summer overturned a ban on Pistorius by the IAAF, track's governing body. Bundle and Weyand now say they knew that Pistorius had an advantage even before the CAS ruling. But they did not go public with their data at the time because instead of being asked by the CAS to examine the overall fairness of the Cheetahs, the scientists were told only to evaluate the IAAF's assertion that the Cheetahs returned energy to Pistorius unfairly. Neither the IAAF nor Pistorius has commented on the study, but one thing appears certain: The Blade Runner's path to London just got a little bumpier.


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TRIPLE PLAY Pistorius won three golds at the 2008 Paralympic Games.