Science-- there's something for everyone

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Cheetah legs can make people go faster

Update August 2012: 
Oscar Pistorius was indeed allowed to participate in the 2012 London Olympics. He made it to the semi-finals in the men's 400 meter and ran the anchor leg in the men's 4 x 400 meter relay.
You let a double amputee beat you in a foot race?
If the amputee in question is Oscar Pistorius using his 'Cheetah legs', you most likely did!

Oscar Pistorius was born in South Africa in 1986 with a congenital absence of both fibulas. As a result, he had both his legs amputated when he was 11 months old. Nevertheless, he excelled at a variety of sports, switching to running after shattering his knee in rugby. He won gold and bronze at the 2004 Paralympic games, and set his sights on the Beijing Olympic games.

Unfortunately for him, in 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) passed a regulation banning the use of prosthetics, stating that they gave their users an unfair advantage. They based this decision in part on a study by Gert-Peter Brüggemann. Pistorius appealed this decision, and it was later reversed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The South African Olympic Committee allowed him to try out for the 2008 team. He did not qualify. Instead, he returned to the Paralmpics that year, winning two golds.

The question is: was the IAAF right or wrong in assuming that prosthetics can give athletes an advantage?

Peter Weyand of Southern Methodist University and Matthew Bundle of the University of Wyoming published a study stating that Pistorius would indeed have an advantage over runners with intact legs. The difference comes partly from the decreased weight of his legs, the cheetah legs he uses allows him to reposition his legs much more quickly than the heavier flesh and blood limbs his competitor’s use. By one estimate, he can reposition his legs at least 15% more rapidly. This can be a huge advantage in a sport that is measured in centiseconds. In addition, the lightweight springs on the cheetahs reduce the amount of muscle force required to half that of intact limbs. This confirmed the results found earlier by Gert-Peter Brüggemann.

It is unclear how this will affect Pistorius's chances to compete in 2112. If he is allowed to compete, will there be a rash of athletes converting their lower limbs to artificial ones? And we thought drug use was problematic!

Photo of Oscar Pistorius, taken by Elvar Pálsson in Kópavogur, Iceland, 7/8/2007.