The Top Sports Science Stories of 2012: Oscar Pistorius Has His Olympic Moment

South African sprinter becomes the first double amputee to run in the Olympics

Jan 7, 2013
Outside Magazine

Oscar Pistorius.    Photo: Karva Javi/Flickr

The raw athletic performances of the 2012 Olympics are easy to list. Jamaican Usain Bolt dominated the 100m and 200m for the second Olympics in a row, easily reclaiming the crown of world’s fastest man. Manteo Mitchell running his leg of the 4x400 with a broken femur, helping the United States relay team to gold. Swimmer Michael Phelps touched the wall six times to win medals, four of them gold, as he racked up the most medals for any one Olympian in history, with 22.

South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius only had to line up to hit people in the gut. No other Olympian had to fight a longer, more contentious legal and scientific battle just to compete. In order to step onto the track for the 400-meter sprint in London, the double amputee had to wage a marathon of a public fight.

The science behind his battle has been well documented—at issue was whether carbon fibers blades gave Pistorius a competitive advantage. In 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations banned him from competition after Peter Brüggemann, a professor of biomechanics at the German Sports University in Cologne, said Pistorius’ blades allowed him to use 25 percent less energy than able-bodied athletes. Pistorius appealed the decision with the Court for the Arbitration of Sport. A group of six scientists including conducted more tests.* Two testified to the CAS that Pistorius’ performance fell within the range of an able-bodied athlete. The arbitration panel overturned the IAAF decision and the door opened for Pistorius to compete in the Olympics—if he could qualify. Two scientists from the group later declared that Pistorius had an advantage, but it didn’t change anything. Pistorius qualified.

The debate didn’t stop, nor will it. The debate actually picked up after the Olympics, when Pistorius competed in the Paralympics. In the 200m finals, Brazilian Alan Oliveira flew by the South African in the straightaway to take the gold. Pistorius cried foul, saying the length of his competitor’s blades gave him an unfair advantage. He later apologized, but the comment relit the debate over prosthetics. All of that is getting ahead of the moment.

On August 4, before the preliminary heat in the men’s 400m, the crowd roared for Pistorius. He quietly put his carbon fiber blades into the starting blocks, and people waited for the gun, prepared to watch a man without both of his legs do something he had fought for years to be able—never mind allowed—to do: run against the world’s best athletes on the world’s biggest stage.

*This article originally state that nine scientists conducted tests. That was wrong. It has been changed to say that six scientists conducted tests.