Dominic Lawson: Oscar Pistorius is magnificent – but you should have legs to compete


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The Independent Online

It's not the taking part that counts, but the winning. This inversion of what we were taught as children about sport is the real truth about top-flight athletics – especially since it is amateur only in the sense that Lord Mandelson remains true to the communist ideals of his youth.

On the other hand there is Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter who yesterday failed to qualify for the 400m final at the Athletics World Championship in Daegu, South Korea. Pistorius finished last in his semi-final heat but afterwards seemed exhilarated, saying it had been an "unbelievable experience". His enthusiasm was matched by that of the South Korean spectators who screamed "We love you, Oscar". He is a bigger star, now, than any of those who qualified. The reason for that is that Pistorius is a double amputee, the result of a severe congenital abnormality which led his parents to have his legs cut off below the knee at the age of 11 months.

Yet, with the aid of prosthetic attachments designed especially for speed on the race-track, Pistorius has become one of the world's swiftest 400 metre-runners, ranked 18th-fastest going into these championships. For someone whose parents were told he might never be able to walk, this is an achievement which has earned him the admiration of millions – not to mention quite a bit of money: this month he was named the new face of Thierry Mugler's A*Men fragrance. The French parfumier declared Pistorius the perfect fit, because "The story of A*Men is one of heroic fantasy. It evokes inner strength, determination, power and charisma."

Still there is an outraged minority in and around the world of athletics who regard all this as preposterous: not just the vacuous guff that serves for marketing in the fragrance business, but the right of Pistorius to compete at all (apart from the non-able-bodied events which he dominates with ease). They have long argued that the South African's Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fibre prostheses (made by an Icelandic firm that also manufactures helicopter rotor blades) give him an unfair advantage. In 2007 the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) seemed to agree, after receiving a report from Professor Gert-Peter Bruggemann which found that Pistorius's prosthetics allowed him to use 25 per cent less energy than able-bodied athletes to run at the same pace. He is much slower off the blocks, but the extraordinary lightness and bounce of the sweeping carbon-fibre blades more than make up for that during the latter part of races, when athletes in possession of much heavier real legs tend to hit a wall of lactic acid.

A year later, for reasons which were not made crystal clear, the IAAF revoked their earlier decision to accept the findings of the report they had commissioned, so Pistorius was free to take part in the world championships. Perhaps surprisingly, Professor Bruggemann seemed less outraged than Pistorius' fellow South African, Dr Ross Tucker, a senior lecturer in Exercise and Sport Management at the University of Capetown. Earlier this month Tucker said "I think [Pistorius] gets an enormous advantage and two of his own scientists who did the testing to clear him recently published a paper saying that he had a ten-second advantage... the decision that cleared him was a complete farce, scientifically."

If I were a cynical man, I might suggest that the IAAF loves the media attention that Pistorius brings to athletics; and since it is a very remote chance that even with his Cheetah Flex-Foot accoutrements he could capture a gold medal at the Olympics, why not pander to public sentiment (not to mention advertisers such as Thierry Mugler)? For what it's worth, I think they are mistaken. Each year, prosthetics becomes more sophisticated, so much so that Hugh Herr, head of biomechatronics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a supporter of Pistorius, has said: "in future people will be running faster in the Paralympics than in the Olympics... regular old arms and legs will seem dull."

The problem is, given the confusion even at current levels of technology, there will be no obvious point at which all can agree that a runner with prostheses has an undeniably unfair advantage over "regular old arms and legs". Pistorius's backers say that any able-bodied athlete who feels hard done by can use the same methods: but as that would involve radical surgery, it seems unlikely that many will want to try.

At the risk of being a spoilsport, surely the time has come to insist that those taking part in able-bodied athletics should do so without anything attached to their lower limbs beyond standardised running shoes. That would reduce the magnificent Pistorius to a grotesque hobble; but at least he could remain a supreme Paralympian, once reattached to his Cheetah Flex-Feet.

Coincidentally, another South African athlete at the World Athletics Championship is providing a different headache for those concerned about "fairness": Caster Semenya, winner of the women's world 800 metre championship in 2009, but later banned following so-called "sex-verification tests". Degrading as these must have been for the unfortunate Semenya, anyone who has seen or heard her would understand why such tests were called for. Her infuriated Italian rival, Elisa Piccione, was not alone in describing her as "a man". Yet, as in Pistorius's case, the IAAF has revoked its earlier ban, and Semenya is competing in Daegu.

It seems that modern biology has uncovered a substantial grey area within the definition of sexual identity, so it is not enough simply to declare "I know a man/woman when I see him/her". For example, there is Swyer Syndrome, in which a person appears entirely female, but has the male XY chromosomes and no functioning ovaries. Then there is congenital adrenal hyperplasia, where such high levels of androgens are produced that someone with female XX chromosomes and ovaries appears externally to be male.

There is, therefore, only one clear-cut solution to the problem of Semenya – and all related issues. There should be no segregation between men and women, just a single championship of events for the entire sexual continuum. May the best person win.