Amputee Exercise – Prosthetics in Sport – Part 3

So we ended last with asking, “Is having NO legs an advantage when sprinting?”

On the face of it, such a question sounds ludicrous, how could it be an advantage for sprinting when your feet are not your own?

So back to Oscar Pistorius … with Oscar’s performances improving prior to the meet in South Korea in 2011, there had been numerous attempts to either sanction his competing in able bodied athletic competitions or to ban him from them.

Are his “legs”, prosthetic legs or assistive devices?

This is an important distinction for participation in the Olympic Games.  Without them, he doesn’t have legs to run on, with them, some claim he has an unfair advantage.

Oscar’s participation in both pre-olympic and paralympic competitions raises some interesting issues. Against able bodied runners his carbon fibre sprint flex feet undeniably offer energy return, he can’t develop lactate in them and some say his stride length is artificially increased.  Stride length has been an issue in past paralympic competitions when a bilateral competitor was made taller than he would have been with anatomical legs, thus artificially increasing his stride length and speed.  The prosthetic height of bilateral amputees must now be commensurate with anthropometric measurements of able bodied limb length.

On the other side of the coin, an amputee will tell you about the lack of “proprioception” – knowing where you are in space – having lost your foot/ankle mechanism, your reduced muscle mass and the requirement for increased proximal control to walk, let alone sprint – none of these things can be seen as advantages.  Oscar’s bilateral carbon fibre feet mean that he is necessarily slower out of the starting blocks and unable to stay “lower for longer” as we see in sprint competition, but may be an advantage as the length of his races increases.

In Paralympic sprint competition bilateral trans-tibial amputees have greater symmetry in their sprinting gait, when compared to their unilateral trans-tibial competitors. A congenital amputee has had a lifetime to adjust and perfect their loco-motor technique versus those who have more recently acquired their amputation. Should there be considerations for this in paralympic classification? Currently there are not.

The jury is still out on Oscar’s alleged advantages and there have been interesting studies in the literature supporting both sides of the argument.  One problem with some of the studies of the amputee mechanics of such elite performance is that Oscar is a population of N =1. We will see later this year at the London Paralympics if that population grows with other outstanding bilateral trans-tibial amputee performances.

Please leave your comments, feeback and suggestions in the space below.

Until next time …. Cathy …. The Amputee Coach

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