When Medical Devices Are Too Good

Sprinter Oscar Pistorius, of South Africa, is set to become the first double amputee to run in the Olympics, but his path to the games has been rife with controversy. Even now, just a couple of days before the opening ceremony, debate about whether he should be able to compete rages on.

At the heart of the controversy are the two Flex-Foot Cheetah prosthetics that Pistorius will use to compete. A 2007 German study found that the devices give him an unfair advantage over his competitors, leading the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) to ban him from competing in the Olympics. But with the help of a lawyer, Pistorius proved that the study was flawed.

A second study, conducted at Rice University, found that Pistorius uses oxygen the same as other runners, although he moves differently because of his prosthetics. Based on those findings, the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland reversed the IAAF's decision, opening the door for Pistorius to run in the Beijing games. However, his time was not good enough to qualify for the 2008 Olympics.

That changed earlier this month, when the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee announced that Pistorius would compete for the country in the 400 m and 4 x 400 m relay races at this year’s games in London.

Pistorius’s inclusion on the South African team has not ended the controversy. Michael Johnson, the American who holds the 400 m Olympic record, has said he doesn’t believe Pistorius or other runners with prosthetics should be able to compete in the games. As Scientific American reports, even the scientists who conducted the study that enabled him to compete are at odds as to whether he has an advantage over other runners.

Pistorius's 4x 400 m relay team took home the silver medal at last year’s World Championships, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll earn a medal at this year’s Olympics.

One sure winner in all of this is Össur, the maker of Pistorius’s prosthetics. You can’t get much better press than an international debate over whether your prosthetic legs are better than the real things.

 

Jamie Hartford is the associate editor of MD+DI. Follow her on Twitter @readMED.