Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius was involved in a controversial outburst following an unexpected defeat in the 200m finals at the Paralympics in London on Sunday 2 September. Pistorius was the obvious favourite to win the race and took a massive lead over the first 100 metres. To the amazement of the crowd and the commentators, Brazilian double-amputee, Alan Oliveira, stormed the last 100 metres and took gold in a photo finish. Pistorius had never before been beaten in the 200m at the Paralympics and was visibly upset. Soon after, Pistorius questioned the fairness of the competition by suggesting Oliveira’s blades were too long. In a surprising interview, Pistorius was quoted as saying, “I’m not taking anything away from Alan’s performance but these guys are a lot taller and you can’t compete with the stride length.”
He went on to say, “You saw how far he came back. We aren’t running a fair race.” These comments sparked a massive media reaction, taking the shine away from the actual winner of the race. Oliveira, who won silver in Beijing four years ago, was more conservative in his own public response to the situation, “I think this whole polemic (contentious debate) is about Oscar Pistorius, not about me. My blades are within the legal length.”
Pistorius, soon after, released an apology for the timing of the comments but still maintained that “there [was] an issue.” The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) then announced that Pistorius would not face any disciplinary action. They also acknowledged that his concerns over the issue of blade length should not just be dismissed. “Clearly we don’t want athletes on stilts,” Communications Director of the IPC Craig Spence said the following day. However, the IPC did insist that the length of Oliveira’s blades were within the required limits.
The formula used to determine the length of blades takes into account the predicted height of an athlete, body proportions and other considerations. In order to be allowed to compete in the Paralympics, all athletes must comply with the requirements regarding blade length. The issue of whether Oliveira’s blades being slightly longer than Pistorius’s gave him an unfair advantage is a contentious debate.
But Pistorius’s claims about not being able to compete with Oliveira’s stride length are incorrect, according to Guardian Sport’s Jonathan Wilson. Wilson reports that Pistorius actually took longer strides than the Brazilian. “It turns out that Pistorius took 92 steps during the race (2,2m per stride), and Oliveira took 98 steps to win gold (2m per stride),” Wilson reports. To break it down further: in the first 100m, Pistorius took 49 steps (2,0m per stride), with 43 steps in the straight (2,3m per stride), while Oliveira took shorter strides: 52 in the first 100m (1,92m each) and 46 in the second 100m (2,2m each). This points to the fact that the key to Oliveira’s success was not stride length, as Pistorius suggested, but rather stride rate, which is determined by how fast the athlete moves his legs. As for how Oliveira managed to haul back the massive lead Pistorius had, it simply comes down to stride rate. Pistorius himself has won many races in similar fashion.
Meanwhile, the IPC has agreed to a meeting with Pistorius to allow him the opportunity to raise his issues. “What we need to do is have a formal meeting with all the experts in the room,” Craig Spence said. “Oscar might propose some changes, but out of credit to the athlete, who has done so much for the Paralympics,” he added.
The answer may lie in introducing standardised blades that are identical in composition and length to be used by all competitors, so that there can be no claim of one competitor having an unfair advantage. Similar to swimming world governing body, FINA’s introduction of the mandatory “textile suit” following a barrage of world records being set in swimsuit manufacturer, Speedo’s, controversial “LZR” suit, that was said to reduce drag and increase buoyancy. Since the textile suits were introduced in 2010, there have been far fewer world records set in the pool, with only eight set at the London Olympics compared to 17 being set at the 2009 FINA World Championships. A similar regulation enforcing the use of standardised blades could restore some credibility to the sport.