Blade Runner Aug 1, 2012

by Rick Rader, MD

Most games come with instructions. This one is no different.

"At maximum speed, the head should be held high. Also the head should never sway from side to side and the jaws should be relaxed. The head should be in line with the torso and the torso should be in line with the legs at all times. Use the shoulders to pump the arms as fast as possible. The hands should be relaxed in unballed fists with the front hand rising up to about nose level and the back hand passing the buttocks. The faster the running speed, the higher the heel on the rear foot should kick up. At top speed, the drive (pushing) leg should be fully extended to the ground."

The game is "running," and the instructions simply coordinate with classical body mechanics to achieve optimal performance. The "instructions" are straightforward and apply to virtually all forms of running including short sprints, long range and marathon classes. And if you are going to play the running game, or any, game it's highly recommended that one follows the instructions. That is if one has legs.

For one runner, Oscar Pistorius, he was out of the game at the third sentence of the instructions.

"The head should be in line with the torso and the torso should be in line with the legs at all times." That would be fine if you had "legs at all times." Such was not the case for this South African.

Pistorius, known as the "Blade Runner," and "the fastest man on no legs," was born with congenital absence of the fibula in both legs. Before his first birthday his legs were amputated halfway between his knees and ankles. As a high school student he wrote his own "instructions" to playing several sports, including tennis, water polo, rugby and wrestling. In June 2003 he suffered a serious knee injury playing rugby (every injury is serious in rugby) and while he was rehabbing he was introduced to running and it became his sole focus. His motto is right out of each page of Exceptional Parent Magazine: "You're not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have."

He broke several records in the Paralympics World Cup championships, beating out competing runners with a single amputation. While this is indeed a "feel good story" of overcoming incredible obstacles and serves as an inspiration for everyone who has ever run until becoming breathless, it's not why I'm sharing his story.

The concept of "crossing over" is well known in music ("country to rock"), in dance ("ballet to jazz"), football ("offense to defense"), politics ("left to right"), writing ("fiction to non-fiction") and scores of other endeavors. Pistorius may well be a pioneer in "crossing over" from being a Paralympic athlete to an Olympic athlete.

Pistorius was recently named to South Africa's Olympic track team for this summer's London Games. He will become the first amputee to compete in track at the Olympics; a team spot which has not received universal approval in many athletic circles. The appointment has caused sports federation officials and fans to ponder, and obviously struggle with the "difference" between disabled and able-bodied athletes.

Pistorius "runs" on J-shaped carbon-fibre prosthetics called the "cheetah Flex-Foot" manufactured by an Icelandic company Ossur. The controversy stems from the belief that these "blades" provide Pistorius with an advantage over athletes with more mundane human legs. Opponents claim that his "bouncing" movement contributes to his need for less oxygen and fewer calories compared to able bodies (or should we offer, "disadvantaged intact") runners.

Oscar will not be the first disabled athlete to compete in the Olympics. A female swimmer with an above knee amputation competed in an open-water swimming event in the 2008 Beijing Games. She finished 16th and no one suggested that her single leg was an unfair advantage.

Of particular excitement will be his expected participation in both the London Olympics (400 meters and the 4X400 meter relay) followed by his running (or bouncing) in the London Paralympics (100, 200, 400 and 4 X100 relay).

Like all individuals with disabilities, Pistorius has had to fight his share of prejudice to be in a position to stir the stew at the International Olympic Committee to gain the right to compete. He was denied entry into the 2008 Games because researchers couldn't decide if his prosthetics provided an unfair advantage over "true legged" runners. Some naysayers cite that the absence of legs eliminates the potential for injury or strain. "Pistoris cannot get shin splints or a calf strain if he doesn't have shins or calves," observed Dan Levy writing for the Bleacher Report.

One of the byproducts of his emergence is the answer to a long running physiological question, "Is running an intuitive activity or is it a complex series of motor patterns?" The answer is "yes," it is both.
But, perhaps, the answer to a bigger question has emerged regarding the need for reading the instructions for any game.

"Everything you need is already inside."

Run Oscar Run.

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