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Oscar Pistorius, Advancements in Prosthetics Set Precedent for Future of Paralympians

August 29, 2012


The story of Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic sprinter nicknamed "Blade Runner" for his prosthetic lower legs, is an inspiration to those who see it. But there are those who are inspired in a completely different way by his story, and as a result, may very well produce prosthetic devices that may one day mean the end of the Paralympics as we know them.

How could prosthetic devices produce such a drastic result? Simple: by making prosthetic devices every bit as good as those of Pistorius, and better – so much so to allow Paralympians to compete on the same level as able-bodied athletes.

While Pistorius didn't make it to the medal stand this time, it stands to reason that as prosthetics improve, and the current Paralympians that use them do so themselves, they will not only be on par with the current crop of Olympians, but potentially even better.

Sheffield Hallam University's David James, of the Centre for Sports Engineering Research, described future prosthetic devices like powered knee joints, or powered ankle joints that could improve performance past normal competitive levels. Nanotube and carbon fiber construction, as well as improved designs, could not only make limb replacements lighter than ordinary biological limbs, but stronger and capable of producing more overall power than even the best-developed Olympian's limbs.

This, however, has already stirred controversy over what should be permitted in competition, and what’s nothing more than an “unfair advantage.” Pistorius himself has faced these accusations for years, but tests have yet to prove his lower legs are of the latter.

All the same, his struggle to remain a legal competitor hasn’t at all shrouded the precedent his case has made for what may bring Paralympians closer to operating at full capacity. Often, though, the same design quirks that make these limb replacements powerful, top-end tools leave them ill-suited for the demands of a perfect physical lifestyle.

Oscar Pistorius competed at the London Olympics in the 400-meter dash and the 4x400 meter relay for South Africa. Image via Shutterstock

Still, though, the research involved in developing tools for the top-end athlete can often pay unexpected dividends in advancements for the more standard equipment. In some cases, car manufacturers have begun working with wheelchair makers to improve designs for wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball, making them lightweight and agile – properties that would be every bit as useful for the standard wheelchair as well.

While suggesting prosthetic advancement may end the Paralympics as we know them may be a bit excessive, it's clear that the advancements in prosthetics may eventually send Paralympic competitors to the Olympics themselves – much like Oscar Pistorius. Whether they would continue to compete in the Paralympics as well, or devote themselves full-time toward Olympic pursuits, remains to be seen.

But the thought of the Paralympics as we know them gone is one that's entirely possible.

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Edited by Braden Becker