In 2008, double amputee Oscar Pistorius of South Africa successfully lobbied for the right to race on carbon fiber blades in IAAF events, including the Olympic Games. Four years later he became the first amputee to run against able-bodied competition at the Olympics when he competed in the 400 meters in London.


This year German long jumper Markus Rehm attempted to qualify for the Rio Olympics, but officials, concerned that his artificial leg conferred an unfair advantage, did not permit him to compete. Half a century after the first Paralympic Games, in Rome, in 1960, the distinction between disability and ability is disappearing.

Rehm, a right-leg amputee, won gold in the long jump at the London Paralympics and will be back to defend that title in Brazil. Last October he set the world record in his disability classification, jumping 8.4 meters, just 21.5 centimeters short of the able-bodied world record (set in 1991 by Mike Powell) and nine centimeters longer than the gold medal jump of Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford in London.


A study Rehm commissioned found that amputees had less efficient run starts but more efficient jumps. Since the IAAF requires proof of no advantage, the finding worked against Rehm’s case.


“The ability of a prosthetic limb to be considered better than a ‘human’ limb,” says Legg, “well, what does that lead to?”


Some athletes already risk their long-term health by taking powerful performance-enhancing drugs but would any go so far as to replace a limb to find an edge?


In theory, an athlete could switch out a prosthesis for one that might be better suited to a specific action, according to Ranjit Steiner, who had his right leg amputated six years ago because of bone cancer. Now working at LIM Innovations, a company that makes prosthetic sockets, Steiner has set his sights on running track at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020.


“You’re changing out the components,” Ranjit says, “or you’re changing out the height or whatever for different activities.”


Increasing leg length has two competing effects on running biomechanics. While stride length increases, the runner’s turnover rate typically decreases because longer legs are heavier. Speed, therefore, doesn’t necessarily increase. But the Össur Flex-Foot Cheetah running blade, the prostheses Pistorius used in London, weighs just 1.13 pounds.


A rough estimate based on population averages suggests that each of Pistorius’s natural legs below the knee should actually weigh at least 10 times that much. Amputee sprinters can therefore increase stride length with minimal impact on turnover, boosting their top speed.


The IPC has regulations that restrict an amputee’s maximum height—using parts of the body, including wingspan, to determine what natural height might be—but accusations that amputees are gaining an unfair advantage persist.


At the London Games, Pistorius finished second in his 400-meter heat but last in his semifinal. One month later, chasing a third-straight Paralympic 200-meter gold, Pistorius was beaten by double-amputee Alan Oliveira of Brazil. Despite a slow start, the then 20-year-old Oliveira, who had switched to taller blades (by four centimetres) just three weeks before the Games, cruised by Pistorius at the line.


“We’re not racing a fair race here,” Pistorius said immediately afterwards. “The IPC have their regulations, but the regulations [allow] athletes to make themselves unbelievably high.” Despite Pistorius’s objections, Oliveira’s prostheses were within IPC rules.


According to Peter Van de Vliet, the current medical and scientific director of the IPC, the rules governing maximum height have been re-evaluated since London and will change again after Rio. “The new formula … in effect will mean that the athletes will be less tall,” Van de Vliet says.


Henderson, who had her right leg amputated when she was nine because of a soft-tissue tumor, often competes against double-amputees. “It’s getting a little crazy,” she says. “These girls are tall. You’re looking at them eye level when you’re walking, and when they put on their racing legs, they’re almost a foot taller than you.”


As a single-leg amputee, Henderson’s height is fixed, arguably putting her at a disadvantage in events that include both single- and double-amputees. But do single-amputees Henderson and Rehm, with their lighter-than-natural carbon-fiber legs, have an advantage over athletes with two legs made from flesh and bone?


Maybe, says Robert Riener, Head of the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zürich, a university in Switzerland. Still, the idea that an able-bodied athlete would choose to replace a biological limb with a mechanical one is far-fetched.


Riener is the brains behind the Cybathlon, an event that mixes an XPRIZE-like engineering contest with an athletic competition. The ultimate aim is to drive innovations in biomechanical science and increase accessibility for those with disabilities.


“[Rehm] might be better performing with his prosthetic leg, when compared to other [able-bodied] athletes,” Riener says. “But when you see him walking, he has a very asymmetric gait.” Unlike able-bodied athletes, Rehm cannot generate power from muscles in his lower right leg, and motorized prostheses are not allowed in either the Olympics or the Paralympics. Even with a gold medal at stake, Riener believes that no one would sacrifice a healthy leg for a faster 40 time.


Riener’s goal is to solve the problems created by all types of disabilities. “At the Paralympics, powered devices are not allowed,” Riener says, “and that automatically excludes, for example, tetraplegic patients because they cannot move their arms or feet.”


Among the events at the Cybathlon this fall will be a video-game race in which competitors control avatars by brainwaves, and a recumbent bike race in which electrical stimulation engages paralyzed riders’ muscles so they can pedal bikes around a track.


This year, the Cybathlon is scheduled to take place in Zurich a month after the Rio Paralympics. Riener hopes, in 2020, to hold the Games of the II Cybathlon in Tokyo after the Games of the XVI Paralympiad. Who knows, by 2028 or ’32, perhaps there will be only one Games, for competitors of all abilities—or disabilities?


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Article was originally published as: Can technology make para-athletes better than able-bodied athletes?


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