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Pistorius setback opens debate on how good artificial limbs really are

Since the aspiring discus thrower lost his left leg above the knee in a 1991 car accident, De Keersmaeker has been amazed by the advances achieved in prosthetic limbs.

india Updated: Jan 18, 2008 22:26 IST
Raf Casert
Raf Casert

Little is more graceful or fluid in sports than the swirl of power and speed of a discus thrower. Gino De Keersmaeker is approaching that agility _ on one leg. Keersmaeker's spin across the discus circle shows the amazing strides artificial limbs have made to raise the level of disabled athletes to the point where they can rival or, some say, even surpass able-bodied competitors.

"Prosthetic limbs are becoming good enough that they can even be superior to normal limbs," said Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. This week, double amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius was denied at shot at the Beijing Olympics because his carbon-fiber racing blades were deemed to go beyond mere prosthetics and into the realm of human enhancement.

"As prostheses continue to improve, you might have a situation 10 or 20 years from now in which it is impossible for anybody to win who does not have a prosthetic limb,' Bostrom said in defense of Pistorius' exclusion by the International Association of Athletics Federations.

"We don't want a situation where you have to amputate your leg to be an Olympic runner."

De Keersmaeker, a Paralympic gold medalist, winces at the thought.

"They create something that approaches the quality of the real thing. But hey, give me my own foot anytime," he said as he swiveled his remaining natural foot.

Since the aspiring discus thrower lost his left leg above the knee in a 1991 car accident, De Keersmaeker has been amazed by the advances achieved in prosthetic limbs. His latest model artificial leg, made by Otto Bock, the renowned German prosthetic technology company, was especially made for him two years ago and now allows the Belgian athlete to dream of recapturing Paralympic gold at 38. "I would never believe I'd ever be able to spin on a throw again," he said after a practice session completing the full spin. "I could not on my previous protheses. It was like driving a car on three wheels."

Still, it's far from making him a better athlete than he was with his real leg.

"When I go to sleep, I still have to put my leg next to my bed," he said. "Who knows in the future? With donors in the future, it might be possible I walk with two legs again." Such dreams by far surpass the limits of sport, and many feel this is where the IAAF went wrong in denying Pistorius a chance at competing in Beijing.

"Why not give him a shot? It is not as if he will win gold. He is not a threat to anyone," said De Keersmaeker, who knows Pistorius.

The South African's personal best in the 400 meters is 46.56 seconds, while Michael Johnson's world record stands at 43.18. "It is much more important for someone who lost a leg to see him run in Beijing and say: 'Yes, I will start sports'," De Keersmaeker said.

The IAAF said, however, it was important at this stage to draw a line where human technology starts to get the better of nature. In two days of tests in November on Pistorius, German Professor Gert-Peter Brueggemann said he found several indicators that Pistorius's Cheetah blades provided an unfair edge, with a mechanical advantage of more than 30 percent compared to someone not using the devices.

Ossur, the Icelandic company which produces the blades, strongly disagrees.

"If we are going to exclude terrific sportsmen that once in a while, through a glitch of nature, excel, we must base it on much more work than two days study," said Ossur CEO Jon Sigurdsson. "I am not degrading the test but we must base it on more," he said in a telephone interview.

Even though amazing technological strides continue to be made, Sigurdsson insisted they are still far from making prosthetics that work better than human limbs.

"It is a very humbling experience to try to imitate God's work," he said. "We are a very long way from making things better than the original."