View Full Version : Re: amputee sprinter

05-20-2007, 05:49 AM
Hi all,

I only lurk on biomech-l periodically, but this topic and subsequent
discussion really caught my attention.

I'll prefix by saying I would *love* to see Oscar run in the Olympics
and hate to say anything to discourage it. I think it *should*
happen, but not as part of the current 100m event. Instead, it should
be a separate 100m event class: the first(?) fully-peered "disabled"
event in the Olympics proper (vs. the Paralympic games). To me, this
seems to address many problems, both technical and political. It's
also a possible initial step on a path to (eventual)
Olympic-Paralympic integration IF that's desirable (I personally think
so, but it's not my opinion that matters). More below.

First, a few thoughts I *think* haven't been directly noted (fully, in
any case). My apologies if they have and I've missed them; I've tried
to read & catch up on the many good responses diligently. A great
topic and lots of fantastic points, BTW -- well done, all (especially
Ton, for helping "instigate" [in a positive sense!] so well :-)

In particular, I love the points re "purity of sport" and the "Olympic
principles of inclusion and inspiration". We are, after all, talking
about the Olympics.

The thoughts:

Reduced weight and some other potential mechanical advantages of
runners like Oscar have been noted. The weight/moment factor alone,
noted by Joel Perry (maybe others as well?), seems huge to me, even if
current prostheses aren't yet able to fully exploit it, but I *think*
two factors haven't been highlighted fully:
1. potential advantages during training, as well as competition;
2. energy/equivalence arguments *may* not be relevant, even if proven "fair"

Joel also pointed out the issue of "able-bodied" athletes body parts
surviving the high stress of near-maximal performance. IMO it's worth
noting that this also applies to training. *Potential* hamstring,
achilles or other injuries seem to be ever-present factors, maybe even
limiting factors, in training, at times. Prosthetics users will have
different potential injury factors, but any "fair equivalence" is
unclear. Steroids and other related substances enable higher training
loads and are banned, for example (not to say that they are directly

Athletes using prostheses (note that I did NOT say disabled!) may have
significant advantage here both in training and competitive
performance (as well as disadvantages). Could external (or one day
even internal or hybrid) synthetic fibre functional "tendons" or
"ligaments" help mitigate weakest-link injuries allowing higher
performance? Synthetic joints? (& combinations thereof?) I think a key
point is that IF these would be disallowed for a competing field of
"able-bodied" athletes, allowing it for "disabled" athletes competing
directly with able-bodied athletes seems unfair. Similar prostheses
adapted to able-bodied runners would be illegal (according to the
noted "shoes with springs" rule) and as far as I know is untested, but
so-called "power stilts" are a current, clear, if more crude, example.
These are passive fibreglass-spring stilts which enable much higher
leaping heights and running speeds than unassisted. I don't know if
shoes which only extend the leg would be legal -- it seems hard to
argue that they wouldn't have explicit "springs" of some form. On the
other hand, could the soles of any sprint shoes currently in
competition use be considered spring-like (from the contact area)?

So far a primary goal of prostheses has been to restore or match
equivalent function as much as possible. This seems mainly because we
just haven't really been quite as good as nature... yet. Make the
function very specific and we can probably already surpass it in some
cases. This _will_ become more general.

For an athelete with part of the lower leg(s) missing, we are
effectively replacing part of the body with an artificial functional
unit. Eventually this will be able to exploit potential advantages.
Consider a mechanism that optimally varies effective leg length, to
reduce the moment of the return leg, say passively, for the sake of
argument -- is it still "fair"? Extend to above-knee amputees
(eventually). There's even an argument that this could potentially be
_electronically_ controlled (& thus much "smarter") in a "technically
fair", but probably not "fair in spirit", way -- if the power came
from the athlete's at-the-time motion. I'm not even certain if that's
still purely "future work", but it's surely not *too* far off.
There's a lot of kinetic energy in a sprint to play with trading off a
small percentage of it well, maybe even for "able-bodied" runners
(e.g. with some form of online "bio-cues" for optimal performance?).

Regarding an upper-body amputee sprinter competing, personally, I
think that's fine with no prostheses, but that upper-body prostheses
could have similar (but probably reduced) advantages.

Regarding energy-equivalence arguments, different events can have
equivalent energy or power requirements but should "clearly" still be
separate events -- in a sense, this is the very basis of most event
classifications. A swimming vs. running sprint is a somewhat
ridiculous example, to make the point. The distinction between
"traditional" and "skating" techniques in cross-country skiing events
in the winter Olympics is a more compelling example. This takes away
nothing, of course, from the great discussion on how best to do this
evaluation if it's considered salient.

I think it's, unfortunately, too *potentially* unfair to allow direct
head-to-head in this way, however inspirational and inclusive it may
be, especially when you consider that the Olympics and IOC are
inherently "long term" in outlook. Whatever you choose to call it,
it's effectively just too *different*. Different, not [dis]abled.

Which leads nicely to my proposed solution:

1. Have (add) a separate double-amputee class 100m sprint event in the

2. IF there is effective consensus that Paralympic and Olympic events
should (eventually) be integrated: remove the event *from* the
Paralympic games - the first full step in the transition, regardless
of how long it will take.
Note: this is a purely political issue I'd rather support competitive
athletes' preference on. I'm not one myself, so I include it as part
of the greater "golden opportunity" I'm suggesting technical
justification (and some political opportunity) for.

3. Do it for 2008. Great potential benefits are there now; deferring
it risks being too late.

4. Promote it like crazy, hopefully making pretty much everybody happy
(win-win-win-win :-).

IOC and/or related governing bodies: if you do it for 2008, give
yourself a very well-earned pat on the back. Really.

I think doing this would maintain whichever form(s) of the "Olympic
spirit" you prefer, addresses many hairy political issues quite well,
and may even help pave the way to meaningful
"assistive-whatever-you-like" competition down the road ("able-bodied"
or not -- make the distinctions fairly categorical, not

Some thoughts on political and "Olympic principles" issues, since I
feel they do relate both back, to technical issues, and ahead, to
future biomech-related research and technology development:

Foregoing direct head-to-head competition, could be viewed as a
"concession", but I think that the strong symbolic gesture & direction
alone could do and mean _much_ more for *all* so-called "disabled"
athletes, going forward, than any few individuals competing
head-to-head in any particular, probably questionably fair, and
politically fraught event. IMO, the proposed solution offers:
1. The first-ever (I think) official Olympic event for so-called
"disabled" athletes; one which may have the potential to actually
exceed unassisted human performance;
2. A (potential) clear path to eventual integration of the Paralympic
and Olympic games, on a piece-wise, "as appropriate" basis; if
desirable, this may be much a more likely path than doing it en-masse
- and what better event to first do this with than the current marquee
event of the Olympics? (!)
3. On a more distant time horizon: a potential path (again, if
desired) to evaluate and advise competitive consideration of various
"biomechanically assistive performance technologies" that will surely
come along, as we push human performance limits. Who would be
surprised if future athletic disciplines of *public* interest involve
increasingly tightly integrated technology and surpass unassisted
human abilities? This is surely of *eventual* Olympic interest, even
if it is resisted initially. This opens the door to testing those in
a way that will hopefully be of wider general benefit.

That most or all competitors (in the new 2008 double-amputee 100m
sprint) will probably perform well below the typical levels of the
marquee event doesn't matter. The top sprinters of some countries far
under-perform those that don't even make the national team in others.
That's the Olympic inclusion principle - everybody gets to compete if
they meet the standards bar _in the appropriate designated event(s)_.
The cross-country skiing styles is an example again. The clap-skate
is another which was also handled differently, but may even one day
spawn a "traditional" event(?).

Regarding inspiration, what about when (if) a "disabled" athlete one
day shatters the human-propelled speed record? At some point, the
tables may even be exactly reversed, and the entire field of the 100m
assisted/amputee (and/or maybe the assisted/non-amputee?) race(s) will
blow away the top "unassisted" 100m sprinter and become the hallmark
event of the games. *That* would be landmark, but that's what I'd bet
on. I can't wait! ("Disability, schmisability!" :-)

In the meantime, the Olympics would be taking a positive, proactive
direction and essentially bypass some of the political quagmire that
the spectre of head-to-head competition raises, in a way that would
hopefully lead to wide-spread (higher/faster/stronger) technological
benefits for everyday real people with disabilities & related
challenges. The main exception, politically, being the issue of
whether to begin "splitting off" Paralympic events.

In fact, even head-to-head is still possible, outside the Olympics, or
in an "open" 100m event, perhaps better left to a future point,
if/when enough assisted-device sprinters approach and might surpass
unassisted Olympic competitive performance levels. That could be
quite a spectacular draw during the "transition period", if it ever

One thing I do hope is that IF there's strong consensus in principle
among the athletes for eventual integration of Olympic and Paralympic
events, and if the propsed approach seems sound, that all hands pull
together to help make it happen. The logistics alone, of shooting for
2008, will be challenging enough, and if "assistive device" runners do
eventually outpace unassisted runners, it *may* be a much more thorny
issue for 2012, with the "transition" possibly already even well

My $.02 (perhaps $.04), for what it's worth. Sorry if I've gone a
little overboard with the length and any rhetoric; the topic got me
positively fired up. :-)
Please feel free to criticize as appropriate.

Also, while I don't ever recall seeing or hearing such a suggestion
previously, if it pre-exists, please note it & advise me to attribute
credit appropriately(!)

Cheers! (& thanks again for the great discussion!)

Joe Laszlo
Ph.D. Candidate, Dept. of CS
Dynamic Graphics Project
University of Toronto
[ but I speak only for myself, of course ]

On 5/18/07, BIOMCH-L automatic digest system wrote:
> There are 12 messages totalling 1182 lines in this issue.
> Topics of the day:
> 1. Biomechanics of the Lower LImb - Early Bird Registration
> 2. Last Minute Reminder - 2007 Injury Biomechanics Symposium
> 3.
> 4. amputee sprinter (7)
> 5. Quantifying Spasticity Using Isokinetic Dynamometry
> 6. PhD Positions at the University of Southampton, United Kingdom
> ---------------------------------------------------------------
> Information about BIOMCH-L: http://www.Biomch-L.org
> Archives: http://listserv.surfnet.nl/archives/Biomch-L.html
> ---------------------------------------------------------------