Sport, like life, is in constant need of regeneration. New talent, fresh personalities and role models are regularly required to augment, and eventually replace, the established order.

So there will be plenty of newcomers alongside the champions at the IAAF Super Grand Prix athletics meeting in Sheffield, northern England, on Sunday. Among the neophytes will be Tyson Gay, the latest US sprinting sensation, who will be joining Olympic gold medallists such as Carolina Klüft, Liu Xiang, Kenenisa Bekele and Jeremy Wariner, as well as British stars Phillips Idowu, Becky Lyne and Marlon Devonish.

But the Paralympic champion and world record holder Oscar Pistorius is the most intriguing entry of all, in what he may presage for the future of athletics.

The 20-year-old South African is a double amputee, who runs on artificial legs or “blades”, shaped like springs. He was originally banned from able-
bodied competition by the International Association of Athletics Federations, the sport’s governing organisation, on the grounds that the blades were an “artificial aid”, giving him an advantage.

Pistorius argues that bio-mechanical tests prove that the blades provide no more “return” from the track than legs. Accordingly, IAAF officials have given the runner and themselves a period of grace for reflection, during which time he is being allowed to compete in his first open races outside South Africa.

Pistorius was born without fibulae, or calf bones, and had his legs amputated below the knee before his first birthday. But even as a child he had an active sporting life, competing in water polo and rugby at school in Pretoria. He began running while rehabilitating a knee injury in his early teens, and his athletics career took off from there.

The blades, which cost close to $4,000 each, are made by an Icelandic company. He has used them to good effect, winning the Paralympic 200 metres title at Athens 2004, and setting world records for his category of disability in the 100m, 200m and 400m.

It is at that last
distance that he competes, against world and Olympic champion Wariner and Britain’s number one Tim Benjamin among others in Sheffield. Pistorius has long been competing in open competition at home, and recently finished second in the South African 400m championship.

He wants to compete in the forthcoming world championships in Osaka next month, and ultimately the Olympic Games, saying: “If they ever found evidence that I was gaining an advantage, then I would stop running, but I have a dream of competing at the Olympic Games in Beijing next year.”

Athletics has long been riven with examples of artificial aids, most notably drugs, but there are others, some accepted, some not.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but long jumpers
in the Ancient Olympics reached further distances by carrying small weights in their hands, which propelled them forward in mid-air when they swung their hands back. And who other than a mechanical engineering student, Dick Fosbury, would have even considered, let alone perfected, the art of going backwards over a high-jump bar? No elite jumper nowadays uses anything other than the “Fosbury Flop”.

Implements, too, are regularly modified. The most recent example was the men’s javelin in the mid-1980s, following East German Uwe Hohn’s 104.80m throw, which not only took the world record into the stratosphere, but threatened to take spectators into another world too. On safety grounds, the fulcrum of the spear was moved forward, to induce it to dip earlier. Even so, the incomparable Jan Zelezny of the Czech Republic got the record back up to 98.48m. That’s what top athletes do – they push back the barriers.

While applauding Pistorius’s achievements and commitment, Benjamin is one athlete who thinks the South African should not be competing in Sheffield. “It is a good message, and I really hope he does well,” says Benjamin. “But, with his personal best, he should not be in the race, because he is not fast enough.”

And thereby, for the time being, lies the escape route for the IAAF. Pistorius has run 46.34sec for 400m, compared, for example with Wariner’s best of 43.62sec. His times in his other distances are about 10 per cent down on the (able-bodied) world records. As long as Pistorius does not threaten either the world record or first place in a major championship, perhaps he should remain in open competition.

But Pistorius is still a novice. If or when he improves his general strength, those times will fall. In five years, he could be threatening the world records.

Who knows, however, what may be happening by then? Experiments with genetic implants on mice have already produced massive muscle growth, and it is only a matter of time before such (perfected) experiments will be enacted on humans.

Precedent suggests that sports competitors will be the first to try them. Power-to-weight ratios will then go haywire, and world records could be reduced by 10 per cent. And who will know? It is difficult enough at present to test for an excess of naturally occurring body chemicals, such as testosterone.

With respect to Pistorius’s evident humanity, whoever nicknamed him “Blade Runner” was unwittingly suggesting a dystopian future that the film of Philip K. Dick’s novel was describing.

Get alerts on Tim Benjamin when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article