National Columnist

Pistorius' story great, but fallout from his running could ruin the Olympics

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Oscar Pistorius competes on legs that weigh as little as 5 percent of his able-bodied opponents' legs. (AP)  
Oscar Pistorius competes on legs that weigh as little as 5 percent of his able-bodied opponents' legs. (AP)  

Double-amputee Oscar Pistorius shouldn't run -- shouldn't be allowed to run -- in the 2012 Olympics.

There. I said it. And I'm not going to apologize for it, because why should ... well, OK. You want the truth? Here's the truth. When I first sat down to write about Pistorius, the South African quarter-miler, I started this story differently than what you just read. This was how it started originally:

This is one of those columns you write with downcast eyes, ashamed of yourself yet still doing it, still writing it, because it doesn't matter that it's callous or even cruel. It matters that it's fair. And it's fair to say that 400-meter runner Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee known as The Blade Runner, shouldn't be competing against able-bodied athletes in the 2012 Olympics.

Because able-bodied athletes shouldn't have to compete against him.

That's how I started it, but then I took a break from writing to go online and read some more about Pistorius -- stories in favor of his spot in the Olympics, and stories against it -- and I noticed something: The people who think Pistorius shouldn't be allowed to race don't want to come out and say that. They want to show their compassionate side, their soft side. They apologize and genuflect before finally, halfheartedly, saying what a lot of us are thinking:

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It's not fair for Oscar Pistorius, running on carbon-fiber blades called Flex-Foot Cheetahs, to race against able-bodied runners. Able-bodied runners run. Pistorius springs. Does that sound fair to you? Doesn't sound fair to me.

And it doesn't matter, not even a little bit, that Pistorius has no chance to win. He probably won't reach the 400-meter final, given that he has beaten the Olympic qualifying time of 45.30 seconds just twice in his career. By himself, Oscar Pistorius isn't a threat to the integrity of the Olympic Games.

But Pistorius represents so much more than one man, one country, even one Olympiad. He represents every amputee from this day forward, and once he runs in the 2012 Games, the precedent will have been set. And it's not a good one.

I know. I know. This isn't an apology, but it is an acknowledgement that Pistorius is a feel-good story of supernatural proportions. A guy with no feet, ankles or calves running in the Olympics? That's a great story. I'm in awe of Oscar Pistorius for getting here.

I just don't think he should be allowed to run.

It isn't fair to the guys with legs, running against a guy without them. On the surface that last sentence seems like stupid talk, but this isn't a superficial issue. If that's all you see -- the guy has no legs, he's the one at a disadvantage! -- then go about your business. Proceed directly to the message boards below and write that. Here, cut-and-paste this: "The guy has no legs, he's the one at a disadvantage!"

But it's not that simple. It's incredibly complex, second only on the Olympic docket to the gender issue of athletes who are born with male and female characteristics. As for Pistorius, scientists are split. One report says Pistorius' blades give him a 10-second advantage in 400 meters, while others wouldn't put a number on it but concluded Pistorius clearly has an edge over able-bodied runners. Others still say the advantage Pistorius gets from his blades is counteracted by the disadvantage -- the bruising on the knees, the stress on the thighs -- of having to run with prosthetic limbs, or that there is no advantage at all. So there's a lot we don't know.

But we know enough. What Pistorius has below his knees are flexible, carbon-fiber blades. The typical man's lower legs -- the muscle and bone beneath the knees, including the feet -- weigh about 20 pounds each. That's 40 pounds, total. Pistorius' carbon-fiber springs? They weigh about 1 pound each.

Do the math.

Pistorius won't win, and part of me thinks he's being allowed to run in the 2012 Olympics precisely because he isn't fast enough to matter. But someday, he or someone like him will be. His carbon-fiber blades will be improved, as technology always is improved. What if the technology advances to the point that Oscar Pistorius is the fastest 400-meter runner in the world by 2016? It'll be too late to have second thoughts, because the 2012 Games will have established that a runner with bouncy, springy blades (think of a rock skipping across the water) can fairly run against men with feet and ankles (think of a runner, running).

The technological advances for amputees are awesome for real-world applications, but unfair for sport. Imagine Pistorius breaking Michael Johnson's 400 record, then putting it out of reach for able-bodied runners. That's where this could go, and that's not me talking. That's an amputee talking, Tony Phillips of The Huffington Post, who wrote powerfully on Monday of Pistorius' coming "milestone in human achievement."

But Phillips wrote of more than Pistorius' appearance in the 2012 Games. He also wrote of the future, of the possibilities for amputees, and he wrote inspirationally and wonderfully but also jarringly. Here, see for yourself:

"I hope I live long enough to see the technology [for] me and 1.8 million other American amputees evolve to the point that artificial limbs can actually outperform their biological counterparts," Phillips wrote. "I want to see double below-knee amputees like Pistorius running the 100 meters in 8 [seconds] flat. I want to see sub-3-minute amputee milers ... I want to see power-lifters missing both arms at the shoulders throwing up 900-pound clean-and-jerks and cyborg beasts grunting out 200-foot shot puts.

"I'd like to see the various world sporting bodies call urgent meetings and take decisive action to bar all [such] athletes ... from international competition and then I'd like to see the Paralympics swamp the old, boring, able-bodied Olympics in popularity, revenue and viewership. That's not inconceivable, really."

No, it's not. A man with two legs can outrun a man with no legs any day of the week. But a man with two legs against a man with something better? That's a different conversation.

That's the conversation we need to have, now, before Oscar Pistorius runs in the 2012 Olympics and sets a regrettable precedent. Today, yes, Oscar Pistorius embodies the Olympic spirit.

But tomorrow? He could destroy it.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. More importantly, he is 4-0 as an amateur boxer, with three knockouts. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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