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  Off track: Paralympics and the controversy over blades

Off track: Paralympics and the controversy over blades

Published : Oct 2, 2016, 2:53 am IST
Updated : Oct 2, 2016, 2:53 am IST

American Matthew Centrowitz’s gold medal-winning time of 3:50.00 seconds at the Rio Olympics wouldn’t have been enough for him to win a bronze in the T13 category of the Rio Paralympics.

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American Matthew Centrowitz’s gold medal-winning time of 3:50.00 seconds at the Rio Olympics wouldn’t have been enough for him to win a bronze in the T13 category of the Rio Paralympics. In fact, it wasn’t good enough even for fourth. Abdellatif Baka of Algeria, who clinched the gold in 3:48.29 seconds would have cantered home had he competed in Centrowitz’s race. Baka didn’t have the benefit of prosthetic legs because T13 is for those with mild visual impairment. Although Baka’s time suggests that he would have been a sure-fire medal contender in the Olympics, it would be imprudent to suggest the American Olympic winner was a laggard because the metric mile is a tactical race in which the pace is set by the leading pack. When it’s about winning gold, not setting a world record, timing doesn’t matter. But the use of prosthetic legs by Para athletes is a contentious issue. Conflicting reports about the advantage of having a prosthesis mean there is no end in sight to the raging debate. Germany’s Markus Rehm, the 2016 Paralympic champion in the T44 section — who uses a blade — is fighting a battle to compete in next year’s world championships. His personal best of 8.40 metres, which he set in 2015, would have been good enough to win gold in the last two Olympics. Which is why after Oscar Pistorius, Rehm is looking at open competitions. Pistorius, who reached the 400m semi-final at the 2012 Olympics, used two prostheses. The jury is still out on the advantages derived from blades.

It’s reported that Rehm has commissioned a study to prove that he doesn’t get an unfair edge by using a prosthesis. Although, a preliminary finding has said blade athletes don’t enjoy any advantages, there is no guarantee Rehm will be seen at the 2017 world championships in London.

 

Also, women with hyperandrogenism such as Castor Semenya and Dutee Chand have been allowed to compete, but many maintain they have altered the level-playing field. However, like biology in cases of hyperandrogenism, physics hasn’t been able to provide a conclusive answer on whether prostheses boost athletes.

The 2016 Paralympics saw a number of athletes use cutting-edge blades and wheelchairs to derive infinitesimal advantages. According to the IPC, one of the main conditions for approval of equipment such as a blade, robotic arm or chair is that these must be available on the market for everyone. But the spending power of an athlete from Rwanda would be different from that of a German.

 

Also, single amputees or unilaterals are increasingly questioning the futility of competing against double amputees or bilaterals who have the benefit of using two blades. Empirical proof points to the efficacy of two. With two blades, athletes do seem to fly.

B. Manoj whose polio-affected left leg makes him eligible to compete in the T44 category said he faces an uphill battle against blade athletes. “The structure of the blade is tailor-made for a synthetic track. Blade runners enjoy spring and bounce that we find hard to achieve. There is no way I can compete with Rehm. It’s not a level playing field but I’m not ready to complain. For me, a double amputee is as much disabled as I am.”