BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) — A study published by a University of Colorado Boulder researcher last month compared elite-level 400-meter non-amputee sprinters with the fastest amputee sprinters who use ‘blade runner’ prosthesis.
The study concluded that the prosthesis provided the amputee athletes with no clear competitive advantage – and in fact left them at a significant disadvantage at the start of a race.
“A lot of assumptions have been made about running prostheses and performance with no data to support them,” said senior author Alena Grabowski, associate professor of integrative physiology at CU Boulder. “With this study, we show that the use of running prostheses provides no competitive advantage over 400 meters compared to biological legs.”
Oscar Pistorius of South Africa first drew the world’s attention to the high-tech racing prosthesis during the 2012 Olympics in London. He became the first below-the-knee amputee to compete in the Games and earned the nickname “Blade Runner.” Pristorius reached the semifinals before being eliminated.
However, the International Association of Athletics Federations (now World Athletics) ruled that, going forward, athletes using “mechanical aids” must provide evidence that their blades do not give them a competitive edge.
That ruling has limited Blake Leeper’s eligibility to race internationally. Leeper, an American born without legs, broke Pistorius’s 400-meter record when he won a 2018 race in Europe. He was the only amputee in the field.
His time, 44.42 seconds, made him the fourth-fastest American at that distance that year.
That same year, Leeper flew to Boulder to meet CU’s Grabowski.
Grabowski, an expert in running prostheses biomechanics who had collected similar data on Pistorius years earlier, measured Leeper’s abilities on the track and on a treadmill, according to a press release from the university. Grabowski and her team collected data on Leeper’s acceleration out of the starting blocks, maximum speed along a straight-away and around curves, velocity at aerobic capacity, and sprint endurance (all-out effort).
Leeper’s metrics were added to Pistorius’s and that from a handful of other elite bilateral amputees, and then compared to the top metrics from non-amputees.
“We found that no athlete with prosthetic legs has ever performed better than elite non-amputee athletes in lab-based experiments in any measure that relates to sprinting performance,” said first author Owen Beck, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University who flew to CU Boulder, where he got his PhD, to help conduct the study.
Not only that, the team concluded that amputee sprinters were on average 40 percent slower coming out of the starting blocks, had 19 percent slower velocity at aerobic capacity and were 1 to 3 percent slower around curves than their non-amputee competition.
Indeed, a Youtube video of Leeper’s 2018 victory shows him lagging behind badly through the race’s first turn.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study to really address all the parts of the race and put it all together,” said co-author Paolo Taboga, an assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University, Sacramento.
CU Boulder declared “the long-awaited study…provides the most comprehensive set of data ever collected from elite runners with bilateral leg amputations” in its press release.
The study was published in Royal Society Open Science in early December.
Leeper was ruled ineligible to compete in the Tokyo Olympics last year due to having an assumed advantage. The Court for Arbitration of Sport partially upheld his appeal of the World Athletics initial ruling, but the court later deemed Leeper’s prosthesis violated an amputee height requirement.
CU and Grabowski published a study in February 2020 about the perceived height advantage, calling it “a myth.”
“I hope this (latest study) will get people to really question rules being put into place that keep athletes with disabilities from competing even when they have shown with science that they can compete fairly,” said Grabowski.