Idaho Researcher Helps Olympian Race with Prosthetic Legs

Jul 27, 2012

Oscar Pistorius looks like a normal guy, from the knees up. He looks fit, well-dressed, and capable. But without the lower half of his calves and shins, his ability to sprint in the 2012 Olympics were called into question. That is, until a University of Idaho professor helped prove Pistorius can compete beside anyone in the world.

Pistorius was born without fully-developed lower legs. He has used two prosthetic legs all his life. That won’t stop him from racing in the Men’s 400 Meter August 3rd, 4th, and 5th.

It almost did, though. Five years ago, the International Association of Athletics Federations ruled Pistorius could not race, believing his carbon fiber running blades gave him an advantage. That’s when University of Idaho researcher Doctor Craig McGowan got involved.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to try to understand how the neuromuscular system adapts to control something like this,” McGowan says.

The Associate Professor of Biological Sciences in Moscow worked on a team to see whether Pistorius’ running devices caused an unfair advantage or not. Their results put Pistorius back into the Olympics with a chance to compete.

McGowan took an interest in the way the body adapts to a prosthetic device.

“You can actually think of humans running, and many animals running, as running springs or pogo sticks,” McGowan says. “And so these devices were created to model that elastic behavior of the biological leg.”

The controversy comes from whether the devices are a lighter and easier to move, giving Pistorius an advantage. The other concern was whether give him a disadvantage because they don't forcefully push off of the ground as legs do. 

McGowan says there isn’t enough scientific evidence yet to say one way or another, but he believes Pistorius is an exceptional athlete who has earned his chance.

McGowan adds this has opened up another door in his research. “We are hoping to be able to expand this work into working with returning military personnel who are trying to adapt to using lower limb prosthetics.”

McGowan says each device has a very specific use: one for walking, one for jogging, and one for sprinting. He hopes to find a way to create a more dynamic device that could encompass all those needs. A device like that he believes would help some veterans to continue to serve in combat. “Or do whatever else they want to do with their lives,” McGowan says.

But for now, McGowan’s glad Pistorius has the chance to compete in the London games. “I’m happy that he’s able to pursue his dream based on some work we were able to do.” 

Pistorius will also race in the 4 x 400 meter rely on August 9th and 10th.