Walker's World: Why Pistorius matters

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Aug. 13, 2012 at 6:20 AM
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PARIS, Aug. 13 (UPI) -- Future historians are unlikely to remember the 2012 London Olympics for the jolly jaunt through British history that opened it nor for the pop culture fest which closed it nor even for the spectacular performances of the athletes.

Its real significance lay in the appearance of Oscar Pistorius, the South African known as the Blade Runner and "the fastest man on no legs."

With both legs amputated below the knee, Pistorius runs on carbon-fiber prosthetics called the Cheetah Flex-foot made by the Icelandic company Ossur. Just before the 2008 Olympics, he was banned from appearing under the rule that prohibits "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device."

His supposed advantage was then tested by biomechanic experts at Cologne Sports University in Germany, who found that his limbs used 25 percent less energy than conventional sprinters and that his prosthetics produced less vertical motion and he required 30 percent less mechanical work to lifting his body. That verdict was successfully appealed, since it was found that Pistorius had been tested when running straight and level at full speed and thus no allowance had been made for the disadvantages he suffered at the start and in the turns.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, in April 2008, found that overall there was no evidence that he had any net advantage over able-bodied athletes. While he didn't qualify in speed to take part in the Beijing Olympics, Pistorius made history in London where his best speed would have won him fifth place in the 400-meter final.

But Pistorius symbolized something more far-reaching for the future than excellence in sports. The ability of technology to help compensate for the loss of limbs or other capabilities is becoming ever more impressive. Prosthetic limbs have seen extraordinary advances in recent years, not just in quality but in affordability. The Jaipur limb from India costs about $40. At the 2007 International Design Exhibition in Copenhagen, Sebastien Dubois won an award for the design of a fiberglass prosthetic leg with an energy-return system (which mimics the bounce effect of the human stride) for $8.

Biomechanics are spawning a range of new fields, starting with nano-biomechanics, which investigates human and animal physiques at the most miniature level of body cells. The field has already established some startling new findings, for example that malaria makes red blood cells 10 times stiffer than usual or that cancer cells are 70 percent softer than normal cells.

The study of microtubules, the ring-shaped filaments, which help define cell structure and through which cells communicate are now known to play a crucial role in sorting out chromosomes during cell division. They can grow and shrink to generate force for swimming and movement under the impact of motor proteins. They are key building blocks of life and the generation and deployment of energy.

Then there is eco-mechanics, a new field that is based on the simple principle that, in the words of two pioneers in the field, Mark Denny of Stanford and Brian Helmuth of the University of South Carolina, "A lack of physiological insight is the primary impediment to the successful prediction of the ecological effects of climatic change."

"There are uncertainties in our predictions of future climate, especially at the local scale, and the complexities of ecological interactions stretch our ability to model complex systems," they wrote in 2009 in the Journal of Integrative and Comparative Biology. "But it is physiology -- our understanding of how individual organisms function and interact with their environment -- that presents the largest challenge. Without a better mechanistic understanding of how plants and animals work, we can never be assured of an accurate warning of what lies ahead for life on Earth."

This is where this new field of study becomes critical to the future, not least in responding to climate change. The challenge, as defined by eco-mechanics researchers, is to predict the rate at which organisms can adapt to environmental change and the extent to which this occurs.

But as Denny and Helmuth point out: "As we delve deeper into mechanisms at the level of the cell and below, it has become increasingly difficult to scale those results back up to organisms and thus to populations and communities."

This isn't just working out how, for example, the way in which individual mussels increase their ability to affix themselves to rocks as the sea temperature rises. It is about the way individual changes play out on the wider canvas or organized life. And that means not only the impact of a single athlete like Pistorius on the Olympic games or on helping to empower the disabled but on the way the human species as a whole adapts to the challenges ahead.

Some of these challenges may already be predicted, like climate change or the broader impact of automation on employment. We are also beginning to comprehend the importance of information technology on our capability to understand, disseminate and address -- or perhaps worsen -- the various problems we and our descendants will face. So if and when our great-grandchildren bound across high-gravity planets on some future version of the Cheetah Flex-foot, let's hope they remember the role of the 2012 London Olympics.

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