“I’ve never seen anything like him. Oscar is a one-in-a-million athlete, he has extraordinary ability,” says McGowan

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South Africa’s Oscar Pistorus, a double amputee, will compete in the Men’s 400 meters and the 4 x 400 meter relay at the London Olympics.

Changing the World One Leg at a Time

U-Idaho Researcher Breaking Down Barriers for Amputees

By Amanda Cairo

One leg, two legs or no legs, it’s all about living a normal life. Unless you’re South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who will be the first ever amputee to compete in the Olympics on the track -- thanks in part to a team of researchers, including University of Idaho’s Craig McGowan.

Born without fibulas or the small bones in the calf, Pistorius is looking for more than an ordinary life -- he wants an extraordinary life. Despite a storm of controversy and several hurdles, he will compete for South Africa in the Men’s 400 meters and the 4 x 400 meter relay in the London Olympics.

Oscar PistoriousResearchers hooked up Pistorius to data collection devices to measure his gait, energy expenditure and running mechanics to see if and how he uses energy differently than a regular athlete.“I’ve never seen anything like him. Oscar is a one-in-a-million athlete, he has extraordinary ability,” says McGowan, who watched Pistorius run during testing. “He is amazing. I definitely will be rooting for him.”

The biological sciences assistant professor joined in the research of Pistorius’ gait, energy consumption and running mechanics, collecting data to present to the International Association of Athletics Federations to rule whether Pistorius’ carbon fiber running blades had an advantage over flesh and bone. It was an intense three days of running and collecting and analyzing data. The verdict?

“The mechanics of how he runs is different, but I’ve seen no data that suggests an advantage,” says McGowan. “We don’t understand enough, and based on what we don’t know, we can’t exclude him without evidence. He has earned his right to compete.”

pistorious-research-teamCraig McGowan, far right standing, poses with Pistorius and the research team that collected data, which influenced the International Association of Athletics Federations’ decision to allow Pistorius to run in the Olympics.In the tests, where Pistorius had to both jog for extended periods of time and run full out for several short periods, McGowan says he burned just as much oxygen and didn’t generate the same force against the ground as an intact runner. While his blades’ elasticity is different than muscles, he was still using as much energy to run. It’s the “mechanically different” label that continues the debate.

“We ran him into the ground,” says McGowan, who was up late each night to analyze data and determine what needed to be collected the next day. “We pushed him hard, but he was determined.”

It’s especially poignant for Pistorius. Five years ago, the IAAF ruled prosthetic blades gave an advantage for runners, and they shouldn’t be allowed to compete with
intact athletes.

That decision, according to McGowan and his group of researchers, had scientific flaws. Pistorius searched for a second opinion and McGowan was brought into the research process for his expertise on musculoskeletal relationships and how they interact to create movement in humans and other animals.

His research has now expanded to include the study of prosthetics and the mechanical and neurological adaptation of how the neuromuscular system uses these devices.

Oscar Pistorious, a double amputee who will be the first ever amputee to compete in the Olympics on the track.Double amputee Oscar Pistorius takes a break on the track. He’ll be running the 400 meters and the 4x400 meter relay in the London Olympics.
Photo courtesy of www.oscarpistorius.com
Beyond the Olympics, McGowan’s research has a wider impact. Continuing research with professional athletes who use prosthetics, McGowan’s work aims to provide for a better, more natural prosthetic that could help amputees function on a level playing field. Using bilateral and unilateral amputees, McGowan can better understand the mechanics of muscle versus prosthetics.

“There is a very distinct difference between unilateral and bilateral amputee function. We can use that data to better understand how the prosthetics work,” says McGowan. “We know what works, but not why.”

With a growing population of amputees in the military, these advances could help people return back to duty after an amputation. McGowan has applied for a grant from the military to turn his research toward building better prosthetics that would offer more natural movement.

“It’s opening doors, showing people there are no limits, they are no different” says McGowan. “Whatever you choose to do, you can return to healthy, active living.”

In the end, whether it is going for the gold or walking with a surer stride, it’s all about equality.

“You are not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have,” says Pistorius on his website, www.oscarpistorius.com.

To watch Pistorius compete, the Men’s 400 meter races will occur Aug. 3 – 5 and the 4 x 400 meter rely will occur Aug. 9 – 10.

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