Thursday, July 26, 2012

Running, Prosthetics, and the Olympics

A couple of weeks ago, reader Lenard wrote in and asked my thoughts on Oscar Pistorius, the South African Olympic runner who has two prosthetic legs.
Sadly, this came up as a global issue when a whiny-baby athlete named Michael Johnson whinged that the prosthetics might be giving Pistorius an "unfair advantage".

Readers here for any length of time know that I also run with a similar set-up, although I only have one "store-bought" leg.
Using this leg, or more correctly, it's predecessor, I've engaged in a fair bit of running over the past few years, to include running the Army Ten-Miler in Washington DC in an hour, forty-one minutes in 2008, a year after getting fitted for it.

I've set out to run it again since then, but unfortunately, something has usually stalled my efforts, usually fit problems with the leg as it got older. And after I was sidelined for a while for other leg surgery last year, it wouldn't fit at all afterwards and a new one had to be custom made, a process that took months and we're still working out fine-tuning and adjustment issues that are keeping me from doing much serious running with it.

As one who knows all about these devices in a way that Michael Johnson can and hopefully will never understand, I can tell you that, yes, when they are fitting and working perfectly, they give you some extra spring. Maybe it's as much or even more than you get from a natural leg and ankle, but it's often offset by fit problems. If it's even a millimeter or two out of whack height-wise, it's not going to be as efficient and damage in the form of bruising or abrasions to the leg stump may occur. Sometimes the pain is a warning for me to stop, but other times the damage will start in one of those areas where there aren't many functioning nerves left, and when that happens, by the time I notice it, enough trauma has occurred to inhibit even walking for a few days. Oh, and adding to the game, my leg changes shape while running as a result of fluid loss through dehydration. Yours does too, and so does Michael Johnson's, but when mine does, now the leg doesn't fit as tight. It begins to slip and move, and at best it's efficiency is diminished. At worst, it moves far enough out of place that damage starts to occur, but that's rare. It also slips when I perspire and the socket liner starts to fill up with sweat. Now add to that the fact that it doesn't corner like a normal foot, and that it can't compensate for holes, rises and other sudden changes in topography like a regular ankle does, and when all is said and done, I'm grateful for my running foot but I have to give the advantage to regular feet at the end of the day.

On a perfect day when everything is working just like it's supposed to on a track, perhaps Oscar Pistorius might gain a bit in terms of energy return and speed. But if he does--and that's a pretty big "if"--it's almost assuredly cancelled out by fit problems and fatigue. Remember, that leg is still 5lbs or so of dead weight, and the calf muscle is totally useless if there's even one there. I have one, but it's no longer attached to anything at the distal end so it's effectively worthless.

Given a choice, would Oscar Pistorius trade the nebulous "advantage" that he allegedly gets from those prostethics for real feet? Hell, I know that I would. And as one who can fully appreciate the extra hard work that Oscar had to do to learn to run and run efficiently with those legs, especially to the degree that he has, I like to tell Michael Johnson to go fuck a duck. And if Johnson still has a jealousy problem over these legs, he can always go to the surgeon's and get one or two for himself. Funny how I don't see him rushing out to do that, though. He apparently doesn't want to raise himself up that badly; he just wants to bring potential betters down instead. Jackass.


  1. "He apparently doesn't want to raise himself up that badly; he just wants to bring potential betters down instead."

    Yes. What you said.

  2. +1 on the Rev as usual. "Well said" to both of you.

  3. Anonymous8:49 PM

    That is an amazing feature, and I'm sure it was hard for you to write. It's the best of all possible worlds: personal and instructive. I saved it.

    I remember the good friend who lost his leg to the stray I-Beam. He came into the bar, dropped off by his wife, missing his lower right leg. We hadn't seen him since the accident, and that's what it was. Freakish. His wife tried to walk him in; we told him to 'do it yourself' and shooed his wife away.

    Everyone yelled, "Hey, GIMPY!" and later he was taken home, damn near in a body bag, by a car procession of people who damn well knew it could happen to them at any time.

    He said, when we yelled at him, "I gotta go to the bathroom."

    He knew he was welcome. I will always be proud of that.

    I'm not a good person; but I will always be proud of that night, letting a good friend and his wife know that nothing, NOTHING, had changed, and we were his friends.

  4. Ah, yes, I do remember the day in the late 1960's, when I was in junior high school. My father had driven my grandparents to the airport to go visit my aunt and uncle and cousins in California, and I went along for the ride.

    My grandfather's prosthesis was bothering him, so he removed it and ambulated around with his crutches. At his request, I carried his prosthesis onto the plane with him and my grandmother and, after they were seated, I walked off the plane and went home with my Dad (remember, this was when air travel was far simpler, before the Islamist quest for world domination necessitated the security measures now the norm today).

    After the amputation, Grandpop learned to walk on his prosthesis. But there often were times when he just had to take it off and use his crutches because the forces of physics and biology caused the prosthesis to irritate his stump.

    Grandpop went back to work, and, up until his last few years, was able to function relatively normally in society, and around his house. [Did I mention that he was also deaf in one ear?] Though he seemingly had good reason to complain, he never considered whining to be an option.

    Nor was Grandpop the only person I knew who had a disability but who moved ever forward with their lives and never engaged in self-pity.

    No, Grandpop was not a whiner. Oscar Pistorius is not a whiner. And neither are you, ML. But each of you has far more reason to whine than does Michael Johnson.

  5. Concur, and it's once again whining by somebody that 'should' know better...

  6. Looks like someone trying to make an excuse for getting his ass beat by a cripple. Not that you or Pistorius are "crippled" by any stretch of the imagination, but my point is still valid, I think.