16 June, 2018

The return of the blade runners

It's been almost four years since I last wrote about blade runners.  I was hoping that, after the Pistorius debacle, things would calm down and the errors of the past (letting athletes with prosthetics compete with able-bodied ones) would not be repeated.

I was wrong! 

While perusing the results of the Odlozil Memorial competition in Prague I came across a  great performance at the 400 m. With 44.42 s Blake Leeper was the 11th performer of the year, beating P. Maslak, world indoor champion, by more than a second. The name rang a bell. I looked him up and there he was: next to Pistorius on the podium of the 2012 Paralympics. 

Blake Leeper

Together with brazilian runner A. Oliveira, Leeper was at the origin of a controversy having switched to longer running blades just a few months before the 2012 Paralympics. As Ross Tucker points out in his article "the combination of stride length and stride rate led to a clearly unusual performance with the longer blades".

After serving a one-year ban for a doping offence (cocaine) Leeper is back now, stronger than ever. 

The Prague race was the best proof (as if there was a need thereof) that blade runners should not be allowed to participate along with able bodied athletes. I have made a series of screenshots from the video of the race and they are telling. Leeper, running in lane 6 (with Maslak in 5) starts really slow. 

He is probably last after 100 m but he starts catching up at around 200 m. Watching the video I estimate that he ran the first 200 m in around 22.5 s. 

Then the real race begins for him. At 300 m he is at the head of the race 

and with a devastating sprint, while all other runners are struggling, he wins by an enormous margin, beating a world champion in the process.

How come blade runners can sustain this enormous terminal velocity? The secret is to be found in the combination of the blade efficiency (returning 90 % of the energy compared to 60 % of the ankle joint) and its light weight. So, after the first 20 seconds where they are spending as much energy as able bodied athletes, blade runners spend around 25 % less energy. It's no wonder that they excel in the 400 m (and I am convinced that they could do equally well over 800 m).

I have already written about my respect for the athletes who train and compete despite their physical handicap. To attain the highest level requires not only great efforts but also lots of courage and confidence. I only object to "mixed" races because, given the  advantage conferred by the prosthetics, such races are unfair for the able-bodied runners.

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