'Blade Runner' brings attention to disabilities in the Olympics
Oscar Pistorius of South Africa is the first double-amputee athlete to take part in the Olympics.
Rory Cooper, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Laboratories, met Oscar Pistorius at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, where Mr. Pistorius broke the Paralympic world record in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. Mr. Cooper's program is in charge of coming up with the newest technology to help anybody with a disability, including athletes like Mr. Pistorius.
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LONDON -- His fans call him "Blade Runner" and "the fastest man on no legs." His critics have no such glorified names for him, only fears.
South African double-amputee Oscar Pistorius will compete in the preliminary round of the 400-meter dash Saturday morning with two energy-storing prosthetic limbs, and some believe his debut as the first double-amputee Olympian will signify the beginning of the end of track and field as we've known it.
Studies have shown that Mr. Pistorius will not have an advantage over the other men in the field, which was enough for the International Association of Athletics Federations to clear him to participate in the Olympics.
But the debate rages on.
Not many observers have a better grasp of all the angles than Rory Cooper, who comes to work each day in Pittsburgh's Bakery Square with the job of making life easier for disabled people all over the world.
Mr. Cooper met Mr. Pistorius, 25, at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, where Mr. Pistorius broke the Paralympic world record in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. Mr. Cooper, who lives in Deer Lake, was in China as a sports scientist for Team USA, a role for which he certainly had the credentials.
Mr. Cooper, 52, is the director of the University of Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Laboratories. His program, which employed 40 undergraduate and high school interns this summer, is in charge of coming up with the newest technology to help anybody with a disability and maybe, someday, another amputee athlete with the ability of a Pistorius.
"One of our students could be designing the limbs that Oscar uses in the next Olympics," Mr. Cooper said.
If you think Mr. Cooper doesn't know all the complexities of this issue, all you have to do is look down. He lost both of his legs below the knee at age 20 when, riding a bike on an Army tour in Germany, he was hit by a car. Ever since, he has used a wheelchair -- except when he's in the swimming pool.
In the recent Keystone Paralyzed Veterans of America summer games, Mr. Cooper won five swimming gold medals.
A former Paralympian in track and field -- he competed in the wheelchair 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and marathon at the 1988 Seoul Paralympic Games and won a bronze medal in the 4x400 relay -- Mr. Cooper was forced to start swimming when his physical condition no longer would allow him to lean forward in a wheelchair.
Mr. Cooper has spent his life trying to find answers, ways to further integrate disabled people into society at large. Mr. Pistorius, who was born with a congenital condition in which he had no fibula in his legs and had to have an amputation at 11 months, is the ultimate example of integration every time he walks on the track.
"We're very closely paying attention to it," Mr. Cooper said.
Mr. Pistorius brings global attention to Mr. Cooper's daily mission. All over the state-of-the-art facility inside Bakery Square are keys to unlocking the future, including a robotic chair that can help a severely disabled person grab items, a room in which wheelchairs are tested for their ability to handle force and a lab where master's degree students learn how to make prosthetic limbs.
The program fits in with its neighbor at Bakery Square, Google, and is basically a playpen for smart people who believe in this cause.
Mr. Cooper says he works 10- to 12-hour days seven days a week, while still finding time to swim or ride his hand-bike in the mornings.
"It's not really a job for me," Mr. Cooper said. "It's a calling. It's my dream. When I was a graduate student, I wanted a lab where I could do any kind of technology to help people with disabilities. The nice thing about it is we have a team that is 30 percent people with disabilities. They are connected to the issues."
Mr. Cooper is a man of science, so that is the prism through which he views the Pistorius debate. His answer is that Mr. Pistorius, who is considered a long shot to medal in the 400 but who also will join the South African 4x400 relay, will not have an advantage because of the technology that moves him.
"You could give an amputee an advantage if they were allowed to use powered prosthesis," Mr. Cooper said. "Then, you're adding energy to the system, and you could theoretically create technology where you could add more power than an intact person could generate."
The Olympics does not allow a prosthetic with an external power source. Mr. Pistorius uses what are called energy-storing prosthetic limbs.
"What happens is, when Oscar's foot hits the ground, he has body weight coming down, and that compresses the spring," Mr. Cooper explained. "When he comes off the ground, if you get the timing just right, it releases that energy in the spring and helps propel him forward.
"Runners do exactly the same thing. It's what makes Usain Bolt faster than you are. He is able to develop that strength, and he can deliver that energy fast. Then, he's got the timing down. He not only releases it fast, he releases it at exactly the right time."
Mr. Cooper does not view Mr. Pistorius as a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. He said Mr. Pistorius is very talented and driven, but he can't ignore that Mr. Pistorius has some advantages over other Paralympians -- mainly, that he has enough financial backing to have new prosthetics custom-made as often as he needs them.
"I don't want to take anything away from him," Mr. Cooper said. "But there could be some guy from Afghanistan or whatever who is [capable] and basically walking on a wooden leg."
If Mr. Cooper has his way, many more disabled people will have the chance to follow Mr. Pistorius into the Olympic arena.
"Hopefully, more U.S. athletes," Mr. Cooper said. "As much as I admire Oscar, he is from South Africa. We'd like to see the next Oscar come from the United States."
First Published August 3, 2012 12:00 am