Friday, August 3, 2012

'Blade Runner' brings attention to disabilities in the Olympics - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

By J. Brady McCollough / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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.

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