This summer, University of Colorado professors Alena Grabowski and Rodger Kram will be rooting on their fellow Americans as they watch the Olympics, but during the track and field events a South African runner will have their attention.
In 2008, Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, who had both legs amputated below the knee as a child, was barred from the Olympics after a German study concluded that his blade-like, carbon fiber leg prostheses gave him an advantage. Pistorius appealed the decision in 2008 and Grabowski and Kram -- of CU's Integrative Physiology program -- joined a team of researchers who discovered that, if anything, the prostheses were a disadvantage for the runner.
The results and Kram's testimony helped to overturn the decision, allowing Pistorius to become the first amputee athlete to compete in the Olympics and opening the door for other Paralympians to compete in future games. He will compete in the 4-by-400-meter relay and the 400-meter sprint.
"He does all the running, but we made it clear with our research that he should be there," Kram said.
Kram, who has been studying the oxygen consumption of runners since1983, said the German study measured Pistorius' energy while sprinting, which provided inconsistent results. The original study assumed his prosthetic devices, known as Flex-Foot Cheetahs, decreased his energy consumption making it less work for him to run compared to non-amputee athletes.
Using steady running cycles rather than sprints, Grabowski and Kram's team collected more consistent numbers leading to different findings.
"We measured Oscar's oxygen consumption and found that his rate of energy consumption was lower than an average person but comparable to other high-caliber athletes," Kram said.
Grabowski, who received her Ph.D. under Kram in 2008, said they also found that Pistorius' prostheses don't allow him to put as much force into the ground when he runs giving him less ability to propel himself forward, potentially a disadvantage for the amputee runner.
The ban was lifted in time for Pistorius to compete in the 2008 Olympics but Grabowski said the stress that the controversy put on the then-21-year-old athlete "put him off his game."
The sprinter, nicknamed The Blade Runner, was 1.5 seconds short of qualifying for the 2008 games.
Pistorius did not respond to email requests for an interview but the following statement was posted on his website, oscarpistorius.com, last week following the announcement that he would represent South Africa in the Olympics, which begin July 27:
"I have a phenomenal team behind me who have helped get me here and I, along with them, will now put everything we can into the final few weeks of preparations before the Olympic Games, where I am aiming to race well, work well through the rounds, post good times and maybe even a personal best time on the biggest stage of them all."
Pistorius will also compete in this year's Paralympics beginning on Aug. 29, defending his titles in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter sprints.
Grabowski and Kram work in CU's Locomotion Lab and have dedicated their research to the energetic cost of walking and running, but they agreed that analyzing Pistorius has been a highlight of their careers so far.
"I'm confident that I'll never see another stadium filled with 90,000 people cheering for one of my discoveries again," Kram said.
"To have everyone around the world understand a little bit about your research is a pretty big deal," Grabowski said.
Grabowski, who specializes in prosthetics research, is currently working with the Veterans Administration in Denver to improve the BiOM device -- a battery-powered foot that she developed with Hugh Herr, who directs the Biomechatronics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The BiOM reads the person's movement and self-adjusts to the type of motion they are performing to act more like a conforming muscle than a stagnant, metal support. The device is currently being used for walking but Grabowski said she hopes to improve the self-adapting functions and heavy structure to make it more adaptable to athletes, though she doesn't expect Pistorius to be competing on the BiOM any time soon.