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THE DISADVANTAGE ADVANTAGE

4/25/2008

As the first amputee to compete in Division I track, Aimee Mullins broke down barriers for disabled athletes as a sprinter at Georgetown in the mid-1990s. She didn't expect that a decade after she graduated, those barriers would be restored. "A year ago I was disabled'," Mullins said. "Now people are coming to me to say I have an unfair advantage."

Following the lead of the International Association of Athletics Federation's ban on Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee whose prosthetic legs were ruled too efficient to run against able-bodied athletes, the NCAA has effectively barred athletes who run on prosthetics from track and field competition.

The IAAF introduced a rule change in March to prohibit "the use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device." The NCAA adapted the same change to its track and field rulebook this fall.

Though intended for limit running shoe technology, the change was instrumental in halting Pistorius' run to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. Pistorius, who finished second in the 400 meters at the South African championships, uses carbon-fiber prosthetics called Cheetahs to compete. Studies conducted by a biomechanist showed that Pistorius' J-shaped legs were more efficient than the human leg. Pistorius will challenge the ruling with tests results from a team of biomechanists at the Court for Arbitration in Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland on April 29 and 30.

Mullins, whose legs were amputated when she was 1-year-old, ran on similar technology while competing on the Georgetown track team from 1996-98. Though her times weren't competitive with the top collegiate runners, she set Paralympic records in the 100 and 200 meters. Since then, a handful of runners using prosthetics have competed on collegiate teams such as Daniel Andrews at University of Miami, and Andrew Lester at Campbell University in Greensboro, NC. Both compete with one prosthetic leg.

"If a prosthetic leg were more efficient we wouldn't be trying to keep up, we'd be blowing [able-bodied] people out of the water," Mullins said.

An NCAA spokesperson said that no one currently competing in collegiate track and field would be affected by the rule change. Future cases concerning whether athletes using a prosthetic can compete will be decided on a case-by-case basis, according to the NCAA. However, the NCAA does reserve the authority to adopt more stringent legislation than what is currently allowed by the IAAF.

That is what worries Jeff Skiba, a high jumper who has a prosthetic left leg. Even though he takes off his natural right foot leaping as high as 6'11", a Paralympic record, and became the first Paralympian to compete at the U.S. National Indoor championships last year, Skiba worries that the legislation might endanger his goal of qualifying for the Olympics. "I would not like to see them take this one scenario and paint with a broad brush," said Skiba.

As Pistorius' case has been pending, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, this month. The bill provides disabled students with the same access to sports as their able-bodied peers. Mullins considers it commensurate to Title IX, the groundbreaking legislation passed in 1972 that required schools to gave women's athletics equal resources to men's.

"It's a landmark law," Mullins said. "I look at [the NCAA's ruling] as a hiccup and nothing more."