Complaints about unfair match-ups mount

Marlon Shirley, the only single-leg amputee to ever run the 100 meters in less than 11 seconds, is almost certain to square off tomorrow in the Athens Paralympics against a double amputee who he says has an unfair «biomechanical advantage.» Shirley and South African Oscar Pistorius met earlier in the week in the «T44» 200-meter dash, usually reserved for single amputees, which Pistorius won in a world record time of 21.97 seconds. «With the length of his legs, it gives him an extreme advantage over the other athletes in the field,» Shirley told AFP in an interview, explaining that the length of Pistorius’s artificial limbs could be adjusted. Shirley, who won a gold medal and set a world record in the 100-meter race at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000, is more vocal that most athletes here. But he is far from being alone in questioning the mixing of competitors with different classes of disability in the same event, which occurs frequently in athletics. Such situations arise when there are too few competitors in a particular category, forcing organizers to created mixed-classification events. Pistorius, for example, is classified T43, which corresponds to «double below-the-knee amputation,» explained International Paralympics Committee spokeswoman Miriam Wilkens. But because there are so few double amputees, he was grouped with the T44 class. It is a practice that can lead to results that are anomalous – and disturbing for the athletes concerned. Because there were not enough single-leg amputees in her class, for example, US runner April Holmes ran in the 100-meter event Wednesday against women with normal lower-body function but an amputated arm. Holmes set a new world record for her T44 group but finished sixth in the final. «When you break a world record, you feel like you should at least come away with a medal,» said a member of the US delegation. Some observers here say the problem arises from a surfeit of categories. There will be over 500 podiums and 1,000 gold medals awarded before the Paralympics end on September 28. But reducing the number of categories, say organizers, simply creates unfairness of another kind. «Our biggest battle in this sport are numbers. We need more elite-level athletes in competition,» said US runner Brian Frasure, who also raced against Shirley and Pistorius in the 200-meter final and whose world record in the event was broken by Pistorius. All three athletes will compete in 100-meter dash preliminary heats today and, if they advance as expected, will confront each other in the final tomorrow. Both Shirley and Frasure were quick to emphasize that they had no quarrel with 17-year-old Pistorius and that the questions they raised were addressed to the IPC, the governing body for the Games. Indeed, Frasure, who is a certified prosthetics designer, made the prosthetic limbs that Pistorius’s used in the 200-meter race and that almost certainly enhanced his performance dramatically. «Oscar is a tremendous athlete,» said Frasure, who fitted Pistorius in April with his new «feet,» as runners often call their carbon-fiber running prosthetics. Frasure described the experience of seeing Pistorius win – and break his world record – as «bittersweet.»