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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Olympic Dream Stays Alive, on Synthetic Legs

Mauro Donato/European Pressphoto Agency

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius at the "Golden Gala" competition in Rome in July 2007.

When an international court ruled Friday that a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa was eligible to compete in this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, the stage was set for disabled athletes to meet their own trailblazer.

The watershed ruling made the runner, Oscar Pistorius, the first amputee to successfully challenge the notion that his carbon-fiber prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage and assured his right to race against able-bodied athletes in the Olympics, should he qualify. Previously barred from competing in such races by track and field’s world governing body, Pistorius will continue to stoke the debate over the competitive issues created by evolving technology in sports.

The ruling’s direct impact on disabled athletes could be limited, in part because Pistorius, 21, still must post a time fast enough to qualify for the Games. Yet his victory Friday in the Court of Arbitration for Sport sent a message that could long resonate among Paralympians.

“I am extremely shocked that the C.A.S. has made that decision,” said Marlon Shirley, a single amputee who holds world records in the 100 meters, the 200 meters and the long jump in his Paralympic class. “It’s a very brave decision and one that’s definitely going to revolutionize sports.”

Ann Cody, a seven-time Paralympic medalist for the United States in basketball and track and field who sits on the governing board of the International Paralympic Committee, added: “It sends a message. People with disabilities can see people like them compete, and they’ll connect. They’ll say, ‘Maybe I can do that, too.’ ”

In overturning a ban imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s governing body, the court deemed that there was not enough evidence to prove that Pistorius’s flexible j-shaped blades, attached below his knees, gave him an advantage.

“It’s not just about me,” Pistorius said in a telephone interview from Milan. “It’s about the extra opportunity for amputee athletes.”

Pistorius must meet the qualifying standard of 45.55 seconds in the 400 meters to gain an automatic berth in Beijing (or 45.95 seconds for a provisional spot); his current personal best is 46.33, according to his coach, Ampie Louw. With 64 days left, he is in a race to race.

Several Paralympic athletes and officials said that the court’s ruling would probably not affect many athletes, at least immediately. A large portion of athletes in the Paralympic Games, which take place two weeks after the Olympics, compete in wheelchairs; those who do not rarely reach the elite levels that Pistorius has. And the wording of the ruling appeared to caution against extrapolation, clearly stating that it “has absolutely no application to any other athlete, or other type of prosthetic limb. Each case must be considered by the I.A.A.F. on its own merits.”

“I knew they would have to do it somehow to protect themselves,” said Brian Frasure, a single amputee who will try out for his fourth United States Paralympic team in June. Frasure also works for Ossur, the company that designed and manufactured the Cheetah Flex-Foot, the prosthetics that Pistorius and many other athletes use.

“In the world of prosthetics, with so many variables, they need a stipulation for down the road, when we come to the day and age when bionics come to the fore,” Frasure said. “If they say it’s O.K. for all amputees to compete in the Olympics, they would be setting themselves up for even more controversy, more than Oscar dealt with, in the future.”

The I.A.A.F. thought it had made that stipulation when it barred Pistorius in January, despite clearing him to compete with able-bodied athletes last spring; he ran at international meets in Rome and Sheffield, England.

Disabled athletes have competed in the Olympics before — for example, the American Marla Runyan, who is legally blind, made the final of the 1,500 meters at the 2000 Sydney Games. Natalie Du Toit, whose left leg was amputated above the knee seven years ago, will swim for South Africa in Beijing.

But very few have raised the issue of whether their disability, or their compensation for a disability, presents an advantage. One was Neroli Fairhall, a paraplegic archer from New Zealand, who competed in the 1984 Olympics while in her wheelchair; there was some question as to whether the chair provided her better stability than archers standing on legs, but she was allowed to compete.

Pistorius was born without the fibula in his lower legs and with defects in his feet, and his legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. He went on to set Paralympic world records in the 100, 200, and 400 meters, but did not draw attention until he started competing with able-bodied athletes in South Africa in 2004.

So last November, the track and field governing body’s cooperation with Pistorius was uncharted territory. The I.A.A.F. sponsored three days of testing on Pistorius, who gave his consent, in Cologne, Germany, under the supervision of Peter Brüggemann, a professor at the German Sport University.

Brüggemann found that the Cheetah prosthetics were more efficient than a human ankle. He also found that they could return energy in maximum speed sprinting and that Pistorius was able to keep up with a few able-bodied sprinters while expending about 25 percent less energy.

Pistorius’s lawyers, however, argued that the results of the study did not provide enough evidence to make a decision, and they lodged an appeal in February. Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer with the New York-based firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, who agreed to take the case on a pro bono basis, led Pistorius’s defense.

“The I.A.A.F. had not at all followed proper procedures in conducting any of its review,” Kessler said. “Many of its results were in many respects pre-ordained.”

To test how much mechanical energy a runner uses, researchers study forces on the ankle, knee and hip joints. They do this with video cameras to record the joints’ motions and plates along the running path that record the force on the joints. When the athlete’s foot, or prosthesis, touches a plate, it measures the forces in three directions: up and down, right and left, and front and back.

The measurements, combined with oxygen consumption, are a reliable indicator of the runner’s economy — and whether the prosthetics are providing an advantage, said Roger Enoka, a biomechanics researcher at the University of Colorado.

The researchers who examined Pistorius were instructed to study only his performance while running on a straightaway — when he was at his fastest. That approach was deemed unfair by the court. In its published opinion, the court censured the I.A.A.F. for its handling of the case, saying that from the outset, it had its mind made up.

“The manner in which the I.A.A.F. handled the situation of Mr. Pistorius in the period from July 2007 to January 2008 fell short of the high standards that the international sporting community is entitled to expect from a federation such as the I.A.A.F.,” the panel said.

In a public statement, however, the I.A.A.F. did not address any of the hearing’s specifics.

“The I.A.A.F. accepts the decision of C.A.S. and Oscar will be welcomed wherever he competes this summer,” the I.A.A.F. president Lamine Diack said. “He is an inspirational man and we look forward to admiring his achievements in the future.”

But Pistorius is not convinced that his future includes the 2008 Olympics on top of his competing in the Paralympic Games. Over the last five months, the time spent preparing an appeal and a court case has eaten away at his time on the track.

“It’s going to be very hard for me to make the Olympics now,” he said. “Even if I don’t, I want to compete at the world championships and in London in 2012.”

The cutoff date for Olympic qualification is July 20, and between now and then he hopes to race in three or four able-bodied events as well as at least five competitions against amputees to build up to his top speed.

If Pistorius does qualify, the International Olympic Committee said it would welcome him. “Oscar Pistorius is a determined and gutsy athlete who will now no doubt put all his energy into reaching the qualification standards for the Olympic Games,” the I.O.C. said in a statement.

And with the court’s decision effective as soon as it was delivered, Pistorius said he would resume training immediately. But he added that training was the furthest thing from his mind as he sat in Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Milan office, waiting for a fax from the court. “We were trying not to expect anything so as not to be disappointed,” he said.

But when a lawyer read him the decision, five months after he thought the I.A.A.F. had shattered his dreams of running in the Olympics, he wept.

“Most people would have quit after the I.A.A.F. said no,” said Shirley, the single-amputee Paralympian. “He kept fighting through. He’s been doing things on prosthetics that people haven’t thought about.”

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The Best Finishes in College Sports History

Everybody has that memory of the best game they have seen. You know, the one where someone pulls of something amazing at the last minute to win. Unfortunately, unless you were at one of the games below, your memory isn’t as cool, or shocking, or amazing, as those who were. In no meaningful order, below are what I believe to be the most spectacular finishes in College Sports History.

#1. Barton vs. Winona State

The Story: Barton is down by 7 points to Winona State. Winona state has won the last 50+ games they have played in, the longest winning streak in the history of Division II basketball, a winning streak that included winning last year’s championship and beating Barton. Barton has fewer than 1000 full time students, Winona State has 8000. Now watch the video…

#2. Boise State vs Oklahoma

The Story: Oklahoma doesn’t lose pretty much ever. Boise State puts up an incredibly valient effort, but with only a minute left, they throw an interception and Oklahoma intercepts, running it in for a touch down. With only a few econds left, in overtime, the amazing occurs.

#3. Duke vs Maryland

The Story: Duke has a great program, no doubt. Duke has a great coach, no doubt. But Maryland has a pretty good program themselves. And this night, arguably their best player Shane Battier has fouled out, they are down by 10 points with less than a minute left. They call this the “Miracle Minute”.

#4: Stanford vs. Cal

The Story: This game was so-over, that the marching band, the fans, and everyone else had stormed the field. Ooops.

#5: Duke vs Kentucky

The Story: Bear in mind that the score is already 102 to 103. Kentucky has a slight lead over the Devils in what was already being considered one of the best games of all time in College Basketball. With more lead changes than you could count on 4 hands, this game was as close as they come. And then came this.

Soaring Over the Alps on Homemade Jet Wings

Playing to a mesmerized audience, Swiss pilot and adventurer (some might say nutcase) Yves Rossy has soared above the Alps with homemade jet-powered wings strapped to his back.

Rossy, an extreme sports guy who has spent years assembling his wings, casually stepped out of an airplane at 7,500 feet, unfolded the wings and quickly passed from free fall to mellow glide. He then fired up the wings' engines and accelerated to more than 180 mph.

As if that weren't cool enough, Rossy showed off a bit, making a few dives, some figure eights and a 360-degree barrel roll before landing at an airfield near Lake Geneva.

"That was to impress the girls," he said after the five-minute flight.

It's not your average DIY project, but then again Rossy doesn't seem to be your average guy. One look at the video proves that.

Fusionman, as the 47-year-old adventurer calls himself, is intimately familiar with flight. As a military pilot he spent years flying Hunter, Tiger F-5 and Mirage III jets, and he flies airliners for Swiss International Airlines.

He's spent several years developing the carbon fiber wing, which is eight feet long and features four German jet engines that provide 200 pounds of thrust. Rossy and his sponsors, which include the Swiss watch company Hublot, have spent $190,000 on the project, and with no plans to bring the wing to market, there's no guarantee they'll get a return on their investment.

The flight above the Alps was a big test for Fusionman and his wings, and it went off without a hitch. His mother wasn't even worried, explaining to the Associated Press, "He knows what he's doing."

But it hasn't always been smooth sailing -- er, flying -- for Rossy. Damage to a set of test wings in 2007 forced him to build another prototype, and he lost control during a jump three years ago and didn't deploy his chute until he was a mere 1,500 feet above the ground.

Soaring above the Alps is only the start. Rossy is planning to cross the English Channel -- a flight of about 23 miles -- by the end of the year. But his dream is to fly over the Grand Canyon.

Photos from Rossy's website.

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Home Court Advantage Continues to Dominate the NBA Playoffs

In the second round of this year's NBA playoffs home court advantage seems to be a huge asset, 19 of 20 games played in the second round the home team has come out on top which is leading the last three series (Spurs/Hornets, Jazz/Lakers, Cavs/Celtics) to possible game sevens. The only loss was by the Orlando Magic against the Detroit Pistons.

Even the Boston Celtics who had the best road record in the NBA this season (31-10) haven't been able to win even one game on the road. In the first round against the 8th seed Atlanta Hawks (0-3) and now in the second round against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (0-2).

For some reason the home team continues to dominate, it maybe because crowd noise or just dumb luck, but one thing is for sure, who ever wins on the road will be the team that has the best chance to advance.

In Utah the crowd noise is deafening, you can't even hear yourself think let alone be able to communicate on the floor making it very difficult to get some chemistry together, the crowd is so hostile it makes it very hard to go into their house and pull out a win which reflects only having 4 losses at home this season. One thing about being a Lakers fan like myself it is really, really hard not to hate every team in the West, I like Golden State, BD is a baller and fun to watch, but I hate the Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs and the Utah Jazz with a passion.

Then there is Boston with their "bandwagon" fans like Mike Bibby said, that I think is right on the money even though the Lakers have their fare share to with all the Lakers flags that just start appearing on cars when the start winning, but are no where in sight when the Lakers are playing like crap or struggling.

In the past, the Boston Garden was one of the hardest places to play in the NBA with the crazy fanatic fans of Baaahston in the Larry Bird era and now it seems as though the fans are coming back and making the place as hard as ever to get a W.

The Spurs on the other hand I wouldn't say have a the fan base or extremely noisy arenas like Boston or Utah, I am sure they have sell out crowds on a nightly basis, but the Spurs are just so damn good, I have a passion for hatin' on these guys. They are like the Pistons of the West, almost a guarantee to get deep in the playoffs every season.

Finally, you have the Lakers at the Staples Center where there no shortage of Hollywood's biggest and brightest stars like Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington, even some of the best athletes in the sports world come out to see the Lakers like soccer superstar David Beckham. All of this combined with arguably the best player in the game Kobe Bryant it makes for one of the best basketball arenas in the league and a tough place to play for any opponent as they have not lost once at home in the playoffs.

Well, Lakers fans, we are still alive and more than ready to take out the Utah Jazz and advance to the Western conference finals for the first time since 2004, if you want to watch any of the remaining games live, check out for great deals on Los Angeles Lakers Tickets
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