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It may sound harsh, but Oscar Pistorius shouldn’t be allowed to run in Olympics

Oscar Pistorius will represent South AfricLondOlympics 400 meters 1600-meter relay. | AP

Oscar Pistorius will represent South Africa in the London Olympics in the 400 meters and 1,600-meter relay. | AP

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Updated: August 10, 2012 6:30AM

We sports fans celebrate the human spirit. It’s a sentiment you’ll soon hear from overwrought Olympic TV hosts above dramatic piano music, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Even if we don’t think we’re celebrating something bigger than ourselves when we watch sports, we are. When the best athletes figuratively take away our breath, it’s because they can do something we can’t do. We weren’t blessed with their ability, their fast-twitch muscle fibers or, in many cases, their competitive drive.

The human spirit is overflowing when it comes to Oscar Pistorius. Nobody can argue with that. He was born without the fibula in his legs, and doctors amputated both limbs below the knee when he was 11 months old. Despite that, he will be representing South Africa in the London Olympics as a 400-meter sprinter and as a member of his country’s 1,600-meter relay team.

But what are we celebrating when it comes to Pistorius? We’re celebrating the will of one human being but also the science and physics behind two carbon-fiber prostheses that help a double amputee run fast.

We’re certainly not celebrating common sense or fairness.

Where does it end? If it’s carbon-fiber blades today, what will it be tomorrow? Bionic limbs? Now that we’ve crossed this line, what’s the next one?

In 2008, track and field’s governing body banned Pistorius from the Beijing Olympics, saying his prostheses were a “technical aid.’’ Its study showed he used 25 percent less energy than an able-bodied runner going at the same speed. The Court of Arbitration for Sport subsequently ruled that he didn’t get any competitive benefit from his blades.

And here we are four years later, still fighting among ourselves and wondering if the better angels of our nature have synthetic wings and thus a competitive advantage.

Pistorius is not going to win a medal in the London Olympics. His best time in the 400 is 45.07 seconds, which wouldn’t even rank in the top 10 this year. But that’s not the point. Someday, an athlete will step forward with a new-and-improved prosthesis that will allow him or her to run faster, jump higher or throw farther than able-bodied competitors.

Imagine a sports world in which legs of flesh and blood are considered a hindrance to peak performance. It doesn’t take a big imagination to get there.

The 400 is a particularly exquisite way to torture yourself. It takes speed and endurance, and it asks a runner to hold on in the last quarter of the race despite a flash fire of lactic acid burning inside the quadriceps and hamstrings.

During a 400-meter race, Pistorius experiences the same lactic-acid buildup in his thighs that runners with two legs do. But does he benefit from the spring and energy return of his carbon-fiber blades? It’s the question that won’t go away. But this much can’t be debated: The fatigue that other runners feel in their lower legs is not something Pistorius experiences. Surely that’s some sort of advantage.

At this year’s Boston Marathon, Joshua Cassidy won the men’s wheelchair division in a world-record one hour, 18 minutes and 25 seconds, about 54 minutes ahead of the fastest able-bodied runner, Wesley Korir. Clearly, rolling along on wheels offers less resistance and more speed than running on two legs does. That distinction is easy to make. No one would think to say that Cassidy and Korir compete on a level playing field. Or is the Pistorius debate telling us we should start thinking that way?

If we view performance-enhancing drugs as unfair, why would we view performance-enhancing prostheses as fair? Because one is considered cheating and one isn’t?

How we decide these kinds of questions will become more problematic as technology improves. And technology always improves.

Pistorius shouldn’t be competing in the Olympics. That’s a hard thing to say, and you can’t help but feel like a jerk for saying it. You don’t want to treat anybody as “them.’’ But it’s not a compassion issue. It’s a slippery-slope issue.

As the first amputee to compete in track in the Olympics, Pistorius will be a huge story in London. The world will see a 25-year-old man take full advantage of all that he has been given to make his way around a track.

But what will we be celebrating as he runs? His feel-good story? Or our need to feel good about ourselves? Neither is reason enough for his participation in London.

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