The NCAA Men’s and Women’s Track and Field/Cross Country Rules Committee approved a request from Harvard University to allow an incoming male sprinter to compete with a prosthetic running device in the 2015-16 academic year.
Because the committee’s decision is an interpretation of a current rule and not a rules change, it does not need approval from the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel.
Committee members came to their conclusion that the Harvard student-athlete will not have an advantage over other competitors after hearing a presentation from Alena Grabowski, who is an assistant professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Since 2008, Grabowski has conducted extensive research involving amputee athletes who compete in track and field.
This topic has been controversial in the international track and field community because some believe competitors with prosthetics could have an advantage over abled-body track and field athletes due to the design of the running devices.
Grabowski’s research found the opposite. Her studies show amputee athletes are at a disadvantage when competing against abled-body athletes. In layman’s terms, amputee athletes do not push on the ground with as much force as abled-body athletes, so amputee athletes are disadvantaged when it comes to being able to run faster.
The NCAA Track and Field Rules Book prohibits the use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete who is not using such a device.
After hearing Grabowski’s presentation, the committee determined the incoming amputee student-athlete will not have an advantage.
“We needed some science as a basis to make a decision,” said John McNichols, chair of the committee and men’s cross country and track and field coach at Indiana State University. “She alleviated any concerns about competitive advantage or safety concerns.”
McNichols said the committee will handle on an individual basis any other requests from schools wishing to have amputee athletes compete in the sport.
“Time will tell how this all evolves,” McNichols said. “Obviously, the technology has evolved to give the disabled athlete a fighting chance to compete. We want to encourage that participation where it is desired.”