Eight years ago Blake Leeper ran in the Paralympics against Oscar Pistorius, the original Blade Runner, thinking that one day he would do everything Pistorius had done on the track, and then some.
By the end of last year, Leeper, 31, was getting very close. His best times for the 400 meters were more than a half-second faster than Pistorius’s best. He finished fifth at the 2019 U.S.A. Track & Field Championships, running a time that put within reach of a spot on the 2020 Olympic team, at the very least as a member of the 400 relay squad.
Off the track, though, unexpected headwinds were gaining momentum. Officials with World Athletics, track and field’s global governing body, had ordered him to prove that his carbon-fiber blades did not give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes — a battle that disabled athletes assumed they had won with Pistorius more than a decade ago. On Monday, the headwinds turned fierce, as the world’s top sports court ruled that Leeper’s prostheses made him artificially taller than he most likely would be if he had legs, a decision that might prohibit him from competing against able-bodied athletes in Tokyo in 2021.
Leeper, who has been competing on the same blades for five years, largely without facing any suggestions that he has an advantage, said the decision was a discriminatory attempt to keep people with disabilities off the Olympic track and, possibly, the podium. Leeper, who is Black, noted that the study World Athletics cited to argue he was taller than he should be given the length of his torso had no Black subjects — only Asian and Caucasian people — and that it failed to address differences in populations.
“I’m the first double amputee to run 44 seconds” for 400 meters, Leeper said during an interview on Monday from Los Angeles. “Now that I am running fast, now that I am running those times, now they say I have an unfair advantage.”
In a statement, World Athletics dismissed the accusations of racism in its methodology and praised the ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland, saying it had met its burden of proving that Leeper’s prostheses gave him an artificial competitive advantage.
“The Court of Arbitration for Sport has rejected Mr. Leeper’s argument that those rules are designed to discriminate against disabled athletes, and instead has fully accepted that they are intended to pursue the legitimate objective of ensuring the fairness and integrity of competitive athletics,” the statement said.
Leeper and his lawyers plan to appeal the ruling in civil court in Switzerland. Whatever the outcome, the case illustrates how World Athletics continues to struggle to sort through modern science and differences in human anatomy to legislate what should be permissible in competition.
The organization has spent years fighting the inclusion of intersex athletes in women’s competitions, arguing they produce excess testosterone that gives them an unfair advantage at distances between 400 meters and the mile, and that they need to either medically reduce their hormone levels or compete against men. The champion runner Caster Semenya of South Africa, an intersex athlete, has accused World Athletics of violating her human rights by prohibiting her from competing without medical intervention.
Jeffrey Kessler, the New York lawyer who has represented Semenya, Pistorius and now Leeper, said World Athletics had long followed an outdated understanding of the human condition that subscribes to strict definitions of what athletes should look like, without allowing for variations.
In Leeper’s case, the organization argued that someone with his size torso would be 5-foot-9, according to standard metrics, and that his blades made him run as though he were 6-foot-8. In fact, Leeper is about 6 feet 2 inches tall on his blades, roughly the average height of other top 400-meter runners, many of whom have short torsos and long legs.
“There is no way to determine how tall Blake would be or should be,” Kessler said on Monday. “Everything is a spectrum. There are all sorts of variations, and there is no reliable way to say where someone would fall in that spectrum.”
The controversy over whether Leeper was running at a competitive advantage started in 2018, when U.S.A. Track and Field, the governing body for the sport in the United States, informed him that the sport’s international leaders had ruled it could not officially post his race times until he proved his blades did not unfairly benefit him. The International Paralympic Committee had recently changed its rule on how tall prostheses could make athletes, known as maximum allowable standing height, though World Athletics did not focus on that at the time.
Leeper spent the next year working with scientists, who studied his running form and his blades, and in the summer of 2019 submitted his application to World Athletics for continued eligibility. The organization rejected it in February, prompting his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
During testimony in July, an expert witness for World Athletics cited its study that showed how tall Leeper would most likely be if he had not been born without lower legs. During questioning from Leeper’s lawyers, the expert revealed that the study he was relying on did not have any Black subjects.
“Guess what? Some African-Americans have longer legs,” Kessler said. World Athletics rejected that claim on Monday.
“World Athletics is aware of no proof that African-American athletes have significantly different bodily dimensions (proportionality), and certainly not to the extent identified in this case,” the organization wrote in its statement.
The ruling allows Leeper to uses smaller prostheses, but to do so he will essentially have to relearn how to run. Kessler said even a small difference in the size of the legs Leeper has been using for years would require a significant adjustment, which Kessler called “an undue burden.”
Leeper grew up in Tennessee, playing baseball and basketball on prostheses. He always sensed he was fast, but his equipment could not keep up with him. Sometimes a leg would fall off when he tried to accelerate.
In 2009, he got his first set of blades and realized just how fast he might be. He soon began competing internationally and was on the same track as Pistorius in London in 2012 at the Paralympics, winning the silver medal in the 400 meters in his classification.
Like a lot of runners, Leeper has spent the coronavirus pandemic hunting for places to train. His usual training track at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been closed. He has run in parking lots, on the beach, on mostly empty streets, anywhere he can find enough space to mark off 200 and 400 and 800 meters. He said the ruling would not make him any less determined.
“I trained this morning, I am going to train tomorrow, I am going to train the next day,” he said. “Regardless of the outside noise, I got to go and show up and keep training.”
Leeper said the experience with World Athletics, and learning of the study that included no Black people, reminded him of the racism he had faced growing up in Tennessee.
“I’m training twice as hard now,” he said.