What does an Oscar Pistorius-style blade feel like?

WATCH: Stuart Hughes tries on the blade for the first time and finds out how it was made

BBC producer Stuart Hughes lost the lower part of his right leg in Iraq. On Tuesday he will run part of the Olympic torch relay wearing his carbon fibre blade prosthesis.

"But Daddy, why do you need a torch in the daytime?"

The reaction of my five-year-old son, Billy, to the news that I'd be carrying the Olympic flame just days before the start of London 2012 is one of bewilderment rather than excitement.

To him, a torch is something you keep under the stairs in case of a power cut, not a symbol of the fire stolen by Prometheus and given to mankind.

As the torch has snaked across the UK on its way towards London, Billy's sense of anticipation has increased - as has mine.

He now proudly tells his schoolmates that his father is taking part in the Olympics - and I haven't the heart to tell him I won't be lining up alongside Mo Farah or Mark Cavendish.

About the author

Stuart Hughes with his hi-tech prosthetic leg

Stuart Hughes is a world affairs producer for BBC News. In April 2003, while covering the war in Iraq, he stepped on an anti-personnel landmine, which blew off part of his right leg.

The cameraman he was working with, Kaveh Golestan, was killed.

Hughes received emergency medical treatment in Iraq before being flown back to the UK.

Five days after stepping on the landmine, his right leg was amputated below the knee. Three months later he was fitted with his first prosthetic leg.

He has previously written for the Magazine about his bionic foot and Paralympic sportswear glamour.

When I lost my leg below the knee in Iraq, I couldn't imagine ever being able to walk again properly, let alone run.

But once I began my rehabilitation, I realised how much prosthetics have advanced since World War II, when soldiers returning from the battlefield were fitted with crude, heavy artificial limbs.

In 2004, I travelled to Athens to cover the Olympic and Paralympic Games for BBC News.

There I met American amputee sprinter Marlon Shirley. Shirley won three medals in Athens, including the 100m gold in his class with a time of 11.08 seconds. He later went on to break the 11-second barrier.

As soon as I returned home, I asked my prosthetist to make me a leg just like Shirley's. Within a few months I was able to complete a 10km race, and longer distances were to follow.

As the countdown to the Games has progressed, I've been working with the British prosthetics company Blatchford to design a hi-tech prototype leg to wear for the torch relay.

The process has made me appreciate what an amazing machine the human body is.

An Olympic athlete's leg shifts gear effortlessly from walking to jogging to a sprint. Trying to mimic those motions mechanically is a complicated feat of engineering (if you'll pardon the pun).

Oscar Pistorius in action - he's been picked by South Africa for the 4x400m relay squad at London 2012 Oscar Pistorius will be the first double amputee runner at the Olympic Games

The key to finding a solution has been through what's known as biomimetics - solving design problems by studying what occurs in nature and trying to copy it.

London 2012 - One extraordinary year

London 2012 One extraordinary year graphic

A humble strip of fabric fastening is an example of biomimetics in action. In the 1940s, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral came up with the idea for the product after studying why plant burrs stuck so tenaciously to the fur of his pet dog.

For the Blatchford team, the biggest challenge has been to create a foot that rolls smoothly from heel to toe without jarring or bouncing uncontrollably.

Over the past six months, their design has gone from a hastily drawn pencil sketch to a sleek, shining sports prosthesis made from thin layers of carbon fibre with titanium components.

First developed by the aircraft industry in the 1960s, carbon fibre absorbs the energy I put into it when my artificial heel hits the ground and then releases it like a spring milliseconds later, propelling me forward.

Oscar Pistorius - aka Blade Runner

Oscar Pistorius
  • Born without fibula bones, so both legs amputated below knee before he learned to walk
  • Using prosthetic limbs, he became an accomplished athlete in his teens
  • Aged 16, he suffered a knee injury while playing rugby. He began track running as part of his rehabilitation and discovered a gift for sprinting
  • Had only been running eight months when he won 200m gold and 100m bronze at 2004 Paralympics
  • Cleared to compete against able-bodied athletes in 2008 when an IAAF ruling that his blades gave him an unfair advantage was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)
  • Personal best of 45.07s in 400m - world record is 43.18s, set by Michael Johnson in 1999

I tried the latest prototype on for size a fortnight ago and it leapt into life like a high performance sports car - although the person behind the wheel was more Sunday driver than Lewis Hamilton.

Where the early models felt dead and sluggish, this one seems almost like an extension of my body, allowing me to jog with ease along the corridors of Charing Cross Hospital in London.

No leg constructed from metal and finely spun carbon thread can yet match the complexity and perfection of a limb made from muscle, skin and bone. My prosthesis, however, is trying its best to catch up with hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution.

The leg has now been given a Formula One makeover, ready for the big day. It has been emblazoned with a Union Flag motif painted by the same company that's responsible for spraying the shells of Lotus cars.

At 40, I'm a little over the hill now to compete alongside Oscar Pistorius, the 25-year-old South African double amputee sprinter nicknamed The Blade Runner.

In terms of eye-catching artificial legs, though, I can definitely give him a run for his money.

Here is a selection of your comments.

As a former employee of a biomedical physics department and having raced (and lost) against Oscar, I have a great interest in this. But I have a burning question that the world's top sport scientists struggle with and it can only be answered by a one-legged amputee runner and I would be very grateful if you could answer it. Which leg is better for running, the real one or the artificial? e.g. Which one gives most back from each foot-strike? Does the control and balance of the real one, make up for the lack of lactic production etc in the artificial one?

Kevin Morice, Aberdeen

The Olympics is person v person and technology v technology. The moment "Blade Runner" takes his first step in a race, it becomes person v technology and the modern Olympics becomes a farce.

Ian, Milton Keynes

While I recognise this is an amazing achievement for Pistorius to compete alongside bipedal athletes I do wonder about the future. Eventually, the technology in artificial legs will improve until they become an advantage over real legs. Then what happens? What happens then the likes of Pistorius win every race?

Adam Rees,

As a wheelchair user myself, my chair is okay, but would be no use off road or doing anything more taxing than rolling on flat flooring. There are also no local facilities aimed at the disabled, as such i am stuck, i cannot afford to improve on my chair and even if i could where could i get professional training for something to keep me active? While i marvel at the breakthroughs in the type of technology spoken about in this article, i can't help thinking that we have a very long way to go before all people with disabilities are given fair and equal access to the very best they can get.

Boris, Ilminster, Somerset

More on This Story

In today's Magazine


Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.