Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Oscar Pistorius research

Results on Oscar Pistorius due - but will they provide answers?

As we mentioned above, it's a big couple of days for long-awaited reports. First, there is the Mitchell report, which was mentioned in our other post today, and which we'll analyse over the coming days. Then second, there's a report from the IAAF on whether Oscar Pistorius should be allowed to compete against able bodied athletes.

This has been one of the more controversial topics of discussion in the sports sciences this year, and we had some excellent discussion on it earlier this year when we wrote about the results of their first analysis on Pistorius, and then later when we analyzed all of the available evidence in this case. (You can find all the posts looking him up as a key word in the right hand column of the page). We had some scathing comments and lively discussion, although we haven't yet cut off our own legs to prove the argument, as someone suggested.

Our position is unequivocally that the carbon-fibre blades confer a large advantage. We acknowledge the disadvatanges he has, and recognize his character and determination (but these are separate issues), but we tried to lay out a number of arguments in the lead up to Pistorius' first race against able-bodied athletes in Europe earlier this year. Our prediction, made on the basis of the physiological arguments we had discussed, was that Pistorius would not show the normal decline in running speed as the race progressed. In contrast, if the opposing view was true (that Pistorius has no advantage), then he would show the normal slowing down during the 400 m race, or an even greater slowing down than most runners, because of the supposed loss of energy caused by the prosthetic limbs.

Sure enough, when he ran in Rome, he got faster and faster as the race went on, never showing the progressive reduction in speed that occurs in ALL elite 400 m races. These results that have never been seen before in an elite 400m race, not even from the greatest 400m runners ever - Johnson and Wariner included. So based on that, I felt that the IAAF had sufficient evidence to prevent his taking part. But in their wisdom, they decided they should do more and so came up with I will politely describe as an absolutely bizarre battery of tests. We will discuss these tests in detail once the report is released (assuming the tests are made available and we don't have to rely on the journalists and press releases), but they included:

  1. Running 400m on an outdoor track with maximum effort and VO2 test with K4 mask. Blood lactate was then measured – four times in first 10 minutes, after 30 minutes, 1 hour and four hours.
  2. Body scanning to take anthropometric data
  3. Running sub-max speed in the indoor lab. Data recorded by 12 cameras, 4 force plates and 4 high-speed cameras. Oscar ran 5 repetitions of about 80 metres.
  4. WINGATE test on static bicycle to measure lactate
  5. Max VO2 test also done on static bike
  6. Mechanical testing was also made of both foot modules – swing frequency, pendulum frequency with foot module hanging and attached at the upper connection point

Will the tests show anything?

There are some good tests here, but I'm equally tempted to invite everyone to watch as the IAAF paint themselves into a corner. Because quite frankly, these tests have some potentially serious flaws - the measurement of oxygen consumption during a supra-maximal bout lasting only 45 seconds is one such problem. The interpretation of the data gathered poses a real problem, whichever way it is concluded.

For example, let's say that the testing finds that Pistorius has a lower VO2 during his 400m time-trial, and that his lactate levels are lower. What do they do with that information? Do they ban him because of the lower VO2, which shows less oxygen demand and possible advantage? Or do they let him run because his VO2 is lower, which some might suggest indicates that doesn't have the same ability to use oxygen as a result of having less muscle mass? Is it a disadvantage or an advantage? Depends on your point of view!

Look also at lactate - first of all, they will measure venous lactate, which means the interpretation is limited to begin with. But what do they do if Pistorius has lower lactate levels that the other runners? Do they let him run because there's no evidence lactate is even important (a fundamental, basic assumption that the IAAF scientists have somehow gotten wrong), or do they ban him because he doesn't produce as much lactate and must therefore have an advantage (a flawed argument yet again)?

My point is, no matter what the results, there will be a "valid" scientific argument from both sides, and these tests will conclude little (apart from test 6). The measurement of VO2 is near impossible to interpret for such a short, high intensity running bout. The only tests that might contribute to the definite outcome are the mechanical tests (number 6 in the list). The rest are, to be a little more blunt, a fishing expedition, and may prove useless.

Bottom line - the IAAF had the result they needed - a never seen before 400 m race where he sped up when everyone else was slowing down. He defied physiological possibility, and it was clear that he was unique, and it could have, should have been the end of it.

But, let's see what the testing shows. Whatever happens, it should make for some interesting discussion!

But first, the Mitchell report!