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Monday, November 23, 2009

Oscar Pistorius gets a 10 second advantage in a 400m race

Welcome to the Science of Sport. If you are looking for the VERY LATEST discussion about the research on Oscar Pistorius' advantages ahead of the Daegu World Champs,  please read THESE ARTICLES:

  1. The first study - the IAAF find "bouncing locomotion at lower metabolic cost"
  2. The second study - how Herr selectively ignored data to make Pistorius look more similar when the evidence said massive differences and advantages existed
  3. The mechanical advantages that explain why Pistorius has a running advantage
The article below was written in 2008, but has been "dated" by the latest publications by Weyand and further debate on the issue.

Thanks for visiting!

***Note to visitors looking for info on the Caster Semenya debacle***
Please see our other posts we have written in covering that story:

10 seconds over 400m - the magnitude of Oscar Pistorius' advantage in a 400m race

If you did a double-take as you read that headline, you're not alone.  About three hours ago, I received a phone call from a radio station in Canada asking my opinion on this latest research finding.  I had not even heard of it, having been in meetings and presentations all day.  Yet there it is - an article that will be published tomorrow has the startling conclusion that Oscar Pistorius, the self-styled Blade Runner, "runs the distance 10 seconds faster than he would if his prosthetic limbs behaved like normal legs"

The actual discussion and research findings and interpretations will be published in the Journal of Applied Physiology tomorrow, and I'll definitely be quicker getting to that one, and will post more on it then.  But for now, I have to throw out some thoughts on this latest revelation, which has clearly taken me by surprise, though not because of what it finds, but rather because of who is suggesting it and based on what it is suggested.

First though, allow me to apologize for my 'silence' in the last week.  I arrived back in SA last week, and then found out that I will be traveling with the SA Sevens Team to Dubai next week, which is obviously a huge honor for me, but has meant that I have 6 weeks of missed work and 4 weeks of upcoming work to condense into two weeks!  So the last week has been busy, but this latest story had to be commented on.

Pistorius' 10-sec advantage - according to the sum of the research

So let's cut right to it - the statement you see above, that Pistorius has a 10 second advantage in a single 400m race, was made by two of the scientists who did the testing that cleared him at the CAS hearing in 2008.  That's right, the research that was presented by the science and lawyers to allow him to compete against able-bodied runners has now been interpreted to show that he enjoys what amounts to an advantage that is, quite frankly, large enough to turn a merely decent high school runner into a world class 400m athlete.

You can read the press release here.  The author quoted is Peter Weyand, who was part of a team who Pistorius contacted to help build the case that he did NOT receive an advantage thanks to the high-tech carbon fibre blades.  Some of the talking points from the release, which I'll hopefully bring up again in the future, include:
  • “Pistorius’ sprinting mechanics are anomalous, advantageous and directly attributable to how much lighter and springier his artificial limbs are,” Weyand said in a statement. “The blades enhance sprint running speeds by 15-30 percent.”

  • "We are pleased to finally be able to go public with conclusions that the publishing process has required us to keep confidential until now. We recognized that the blades provide a major advantage as soon as we analyzed the critical data more than a year and a half ago (my emphasis)"
The main reasons for the advantage, incidentally,  relate to the mass of the blades, which is substantially reduced, and allow Pistorius to reposition his legs much faster.  Added to this is the elastic property of the blades, which allow reduced energy cost of running, increased energy return, and of course, reduction in fatigue over the course of a race.  But more on this in the future, hopefully. 

"New evidence" that has been around for a while

Now, there are some pretty big questions about the process that jump to mind here.  Firstly, if the analysis of the data "more than 18 months ago" suggested that there was an advantage (Weyand's own words, because I know a lot of people have been critical of me for suggesting this since the whole issue began), then how did the CAS NOT see that data or at least hear the possibility when they had to make the decision?  This is not "new" research, it's just newly released.  

And while it's only being published now, it seems to me that this possibility has been known by those intimately involved in the case, but not disclosed, when it needed to be.  Why not?  The CAS process in 2008 disregarded the entire peer-review process in the lead-up to the judgment.  They clearly did not consider all the evidence, but framed a very specific question regarding the IAAF research.  Whether the research was published or not was irrelevant to the CAS back in 2008 when they cleared Pistorius.  So saying the finding was not published is not an excuse for not disclosing it back then.  The result was a verdict based not on truth, but selected manipulation of opinion, by scientists, lawyers, or both.

Inconsistencies in the process

I have maintained from the outset that there is an advantage, as regular readers are well aware.  I even threw out a figure of 5 to 6 seconds, based only on coaching information and knowledge of the local running scene.  The theoretical basis for this advantage has been discussed over and over on this site (you can read the stories at this link - just select one of the many Pistorius stories), and I won't go into it again here.

However, take a look at what was said 18 months ago, in a press release issued around the time of the CAS verdict.  Note that this came soon after the decision, and was done to throw scientific weight behind what was said at CAS:

"Based on the data collected at Rice, the blades do not confer an enhanced ability to hold speed over a 400m race," Weyand said. "Nor does our research support the IAAF's claims of how the blades provide some sort of mechanical advantage for sprinting."

How can these two statements be reconciled:
  1. "Based on the data collected at Rice, the blades do not confer an enhanced ability to hold speed over a 400m race" (16 May, 2008)
  2. "We recognized that the blades provide a major advantage as soon as we analyzed the critical data more than a year and a half ago," said Weyand and Bundle in a statement (17 November, 2009 - both refer to the same time period)
I am amazed.  I suspect, given the nature of science, that this may revolve around the nature of the question being asked, and the 'burden of proof' to show that the advantage existed.   The legal process ended up creating a situation where the IAAF evidence had to be evaluated, and that was all.  Refute the evidence, win the case.  No need to actually find the truth.  It was the sports science equivalent of a technicality.  However, the point remains that there was clearly a differing view, one that was never offered, either deliberately or by accident, and that is wrong.

Then there is the issue of scientific disagreement, which happens all the time.  Indeed, the Weyand article in JAP tomorrow is a counterpoint article with Hugh Herr, who was another of the scientists involved in the research process.  This suggests that one half are saying there is an advantage, one half saying there is not.  Such is the nature of science - different interpretations of the data happen all the time.

But this only serves to emphasize that the decision should never have been made the way it was, in the absence of this very debate.  The scientific peer-review process serves to bring out the truth, whereas what transpired at the CAS did not - at best, it failed to reveal all sides to the scientific debate.  At worst, it allowed them to be deliberately buried.

And the subtle changes in question are good and well, but let's be straight - the CAS should have evaluated the question that Weyand has very clearly admitted suspecting an answer to 18 months ago.  Yet all reports seem to suggest that the CAS was given a very different picture, a very different interpretation, and what I have maintained all along is that the wrong decision was made.  This does little to suggest otherwise.

Have we reached a satisfactory conclusion?

In my opinion, at least we've arrived at the right answer.  There are questions around the CAS process, no doubt.  Did the legal team win that argument?  Did Pistorius "buy" the verdict (note that I am not implying any financial incentive, since I believe none was involved.  However, the question remains, was there some manipulation behind the scenes?).  Were Weyand and Bundle 'silenced' until now in the name of Pistorius making dollars out of commercial sponsorships and science?  What went on that saw an "obvious" conclusion buried while "bad science" was propagated as "proof" of no advantage?

I can tell you how Pistorius sourced those experts - he effectively did the equivalent of "door-to-door" selling, because he approached every single university in SA first, and asked them to prove that he had no advantage.  I know this, because the big irony was that I was asked to look at his case in 2007 (by SA government, who he asked to help him).  I wrote back (as did a number of others) and said that there was an advantage, so we would not be able to assist.  Then he wound up in the USA, where he found a team who would do the research, and present it to the CAS.  What happened in between, I don't know.

Flawed research, flawed process, time to review

What I do know is that the research he presented was flawed, there were some fundamental problems with it, including issues around the timing of testing, the selection of the control subjects, and the basis for doing some of the tests.  I wrote about these in a previous post.

However, this latest paper, and Weyand's quotes, suggest something bigger in play.  I will confess that I am relieved to finally hear another scientist speaking openly and definitively (to the degree that they're actually claiming a time saving in a race) about this topic.  It has been long overdue.

But for now, I'm still amazed that this knowledge has seemed to exist for 18 months, but legal decisions have been made,  and 'definitive conclusions' have been reached.  This is the reason that the CAS verdict should NOT have been made until peer-review, discussion and the opportunity for many people to examine the method and results of the research.  It was clear in 2008, and it has been exposed now. 

So Pistorius did a smash-and-grab at the CAS in 2008.  Nothing new there.  The big question now is whether the right thing will be done and this 'latest evidence' (which is actually 18 months old) will be used to reverse that decision, or whether the decision is binding.

The point is that even if Weyand is wrong, and the advantage is 5 seconds instead of 10 seconds, that's enough.  It's a massive advantage, the kind that turns a mediocre club runner (51 seconds) into an Olympic hopeful.  And the fact of the matter is, that should be disallowed, because someday, a good runner (46 seconds) will run in the high-tech blades, and the 40-second barrier will fall.

Time will tell.  More to come, once the JAP paper is out and I've seen it.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Sports Illustrated on Oscar Pistorius

Sports Illustrated covers Oscar Pistorius, and the latest on Semenya 

Yesterday I did a post looking at the latest research on Oscar Pistorius, which sensationally claimed that his advantage was about 10 seconds in a 400m race.  Nothing new from me today, but I do want to refer you to a great summary on the development by David Epstein of Sports Illustrated.

I had the pleasure of meeting David while in New York recently, and he covers the science, the politics and the personalities in great detail and logical thought in this article, which is well worth a read.

Of particular note is the following quote from Peter Weyand, referring to the fact that the media had, for the last 12 months, portrayed an extra-ordinarily one-sided perspective on the question of Pistorius' advantage:
"It was tough to watch Oscar on the Today Show after the [CAS] hearing saying, 'Hey, the best guys in the world have looked at this and said I don't have an advantage'," he said. "The history and evolution of it led him to believe he doesn't have an advantage, when our conclusion is he has a very clear one."

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Are marathon times getting faster or not?

A Further Analysis of Marathon Performances

As US fans continue to drink in the first American victory in New York since 1982, we thought we would follow up the race report with a further analysis of marathon times.  If you read the comments to the race report, Joe Garland and cassio598 mentioned that in the early years of the race the course was four laps through Central Park, and that to examine the progression of times we should rather analyze the winning times since 1976.  The graph in question is this one here:

So in 1976 the current race course was adopted, the one that passes through all five boroughs, and since then the average winning time has deviated year-to-year by only about 90 s and has gone below 2:08 only once (in 2001 when Jifar set the current course record).  The blips, for your information, are from 1984 when the ambient temperature was in the upper 70s F with 60-90% humidity, and 1990, when the max temperature on the course was 79 F.

One of the readers, cassio598, suggested analyzing the data from 1976 to the present, because then it appears that the winning time creeps lower over time.  And the verdict?

The regression line for these data does indeed move in a downward direction, however the coefficient of determination ("r-squared") is only 0.16, which does not suggest a very good fit.  But the bigger issue is that since 1981 there have been six times that are very close to 2:08, and so it is hard to conclude that the times are getting faster when almost 30 years ago the winning time was one minute faster than the winning time this year.

The nature of the course:  A peculiar finding

Perhaps the really interesting comparison comes from looking at the the "current" average times of all the big city marathons---London, Boston, Berlin, Chicago, and New York---and see how the times of this decade compare to the "average" times from a decade ago.  So what you see below is the average winning time from 1990-99 (blue column) compared to the average winning time from 2000-09 (red column) for all of the above-mentioned races.

Recall that Chicago, London, and Berlin are flat courses, while NYC and Boston are not flat.  You can see that the winning time for all the flat courses has decreased by about 2.0% while NYC and Boston have remained more or less the same.  How is that?  Even when scrutinizing the Boston data, it comes out that in 1983 the last American to win, Greg Meyer, ran 2:09:00.  It also turns out that the average winning time for the Kenyans (and a Kenyan has won Boston many many times!) is 2:09:32.

One key factor is pace-makers - at least for the last few years, neither Boston nor New York have employed pace-makers, whereas Berlin, London and Chicago have.  Berlin, in particular, has evolved into a staged record attempt every year.  Fast times are designed on these flatter courses, and that is certainly a factor to take into account.  However, it does not explain why the Kenyan dominance, particularly in Boston, has been sustained with slower times than in the 1990s (and, as in the case of Meyer, the early 1980s!)

This all leads me to believe that the less than flat nature of these two courses may "neutralize" the speed of the East Africans.  How this works we have not figured out just yet, but how can it be that while the average best American marathon time is so many minutes slower than the best African times, yet on courses like these we had runners over 20 years ago running just as fast as the Africans are running now?

Conservative race strategy?

Perhaps the hilly nature of Boston and New York dictate a more comfortable (i.e. ~2:09) pace for the first half, as no one wants to blitz the first 20 km in 57 min only to have the wheels come off during any bumps in the second half.

One question we asked ourselves after New York was, "What if Wanjiru ran New York. . .?"  Because if he ran aggressively like he ran Beijing, London and Chicago, at halfway he might have had only two runners with him and not seventeen others as was the case in New York.  With all due respect to Meb, if the 21.1 km split was 1:03:00 and not 1:05:11, he and most of that pack would likely not have been there to contest the race around Manhattan.  Having said that, however, it will be really interesting to see how Meb goes next year, because he did set a half marathon PB this year with a 61:00 back in April.

The fastest of the fast:  Berlin

One thing that also comes out of the graph above is that Berlin has been the fastest course around for years.  We all know why the average time since 2000 is about 2:06:20, but even in the 1990s Berlin was almost one minute faster than London and Chicago.  Seeing as how the margins are so tight now, it seems that Berlin is perhaps the course most likely to produce the next marathon world record.  Previously, when the record was "softer" and still above 2:05, the turns, bumps and cobbles of courses like London were not really obstacles.  Now, however, the record is so close to the limits of the current crop of potentials that even having to take several extra 90 degree turns will be meaningful.

Dubai may become the new player on the record scene, and along with Berlin, has become one of Gebrselassie's two paced record attempts each year (as it will be in 2010).  So it may have the fastest time of all, but being such a recent race, and really only by virtue of the fact that Geb has chosen it, it hasn't proven itself over decades, yet.

The answer to the title of this post:  YES!

If we looked only at New York and Boston we might conclude that, no, times are not getting faster, because in those two races there seems to be a real limit in the form of the race course.  While a 2:07 in either of those races will almost guarantee you a win and probably the course record too, a 2:07 in London is only good enough to squeeze into the top five and probably a podium in Chicago, but no guarantees you will be victorious.  But obviously the times are getting faster, because we have seen a progression of world records in 5000 and 10000 all the way up to 42.2 km, and no one would argue with that.

What we have stated before is that the marathon class of 2009 has been particularly fast, and that actually warrants an analysis on its own---between Kibet's and Kwambai's 2:04:27 in Rotterdam, Wanjiru's 2:05:10 in London, Gebrselassie's 2:06:13 in Berlin, Wanjiru's 2:05:41 in Chicago, and even Vincent Kipruto's 2:05:47 in Paris, the average winning time this year is 2:05:28, which might be the fastest average for one year!


Monday, November 02, 2009

NYC Marathon 2009 race report

A day of upsets!

By now you would have heard the news and probably read much about it---in both races in New York the runners did not play to the script and there were big upsets all around. For some fans change might be hard, but we welcome it as it means there was unpredictable events and it made for exciting viewing in each race!

Lining up it seemed a forgone conclusion that Paula Radcliffe would run most everyone off her heels by halfway and then finish off any hangers on in the last 10 km. On the men's side seasoned vets like Gharib and Cheruiyot were pegged to take the win with Ryan Hall posting another good result after Martin Lel pulled out at the 11th hour. So those were the scripts, as they were, but what we saw was something entirely different.

The women - No one got the memo

It was a "normal" start to the women's race with Paula setting the pace, although it was not particularly fast. The early fireworks were not from hard running but from a fall from Salina Kosgei in the fourth mile. She went down, apparently tripping on her own feet, but the real casualty was Yuri Kano who hit the deck hard. Kosgei fought back and hung on to finish a respectable 5th, while Kano was probably more impressive with her 9th place after what looked like a very hard fall.

For much of the race Paula had a bit of an entourage in Kosgei, Tulu, Ludmila Petrova, and the French woman Christelle Daunay who was fresh of a three-minute PB in the Paris marathon earlier this year. Not surprisingly Kosgei was the first to go, but what was surprising was that Paula Radcliffe was the next. All it took was one surge by the the aging Petrova and Radcliffe was gapped, never to reel in the other three. Daunay was next as Petrova pushed the pace and tried to drop what surely would be a faster finishing Tulu.

Once Radcliffe was gone the writing was on the wall and some predictability returned. It would be Tulu sitting in and waiting for the final stretch before out-kicking Petrova easily and winning by eight seconds in 2:28:52.

The end of an era?

Already the questions are flying about whether or not Radcliffe is now over the hill, in marathon terms that is. It is hard to say based off just this one race, but one has to consider the string of injuries she has faced since 2004 pre-Athens. To be sure, training for and racing marathons places undue amounts of stress on your body, and it is the exception when we see an athlete have real competitive longevity---for example Gebrselassie. Instead the inevitable is that their bodies start to break down in the form of constant injuries that keep them just off their best efforts. They start and they finish, but it looks very much like Paula (and Ramaala) did in New York---they hang with the lead pack, probably cover the early moves, but when things really heat up they are straight out the back, but still finish well in the top ten.

There are reports that she will have another baby next year, and if that is the case it will likely give her sufficient time off from hard racing and training to mend some of the wear and tear. So the jury is still out, but the times of Paula running off the front and obliterating the field might well be past us.

The men - A new cast of US runners

Before his exit in the days before the race, Martin Lel was the hot favorite in the race. We have pegged him as one of the best racers and when healthy he is a lock to win it. In the absence of Lel Boston King Cheriyot was the heir apparent, although he has been plagued with injuries of alte and remained untested, which meant the smart money should maybe have been on Kwambai---don't forget he holds one of the fastest times ever when he and Kibet dueled to a photo-finish Rotterdam earlier this year. So like in the women's race, this was the script, although they also deviated from it wildly!

The early antics were provided by Bouramdane, who attacked and surged numerous times throughout the race. Nothing ever stuck, though, and he was always brought back into the fold. Perhaps it was the relatively slow pace that made him impatient? For the first half they were never below 2:10 pace, which explained the massive group of 18 men that stayed together through halfway.

In New York First Avenue normally signals the start of the fireworks, and for this part they played to script---suddenly the pace went from about 5:00 per mile to 4:42 for mile 17 and 4:39 for mile 18. It was race on as rookie Jackson Kipkoech pushed the pace as the pack of Keflezighi, Cheruiyot, Kipkoech, Gharib, Kwambai, and Bouramdane were all together. Gharib was the first to get popped, although he clawed back to finish third, and by mile 22 it was Meb vs. Cheruiyot.

Summoning strength from his fallen friend Ryan Shay, Meb turned on the jets with just over two miles to go, surging and getting a meaningful gap on the Kenyan. Cheruiyot looked undone at that point and not able to fight back to even with Meb, and so it was that Meb opened up a 41 s margin over those remaining miles, giving him enough of a lead to savour the victory and be the only one in the photo crossing the line in first.

The return of Meb? Or a shot in the dark?

No one would have bet on Meb winning in New York, especially with all the pre-race hype in the USA on the steady and great form Ryan Hall has been showing this year. But by and by Meb was on the road back from a disastrous 2008 in which he failed to finish the US Olympic trials, and let us not forget that he took silver in Athens. Interestingly, NYC was his first marathon win and also his PB, which was way off the course record by the way.

As excited as I was by the racing and also as happy as I am for Meb to win this race, I am not convinced we are going to see him on the podium in the marathon majors next year. The problem is that NYC is unique among the big city marathons---London, Berlin, Chicago, and even Boston are fast courses that tend to be won by the "fastest" runners. By this I mean those with the fastest 10 km times, the fastest 21.1 km times, and the fastest previous marathon times. In other words, the Wanjirus/Tergats/Gebrselassies/Khannouchis of the world. If he stays healthy I fully expect Meb to be with the leaders until 30+ km in any of those races, providing Sammy Wanjiru is not setting a suicidal pace like he did in both London and Chicago this year. But once it heats up he will fade and finish in the top ten somewhere because he does not even have the speed of Ryan Hall in the marathon and shorter distances.

What is special about New York

The funny thing about New York is that the winning time has changed little since 1974 when Norbet Sander (who?) set the then course record of 2:10:09:
It is likely a function of the course---turns and a little less than flat profile with all the bridges, and perhaps partly due to the race's position on the calendar, very late in the season. But it is hard to explain how it is that the world record has fallen substantially over the past 30 years, as has the winning time at all the other city marathons, yet in New York 2:08 seems to be the limit.

Technology does us in

That is our take on the race as I saw it, as unfortunately Ross was not able to access the live feed with any consistency. In addition the race website has an "interesting" choice of splits as they do not capture 5 km splits but mix those with odd strings of mile splits like 14-15 and 19-21. It was hard coming off our very successful reporting of one km splits in Chicago, but even the race coverage did not reliably report mile splits for either race today. So pardon the absence of the normal pacing analysis, but in this case the real story was not how it the race was run but rather that going into the race we all would have selected a certain finishing order, only to be totally wrong on the day!

There is more to say and ask about US distance running, too, as not since 1976 have so many Americans (SIX) finished in the top ten. Is this a resurgence? The fruit of several years of devoted efforts and incentives? A stacked field compared to other races? A lack of Kenyan entrants/finishers (two)?


Sunday, November 01, 2009

New York 2009: Race analysis and splits

New York 2009: Splits and race analysis

If you've come here for live splits, I'm afraid I have been beaten by technology this time around. Between the feed from Universal Sports breaking up on me every 2 seconds, and the hotel wireless access in Boston, I did not manage to even watch the race, let alone document the splits. Even now, 8 hours later, I can't watch the race for long enough to even comment sensibility on what went down.

I have seen the race reports, and I would have loved to comment on what were two huge upsets - Meb Keflezighi and Deratu Tulu would have been long-odds leading into the race, but they came out on top in what must rank as the biggest surprises of the year's Marathon Majors, by a long way.

I'm off to New York tomorrow, where I'll try again to watch the race, and then maybe, I'll even feel compelled to comment. I'll try to get some split times up if I can (better late than never). But for now, I'm disappointed that I wasn't able to follow the race, and apologize for not delivering on our usual race analysis - this is, I noticed, the first marathon I've missed since London 2007.

So huge apologies, I will try my best to get a post on the race done at some point!