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Saturday, August 04, 2012

London 2012: Pistorius and unfair advantage

The Science of advantage: Oscar Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius has just made his debut in the Olympic Games, finishing second in his heat, with a season's best of 45.44s.  It puts him into the semi-finals in joint 16th place, and ensures that the hype continues for at least another day.

Much has been said about Pistorius and the question of advantage.  No new thoughts on this from me, but rather links to what's been said in the past, and elsewhere, as well part of the Science of the Olympics Presentation that deals with the science of Pistorius' advantage.

In case you're new to the site, my take on the science, written a year ago, can be found in the following three articles, dealing with the science (get comfortable, they're long pieces because there is so much context and explanation):

  1. Theory for the advantage and the IAAF testing - the hypothesis and first finding
  2. Pistorius is "Metabolically similar" to long distance runners - how bad/dishonest science was presented to CAS to have Pistorius cleared
  3. The full evidence on Pistorius - the mechanical advantages that explain physiology and performance advantage

If you're more in the mood for a brief summary, then this piece, by David Epstein, which was published  yesterday, tackles the mechanical issues in perhaps the clearest piece written on it so far.  It has a video to explain the concept that gives Pistorius the advantage, and explains the characters beautifully.  If you read between the lines, there's much there to make you wonder about the case and how it was eventually "won" - my three articles above go more into that detail.  I highly recommend it for anyone of you who is wondering, or being asked, or debating whether he has an advantage.

The evidence that was NOT presented. You should be asking 'why'?

I wish the media would produce more of the same quality investigation as this, instead of allowing itself to become the platform for the aggressive PR and dishonest claims made in the other direction.  Much of what you've read is an outright lie, much of it is clever obfuscation designed to make the science seem much more equivocal than it really is.

The comparison of Pistorius, a 400m sprinter, to elite and sub-elite long distance runners in the research by Herr et al is one of the best examples of this.  They did have data on sprinters - it made Pistorius look physiologically and metabolically different, and would thus have confirmed the IAAF finding to have him banned.  And so they presented instead a comparison between Pistorius and distance runners.

Those scientists who went to CAS on Pistorius' behalf also failed to disclose the finding of a mechanical advantage so large that the world's leading authority on sprinting concluded that it would provide a 12 second benefit.  Even though the magnitude of this advantage is debatable (I think it was an over-estimate, and the adjustment should have been more "aggressive", which gives 5 to 6 seconds), the theoretical basis for an advantage it is true, and it should have been disclosed when making a decision.  But, when their science has been commissioned with the sole purpose of clearing his name, why would Pistorius' scientists do this?  Especially when one of them has had his designs commercialized by the same company that make Pistorius' controversial blades.

The science on this issue is, I believe, very clear.  The disadvantages, which certainly exist, primarily in the first 30 m of the race, cannot possibly overcome even a cautious adjustment of the mechanical advantage, which would provide a 5 to 6 second advantage.  Emotion, massive commercial backing and PR always make science look frivolous, however.

Pistorius science: Part 3 of the Science of the Olympic presentation

And then finally, since this is the topical story of the day, below is PART 3 of my presentation on the science of the Olympics.  You'll recall that last week, I did a talk to the public on some of the scientific stories at the Games.  Pistorius is clearly one of them, and below, you can see a presentation that takes you through the issues.  Again, without the context and the explanation it may not flow perfectly, but I think it complements what David Esptein has written, and those three posts I wrote a year ago, fairly well.

Here is that presentation:

Usain Bolt and the 100m men are up shortly.  Enjoy the action, and reviews later!