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Monday, July 22, 2013

Oliveira 20.66s: A double amputee will soon medal in able-bodied Olympics

Double amputee sprinters version 2.0: Alan Oliveria runs 20.66s 200m 

The next generation of double-amputee sprinters have arrived, sooner than expected. Alan Oliveira of Brazil today won the 200m world title in 20.66s, improving the previous world record for double-amputees by 0.64s.

Oliveira, who shot to prominence after defeating Pistorius amidst blade controversies at the London's Paralympics, added the 200m WR to his 100m WR set a month ago (10.77s, 0.16s faster than previous).

So, we now see the successor to Pistorius, running 0.14s and 0.64s faster than Pistorius over 100m and 200m, respectively.  How much faster will he be over 400m?  The answer is "substantially".  Even if he does not continue increasing that advantage over the previous benchmark as distance increases, he will run ± 44.3 s.  Chances are, it grows even larger.  If you saw the race today, and the final 100m, you'll appreciate why.

So, a prediction, and you heard it here first (actually, if you've been following this debate about carbon fibre blades, you'll have heard it here years ago):

If he desires to run against able-bodied athletes, Alan Oliveira will win a medal in the 400m at the 2016 Olympic Games.  He is still only 20, with much strength to gain, but his recent improvements are staggering - 0.56s in the 100m and 0.80s in the 200m since the London Paralympics.  That suggests much more to come, and it suggests a medal in the able-bodied Olympics in 2016.  Of course, he may not wish to, which would be interesting.  If it is not him, it may be the next athlete, but it will happen.

This is not a criticism of Alan Oliveira, who deserves credit for his performances in the Paralympic events.  He will become the best amputee sprinter in history, if he is not already.  This is however an issue of the cross-over of amputee and able-bodied competitions, and the implications of this kind of progress for that decision.

The decision to allow Pistorius his wish to compete in able-bodied events was always going to have predictable repercussions in the future.  These were unfortunately obscured by marketing, emotion and the incomplete (dishonest?) presentation of science.  Allied to this was the media's almost total inability and lack of will to challenge the PR campaigns and to ask the difficult questions while they fell over themselves to tell the heart-warming, popular story.  (I hope that this section of the media will tell the same story for Oliveira or his successor when they run sub-43 seconds for 400m.)

The repercussions come more clearly into view today, because the evolution of a young sport means that better athletes will emerge, and times will continue to plummet. No doubt the authorities will scramble to look at the technology, but they'd be wasting their time - this is not an issue of technology changing - it's too soon for that to have happened significantly, and I'd hazard that Oliveira has had less R&D support than Pistorius so is likely still on technologically inferior equipment - he's just better at using them.  It's the athletes improving, because that's how a young sport evolves.

By allowing the cross-over to happen, the authorities and media, who were so starstruck by Pistorius that they couldn't see this, made the incorrect starting assumption that Pistorius belonged, physiologically, at the highest level of able-bodied sprinting.  The science was however clear - this assumption was wrong and Pistorius was getting between 5 and 10 seconds advantage in a 400m race, but the decision was made regardless.

It was thus inevitable that Pistorius' performance would soon be beaten, even with the same technology.  Oliveira today revealed just how much further we may still have to go - a 0.64s improvement in a single 200m race is astonishing, and it puts into context the true capacity of Pistorius and his performances.  And of course, on top of this, we know that technology progresses.  The dual combination of technology and a better athlete pool creates a situation almost impossible for authorities to control - they can be grateful we are only talking about one athlete at a time.  For now - in time, depth will be added to the dilemma.

So, do we now see a reassessment of the decision because an athlete may suddenly be "too fast"?  How can a decision be reversed based on the weak reason of "technology" when that technology was not even understood to begin with?  How far backwards can the IAAF bend on this?  And what happens when the next generation emerges, even faster than Oliveira?  Do we repeat the back-tracking again, in which case the entry requirement for participation in able-bodied events becomes that "you're just not quite fast enough?"  A theoretically farcical situation, but not all that far off, judging from 20.66s of sprinting today.

The issues around the performance advantages of carbon fiber blades was always going to be confirmed by the clock.  It's ticking a little more quickly than many might have thought.  Is anyone listening?