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Monday, July 02, 2007

An open letter to the IAAF: Oscar Pistorius research

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Dr Ross Tucker, I am an exercise physiologist based in the University of Cape Town's Sports Science Institute. I am writing to you out of growing concern over a situation which I am sure that you realise poses some very serious problems for you in the future (as it has in the past), and that is the issue of Oscar Pistorius' participation in the able-bodied IAAF sanctioned meetings.

Let me state first and foremost my position - I do not think that Pistorius should be allowed to compete against the able-bodied runners until it is conclusively shown that the limbs do not assist performance. It is likely we agree on the fact that research is required in order to establish whether his prosthetics are in fact an advantage or disadvantage. We are all aware of the hype and comment on this topic. However, the current angle you have taken is risky and the IAAF is in danger of putting itself in a compromised position if it accepts the responsibility to perform the research during his competitions at future IAAF meetings.

It is my understanding that your plan is to allow him to run and then to monitor stride length and frequency during his 400 m races. However, by doing this you are destined to show only that he does not have an advantage, and this would be a Type II statistical error because you are asking the wrong question.

My involvement with Oscar Pistorius is of direct personal origin. As I have mentioned I am an exercise scientist and an athletic coach. I recently coached another South African athlete who won medals at the Paralympic Games of Athens 2004. Based on this, I was contacted in October 2004 by journalists seeking my opinion on whether Pistorius’ prosthetics were an advantage or disadvantage. My responses were the following:
  • Firstly, the legs must be considered to provide an advantage until such time that it was proven otherwise by Oscar Pistorius. The burden should be entirely on him to show that he gains no advantage running on feet specially designed for speed
  • Secondly, because of his inability to balance out of the starting blocks, his current events of the 100 m and 200 m would not be his strongest. I said in 2004 that he would be able to challenge able-bodied athletes if and when he went up to the 400 m distance. This has now happened, and it has been borne out.

Now, my reasons for writing this in 2004 were the following:

  • Based on an analysis of Pistorius' races during the 2004 Olympic Games, it was obvious to me that he was at a severe disadvantage at the start of the race because by the time the other athletes had run 30 m, Pistorius had done 20 m. Yet he was always able to catch and then pass his opposition to win by 5 m or more. There was even a race where he stumbled, stood up and then managed to catch up to the other runners and win the race.

My conclusion then was that his ability to catch up and make up the distance that he lost over the first 30 m was unnatural, suggesting that he had some advantage as a result of his limbs. In effect, he was running 80 m while others where running only 65 m, at least a full second and a half difference. The opposition athletes were single leg amputees and this gave them better ability to balance and thus they were able to start faster, but unable to reach the same top speeds as Pistorius. To me, this was the first evidence that we were witnessing a performance-enhancing effect of the limbs.

  • Anecdotally, his stride length and incredibly high stride rate were the factors that were responsible for this difference.

These two factors led me to suggest in 2004 that the IAAF would soon be faced with a very difficult predicament, because it was inevitable that Pistorius would soon step up to the 400 m event. Here, his slow start would not be as much of a barrier to success and he would be a candidate to run an Olympic able-bodied qualifying time for the 400 m event.

My colleagues at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa shared this view. Professor Tim Noakes was also contacted and echoed the sentiments I expressed above, though we did not confer at any time. I have no doubt that you have heard similar concerns regarding the limbs.

My next interaction with Oscar Pistorius was when his agent contacted me in early 2006 to say that he would bid to run in the Olympic Games in Beijing. They wanted me to endorse his efforts and say that the limbs did not provide an advantage. I discussed this with Pistorius’ agent and repeated my opinion that the legs may in fact provide and advantage, although I did not have the scientific evidence to say either way. My suggestion at the start of 2006 was that research needs to be done.

In addition, for technical reasons that I will not go into here, there are factors that must be explained, because from a pure physics point of view, Pistorius does in fact have certain advantages. It is important to note that these advantages may in fact be present without the expected increase in stride length. For example, the metabolic cost of accelerating a carbon-fibre limb may reduce the work of running for Pistorius by more than he loses by not having certain muscles to perform that work. This would not require an increase in stride length to enhance his performance.

Recently I communicated with Pistorius and his group and they proposed that research be done on the prosthetics. However, this communication stopped and has never been re-initiated since. At about the same time, Pistorius’ agent contacted Professor Tim Noakes, who also said that research was required before it could be conclusively stated that the legs did not confer an advantage. In neither case was research done.

Currently we have a situation where it is the IAAF who has been tasked with the responsibility of doing the research to either prove or disprove this theory about Pistorius’ prosthetics. Let me again emphasize that I firmly believe it is not the responsibility of the IAAF to prove this due to a very obvious conflict of interest. However, research is clearly required, and it is critical that the research be performed professionally so that we do not incorrectly find that the prosthetics either do or do not provide an advantage.

The media have reported that you are going to allow Pistorius to run in the 400 m races at future IAAF meetings and use video technology to analyse his stride patterns. This will fail to find any effect, even it exists, because the 400 m event is sub-maximal by nature and thus his stride length will be constrained in accordance with the pace he chooses to run at. The benefit of the limbs, if any, is therefore an energy conserving one. Since you will not be in a position to measure the metabolic demands of his running, so you will never know whether or not the limbs work. Therefore, there it is likely that you will experience a Type II error (a false negative), because you are analysing the wrong circumstances.

The only way you will be able to discover whether the limbs provide him an advantage is by the following:

  • Analyse a 100 m race, and examine only the final 50 m. If Pistorius’ stride length or frequency is higher during this phase, this is an indication that his limbs are transferring energy that enhances his stride mechanics.
  • However, as I pointed out, there are factors that might contribute to improved performance without necessarily increasing his stride length. Just because his stride may be the same length, does not mean he does not have an advantage.
  • Therefore, we must attempt to analyse the elastic recoil of the limbs. For this, you would require an extremely high-definition camera which can film the flex and potential storage of energy in the limb between the time where Pistorius’ prosthesis makes contact with the ground and toe-off. If the limb flexes and then ‘releases’ this energy, then the limbs should be disallowed, for they are clearly providing an elastic recoil that an able-bodied runner does not possess.
  • On this note, one might wonder why the limbs have this very specific bend and shape. The reason is comfort but also the advantage it gives to elastic energy. In fact, a member of Pistorius’ family has stated that in the beginning, Pistorius wore “primitive prosthetics” and they (the manufacturers) have since changed the shape. If this is not an indication of the role of design in speed, nothing is.

Further to this, there are a number of studies which can be conducted to investigate this debate, although I will not discuss these here. If the IAAF continues on its current path, there is real danger of creating an untenable situation. I recognize that this may be an unpopular decision since it may be seen as discriminatory to prevent a Paralympic athlete from competing in the Olympic Games. However, I repeat, the burden to prove that the limbs do not improve performance lies with Pistorius, not the IAAF. However, all parties have too much to lose and this is the reason why, despite my and others’ suggestion, no scientific research has yet been performed.

Finally, let me say that I believe that Oscar Pistorius is a great role model for everyone, not only those with amputations. I think that his courage and spirit are fantastic, and my scientific stance in no way reflects on my perceptions of his efforts as an athlete or a human. However, in the name of the sport, which surely is greater than any individual, I urge the IAAF to strongly consider its approach to this research before we make a great mistake, one way or the other.

Yours Faithfully

Dr Ross Tucker

Email: ross.tucker@uct.ac.za

Tel: +27 21 6504577
Fax: +27 21 6867530

UCT/MRC Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine
Department of Human Biology
University of Cape Town

Sports Science Institute of South Africa
Boundary Road

Newlands, Cape Town

If you found this post interesting, see our latest article on Oscar Pistorius here


Anonymous said...

Mr. Tucker, I have been following your crusade against Oscar Pistorius from the start. Over time I became aware, and I am surely that I am not the only one, of all the inaccuracies you send into the world via the Internet as "gospel". It is clear to all that you are for some reason paranoid about Oscar's prosthetics and his phenomenal success as an athlete - I believe he is an equally phenomenal speaker. Not even your mentor, the world-renowned and much respected Prof Tim Noakes, share your opinion on Oscar's prosthetics. Reading all your negative remarks to every Internet postings you can find on Oscar, I cannot stop to wonder what the origin of your obsessive behaviour is, "who took away your sweets?" Where does your "anger" originate?
Luckily the vindictive obsessive nature of your pursuit to proof Oscar's so called advantage has now reached such proportions that the old saying rang true, "give the man enough rope and he will hang himself". The contradictions that come from your pen are laughable. On behalf of all the other readers I would like to ask: "From where does Tucker get his cheek and audacity as he tries to dictate to a body like the IAAF what they should and should not do? To top it all, how can Tucker dictate to the IAAF what their decision should be?" Tucker goes further and criticizes Oscar's trainer who has more experience than he would ever hope to have as an academic. Ampie Louw is a trainer who is respected and acknowledged as an expert throughout the world. Why does Tucker not try to draw Mr. Louw into his so-called "research?” then Mr Louw probably will not have the time to waste on someone's personal paranoia.
Tucker's claim, o la la, that he has predicted that Oscar will eventually be better in the 400m than in the 100m and 200 m also raises questions?
Have you published this prediction somewhere, or did you only mention it to someone whose name you cannot remember.
Mr Tucker, nobody has ever heard of you before you have started your crusade against Oscar Pistorius, a wonderful, innocent child/man. If you are trying to draw some attention to yourself by focusing on Oscar Pistorius's phenomenal success, you did, but it will backfire. Then I for one will demand some answers from UCT!!
How long can the UCT afford that an employee blast his personal unfounded, unresearched, unscientific personal views on the back of a respected foundation like the UCT?
I have read more about Oscar since I became aware of your personal crusade against a man that is not only a phenomenal athlete, but also a very hard worker. Instead of asking questions, you not only offer advice but you command to be listened to. How dare you? As far as I could establish from the Internet, you claim that your relationship with Pistorius is a personal one. But according to one of the postings, nobody in the Pistorius advisory team- trainer, manager, and father - has ever heard of you. Explain that before you abuse the Internet further please!!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your interest in our blog.

We appreciate you taking time to voice your opinion on this issue. After all, one aim of our blog is to stimulate (scientific) debate on topics such as these, and this debate can happen only if individuals like you participate and comment on our posts.

Unfortunately Dr. Tucker will be away until the end of August. You have directed the majority of your comments to him, and therefore I will leave it to him to respond to those personal comments here when he returns. However I will address a portion of your comments now.

Until the statements of an employee become hateful or discriminatory in nature, it is of no consequence to any institution what its employees say, especially when the said employees are not directly representing the institution at an official function or in any official capacity.

The University of Cape Town nor the University of Illinois at Chicago hosts this blog. Furthermore, although we are employed by these institutions, no where on this blog do we purport to represent them in our writings here. Instead we present ourselves as Sports Scientists with an interest and passion in sports and sporting performance, and take great pleasure in using a scientific approach to analyse and interpret these topics. As academics, it is standard practice to state one's name and academic affiliation when signing published texts, as Dr. Tucker has done when he signed the Open Letter to the IAAF.

Any academic institution places high value on freedom of expression, speech, and thought. If it does not encourage its academics to think openly, express those thoughts, and challenge current paradigms in a scientific and academic way, then no longer can it call itself an academic institution as it will fail to stimulate learning and discovery. Therefore outstanding academic institutions such as the University of Cape Town both permit and encourage their academics to publish scientific articles that are not censored, controlled, or dictated in any way, shape, or form, by the university. This is the core of the freedom of academic expression and scientific debate.

Although you label Dr. Tucker's opinions as "unfounded, unresearched, unscientific," in fact we have applied only scientific principles and facts in our views on why we feel Mr. Pistorius' prostheses provide him with an advantage. In addition, no where have we ever stated that Mr. Pistorius is not a hard worker and is not a talented athlete. In fact we would agree with you that he is a most hard worker and possesses athletic talent, for as Sports Scientists we understand precisely the physiology and effort required to compete at his level and to achieve what he has done.

Again, thank you for participating in this debate with us, I look forward to reading Dr. Tucker's response to your comments.

Kind Regards,
Dr. Jonathan Dugas

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Dear Anonymous

While I am currently on holiday, I happened to log in and read your email, and felt that I would reply now.

Your comments are duly noted, and I see that Jonathan has done a fine job of addressing the issue of UCT as being behind any of the statements I have made. I think that you are confusing the issue, perhaps deliberately by bringing the affiliation of the author into it. Fact is, there is no official UCT backing to the site, and we have stated our objective and intent.

The second point I would like to make is that Prof Tim Noakes has not stated his opinion on this matter - if you can find it, please let me know, but his office is three doors from mine and so I know his opinion and it is clear to me that you have some incorrect facts at your disposal.

And therein lies the crux of the matter - the facts. What I have done, quite neutrally, I might add, is evaluate all the claims that have been made by Ampie Louw, by PIstorius, by his team. I have put counter-points to each of these, argued from a scientific point of view, and then presented evidence that Pistorius' racing pattern is unique, and never ever seen before that race in Rome. This is a sealed case, from a scientific perspective, based on facts.

It is quite clear to me that you have adopted a very personal and hostile approach here. You have avoided facts at all cost, nowhere do you have any basis for the claims you have made. And as Jonathan pointed out, had you read the posts properly before the red haze of personal attack descended upon you, then you would realize that we have never suggested he does not train harder than others. Yet you read this, between the lines, because of the personal bias you clearly have.

So returning to the facts, I would greatly value your opinion on those facts and your disputation thereof.

Now, to address the next concern, we did in fact attempt to bring Pistorius down to UCT a couple of years ago, when his agent contacted both Prof Tim Noakes and myself, separately. Neither of us was successful, perhaps because neither was willing to openly state that the limbs DID NOT confer an advantage without proper research. So what i have claimed is that my involvement in the ISSUE is a personal one, not my RELATIONSHIP WITH OSCAR, which is what you have read. Yet again, this is an example of misreading of the facts, and it discredits your argument, because until such time as you come to the debate with all your own facts correct, then your position does not contribute to the development of a solution, either way.

Finally, you may read reference to my initial involvement in this story at the following URL:


Or you can read the very first article in which I stated that his 400m performance would be better:


Unfortunately this article is in Afrikaans, but I gather from your email that this may not be a problem? I am sure that a translation programme will sort it out if it is.

You will see in this second article that I have actually stated that Pistorius is an exceptional athlete, that he is extremely well 'connected', and in the final paragraph, a prediction that his 400m performance would be better than his 100 and 200m, which is where we are now.

So now, having wasted energy proving myself to not be lying (which is really unnecessary because what is in play here are the facts, not my personal history), perhaps we can address those facts.

One last thing - in my position as an 'academic', I have been fortunate enough to obtain a national ASA coaching qualification at the age of 15 (the same qualification as Mr Louw, I might add), I then coached an Olympic Gold medallist from Athens, have consulted with other Olympic athletes, work presently with the SA 10000m junior champ and so despite my academic status I do have some coaching background. Again, however, I don't see the relevance of this at all.

It does not matter that I am unknown, unheard of, based at UCT, working under Tim Noakes, a coach, an academic, anything. What matters in this debate are the facts. And I have presented some of those facts. And the facts that I have presented must be debated at length, because they are pivotal to making the correct decision for the SPORT. That is my crusade. If you would like to continue the discussion, I would be more than happy, but may I request that we discuss the facts of the issue, not the smokescreens and mirrors that you are throwing up to cloud those facts.

What has dumbfounded me from the start is that these facts and scientific arguments that I have made are the very things that must ultimately be proven for Oscar to run. Yet his camp has never addressed them, preferring instead to drum up emotional support and moving the issue away from the facts.

So please, anonymous, let us discuss the issue. And please tell me which of my arguments are 'unfounded, unresearched and unscientific,? Because my reading is the other way around.

Dr Ross Tucker

Giovanni Ciriani said...

This came out today:
I'm sure it's a rehashing of the arguments you have already addressed. Very interesting scientific debate indeed.