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Monday, January 14, 2008

Oscar Pistorius reaction: Challenge the ban

Pistorius to challenge ban - insight and overview of the debate so far

Earlier today, the IAAF released a press statement summarizing their findings on the testing of Oscar Pistorius. Based on the testing, Pistorius has been banned from competing, due to a "clear mechanical advantage".

We've analysed the results of the reports here, and below is a brief overview of the history of the debate, and the news that emerged on Friday that Pistorius will challenge the verdict.

Pistorius will fight the ban

In a statement issued on Friday, Pistorius declared that he would challenge any ban, pre-empting the IAAF verdict which was only announced today (though, again, it was a badly kept secret).

He blasted the testing procedure, the IAAF and in particular, the "premature and highly subjective statements" made by Professor Gert-Pieter Brueggemann. For the record, Brueggemann was reported in a German newspaper as saying that Pistorius "has considerable advantages over athletes without prosthetic limbs who were tested by us."

The world authority on running biomechanics and Pistorius

I'm not sure what the details of this "leak" were, though I know that the IAAF were disappointed at it as well. However, more to the point with regards to the current situation, is that you can hardly call the scientist who tested you "highly subjective", as Pistorius did. Yes, they were unfortunately premature, but to suggest they were subjective suggests that the science is perceived as a bit of a side-show, not carrying much weight. Of all the scientists on the planet, Brueggemann, a world leader in biomechanics of running, is now the best placed person to comment OBJECTIVELY on Pistorius's carbon-fibre blades.

However, one can hardly blame Pistorius for challenging, despite his statement from last year in July, when he said that he would accept the results from this particular testing bout. Apart from the obvious human interest aspect, and the emotion of the issue, there is the desire to keep the story alive. For Pistorius, the longer this controversy remains in the public eye, the better, because his entire strategy is public opinion, not science.

Indeed, Ossur, the company that makes the Cheetahs, have come out and said that there is no way the blades give him an advantage. Well, of course they say that - how much money and free exposure do they stand to gain if he can run? They could hardly admit at this stage that there is an advantage. Yet it's a statement with no evidence - it's only "true" because they say so...

The debate in the courts of public opinion

I've written before, but it's worth emphasizing, Pistorius and his team will have known since January 2005 that they needed to get science to support their Olympic aspirations. As soon as the curtain had fallen on the Paralympic Games of 2004, and Pistorius first mentioned his Olympic aspirations, the obvious requirement to get some kind of scientific support was identified - it was undeniable.

It was therefore clear from 2005 that any dreams of Olympic qualifying depended on getting scientific testing done. Yet three years passed, and not a shred of scientific evidence emerged. In fact, not even a shred of reasonable theoretical basis has been delivered, apart from continued claims that "the legs don't provide an advantage". This was always going to be a debate based on science, but only one side (IAAF) eventually spent money to bring that data to the table. Now that the data is on the table, we still have claims about "too few variables" with no proactive effort to bring science forward as well.

The evolution of the debate

Instead, what happened was that Pistorius got in touch with a "scientific expert" who made the absolutely absurd statement that a human leg could return 240% of the energy, three times more than the Cheetahs. The real figure, incidentally, is that the Cheetah returns 90%, the human leg between 30% and 70%. And this is not even the crux of the argument - the real issue is the physiological cost of storing the energy in the first place, not the return. And it's here where the Cheetahs cost little, whereas the human leg "invests" to get out - that's the key difference.

And so the "science" was performed and the entire focus on the campaign moved towards accusing the IAAF of discriminating without reasonable grounds to do so - public support tours in the USA, press statements about his discipline and work ethic, multimillion rand sponsorship deals and promotions - all the while, the evidence that needed discussion was overlooked.

The IAAF - a commendable effort

In response, the IAAF bent over forwards, backwards and sideways. First, Pistorius was tested in a race in Rome - the analysis of that race showed that Pistorius did indeed have a distinct advantage when it came to fatigue tolerance. By itself, that was interesting, but not definitive. However, you have to interpret that data in the context of the physiological theories and arguments that were made leading up to the race. Indeed, the entire basis for why the Cheetahs do give Pistorius an advantage is that his fatigue-resistance will be better than any other runners because of the carbon-fibre blades. The predction what would be made is that he'd run the 400m EXACTLY the way the IAAF found he did.

That finding alone should have been enough to ban the use of the Cheetahs. However, the IAAF then consented to the testing and the report we are now discussing. At a tidy cost of 50,000 Euros, the sport's governing body tested an athlete who could well have been asked to provide the data himself.

Too few variables tested? Or too many?

And now we have those findings. Yet still, the battle goes on. Pistorius has angrily said that the IAAF have not tested him sufficiently to make the decision. In his words:

"The data that has been collected from the testing considers too few of the variables that need to be examined to make a decision of this magnitude".

What is interesting about this is that BEFORE this testing was done, Pistorius was given opportunity to take his own group of advisors and experts with him, to oversee the process and make sure that the testing was done fairly. However, the result that has come back negatively has spurred him to consult other experts who now believe he was not given a fair run. This is much like the previous case of selective hearing where scientists refused to simply endorse the use of the limbs until Pistorius was able to find an expert to say that the Cheetahs were inferior to a human leg.

In considering this challenge, then, one has to ask "Which variables still need to be tested?". If you look at the range of variables that were tested by the researchers in Cologne, it is exhaustive. In fact, I would suggest that they actually tested TOO MANY things, many of which are actually unnecessary to the final decision. I wrote as much last year in December, suggesting that the risk of overkill (and hence false negatives) was great. So rather than having gone too low, I believe that the IAAF have tested too much.

Not that it matters much, because the results are so clear, so definitively suggestive of an advantage ("considerable", as Bruggemann wrote) that the issue should be laid to rest. To have found an advantage of 25% in terms of energy use, and 30% for mechanical advantages is absolutely massive - bigger than I even thought it would be, and it is difficult to see what possible test might overturn differences of this magnitude.

The perceptions within the Paralympic community

The one final interesting thing about all this is to speculate what the perceptions of Pistorius' fellow athletes are. Last year, around the time it was featured in the news, some polls revealed that more than half the paralympians DID NOT support Pistorius' efforts. Now, with this report being released to suggest the "considerable advantage", it adds further to the possibility that Pistorius has succeeded in pushing technology into the public eye as much as he has pushed the Paralympics into it.

I don't think there is anyone who does not find inspiration in the performances of Paralympic athletes. In this day of commercialization, I dare say that the Paralympics are closer to the Olympic ideal than the Olympics are! And so everyone watches these athletes with respect, admiration, even awe. But what is happening now is that Pistorius' crusade has confirmed the opinion that a runner on carbon fibre blades has as advantage over human legs...that was the reason given by one Paralympic athlete I saw interviewed. He did not want this issue to detract in any way from the performances of Paralympic athletes.

And of course, it doesn't detract from their achievements - they're still role models, more than the all-too-often drug using able bodied athletes. But now we know that the technology is a big part of the athlete. So next time a Paralympic athlete wins by 10 clear meters in a race, we'll all have knowledge that maybe, he had a better set of legs than his rivals. That is not good for the Paralympic movement.

And then finally, if I was a single-leg amputee competing against Pistorius in the Paralympics, I would now be lodging appeals against his participation there, because quite clearly, having two Cheetahs is better than having one. Therefore, the technology, and the findings of this IAAF report, would be usable to force the Paralympic movement to create a separate race for double-amputees, since they are benefitting much more from technology than single-leg amputees, who have a substantial balance problem to cope with during sprinting.

Opening Pandora's box

As was written last year in June, when this controversy hit the headlines: "Pandora's box has been opened". Back then, it applied to the possibility that the IAAF would allow the technology into the sport, which it has now prevented. However, Pandora's box has been opened all the same, except it concerns the role of technology in human performance. It will be interesting to see what continues to come out. But for now, it would seem that perhaps Pistorius is the last person to know...



Maurizio Morabito said...

Hello Ross. As I asked you already in my blog, I wonder if it is now just a matter for the IAAF or anybody else (Pistorius included) to come up with a "zero-advantage Brueggemann-approved Cheetah design"?

As for Pandora's box, running shoes technology has not been developed yesterday, and there are rules about them already.

Should the IAAF impose a single type of shoe on all athletes, or are they all more or less like each other (and so why should one choose one supplier or the other)?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Maurizio

Thanks again for the comments, both this one and the previous one. I hope that most of the question was answered previously, but just to add, one thing that I said should be done in this issue is get Jeremy Wariner (or any 400m runner) to run in a pair of Michael Johnson's shoes from the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and then get Pistorius to run in carbon fibre blades from 1992 (even 1996 would do). What you'd find is a massive change in performance in Pistorius, but very little in Wariner. Of this I have little doubt, and the implication is that the technology of the carbon fibre blades has progressed so much that technology, not human endeavour, has been responsible for the improvement in times. That would provide another indirect test of the advantage given to Pistorius by technology.

He has often claimed that the legs he runs in have been around for 14 years, but the reality is that he has prototypes worked on and modified every season.

Point is, shoe design has an insignificant impact on performance, at least in the last 15 to 20 years. But the introduction of this technology opens the door for that to change.

And finally, on the note of the "zero advantage Cheetah design", the testing would have to be performed on a case by case basis, because the mass, mechanics and build of the athletes is going to be different enough to alter the result. Also, who do we compare it to? Ideally, it should be the same group of "control" athletes every time...thing is, it's just about impossible to enforce this.

Finally, the main reason athletes choose one supplier over another is the contract they're offered. I know some who just prefer the fit of some shoes, like the look etc, but mostly they run in the shoe who offers them the best deal.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Ross.

Been a lurker for a while now and thought I should start putting my two cents' worth...

You can extend the valuable thought from outdoor enthusiast of "any form of athletics is going to be a combination of physiology and technology" from the actual playing field to training. Anyone with better access to technology (knowledge or equipment) will undoubtedly have an advantage--and not just for one race! One can even argue in terms of economics.

This just highlights the "Pandora's Box" of trying to level the playing field. I think the IAAF (or was it the IOC?) rules on equipment use posted previously makes for an excellent set of guidelines.

Thanks, Ross, and the previous posters for sharing your ideas.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for being one of the few to shed light on the Paralympic perspective of this issue...you are right, most of us do NOT agree with his inclusion and in many ways declaring him unfair for the Olympics but assuming his Paralympic return without question is pushing our movement back. I also appreciate the knowledge and experience you shared in your comment on my blog. I hadn't considered the balance aspect and that's yet another enormously important reason that he shouldn't be racing in the heats he's run before in Beijing (Paralympics) without at least an investigation of similar scope for our Games.