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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Oscar Pistorius: A case where the science does not matter

Latest news on Pistorius - the appeal that will focus on "non-science" matters - why science appears irrelevant to Pistorius

Well, it's been a prolonged absence, but I'm now back in SA having had a great time of it travelling through the USA and Egypt. And so we'll get right into some of the meaty issues that have developed in the last week. And what a week it's been - Roger Clemens and McNamee taking their case to Congress, Dwain Chambers and a brewing storm over his participation, and breakthroughs in the study of fatigue. Those issues to come in more detail...

Pistorius to appeal ban at CAS

But for today, a brief update of the ongoing story of Oscar Pistorius, the South African Paralympic runner who is vying to compete in the able-bodied Olympic Games.

The story is now into its second year, after first hitting the major headlines last year. And we've tried as much as possible to cover the developments with a more critical eye. Indeed, part of the reason for steering the blog in the direction we did (a news site) was to report on scientific issues in a little more detail than the mainstream media.

So this particular issue is a fascinating one, and in a series of posts on it, we've looked at the realm of theoretical evidence that suggests that Pistorius does have a large advantage as a result of his high-tech carbon fibre blades. We then added to this by analysing his debut performances in Europe last year, where all that theory was proven correct and he ran a race that is physiologically impossible. That alone should have been enough to issue a ban ON SCIENTIFIC grounds, but the IAAF, to their credit, performed very extensive testing on the limbs.

Their result? They showed conclusively that Pistorius has a LARGE ADVANTAGE over able-bodies athletes. What was most amazing about this finding, is that that there was an advantage, but just HOW BIG IT WAS - we're talking 30% differences in economy and mechanical efficiency. Difficult to know how that translates to performance, but it's clear it's seconds, not milliseconds. This has not discouraged Pistorius from taking the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, citing "new evidence" and challenges to the IAAF result.

The only answer that Pistorius will accept

The IAAF testing really should have been the end of the debate, especially considering that Pistorius has opportunities BEFORE the testing to consult his own experts and contribute to the research process. To say after the fact, once the result is announced, that the testing was faulty is either an admission of incompetence to begin with, or simply a plea to keep this issue in the media for a little longer.

Point is, the IAAF tested everything, in duplicate, comprehensively. The theory pointed to an advantage back in June last year, the results from his races suggest that he has the advantage by confirming those theories, and the IAAF testing proved it, beyond all measure of SCIENTIFIC doubt, in my opinion.

But the science is not the issue for Pistorius, the media is

But this is clearly not about the science to Pistorius. Rather, it is obvious that the only answer they will accept is the one that allows him to run. To date, 9 months into this debate, and the Pistorius group has not produced a single shred of valid scientific evidence. In fact, everything scientific they have claimed has been downright laughable. Last year, there were claims that lactate production caused Pistorius' back pains, they have also "proven" that he has no advantage by pointing out that his strides are normal in length.

And now, in the latest of the "scientific barrage" being generated, we have been told that Pistorius clearly has no advantage because another runner, who lost his leg in an accident, has not run faster on the blades than before.

The extent of Pistorius' science

In the latest retort, Pistorius has decided to appeal the IAAF ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. He does this "for all disabled athletes", despite the fact that the Paralympic community are largely silent on this issue. I know personally of at least five Paralympic athletes who are OPPOSED to his campaign (that is 100% of my own sample), but I guess they are not part of the "athlete group" he refers to?

In his latest scientific angle, he draws on the story of a fellow South African, Joseph van der Linde, who was a good, promising sprinter, before a farming accident forced the amputation of his right foot.

He duly continued running, wearing a SINGLE carbon fibre blade. His times, however, were never able to reach those his "pre-accident days". In Pistorius' words:

"If my artificial limbs gave me an advantage, as alleged by the IAAF, Joseph should run faster, not slower," he said.

Never mind the fact that:

  • Once an athlete (like van der Linde) loses the limb later in life, they must relearn all the motor control patterns, which means the chances of running properly again are very minimal. Pistorius learned to walk and run on prostheses, so he is an entirely different class of athlete. There is therefore no comparison between the two.
  • Pistorius runs on two blades, van der Linde only runs on one. The result is that Linde is unbalanced, and this costs MASSIVE energy as he runs, because one leg is highly variable in length, while the other is relatively fixed. This is in fact something we've discussed in detail in the past. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Pistorius should be banned from competing against single-leg amputees, because his advantage of them is even bigger than the advantage over able-bodied athletes. Again, the point is, van der Linde is a completely different case and the comparison is worthless.
The truth of the matter - not even van der Linde agrees with Pistorius' argument

So what we have here is Pistorius bringing another athlete into the debate, entirely unwittingly. And what is more, his comparison is not even valid. Now, the only thing that could possible make more of a mockery of this "evidence" is if that athlete himself doesn't agree with Pistorius! And that is exactly what happened!

Joseph van der Linde himself disagrees with Pistorius. Yet somehow, he finds himself in the category of "evidence supporing the defence"! A truly bizarre twist in this story...

But, don't take my word for it. Joseph van der Linde has himself ridiculed Pistorius' comparison, saying that "you cannot compare him to Oscar", and that "Pistorius enjoys advantages over other athletes". You can read his summary and reasons here.

van der Linde actually cuts right to the facts, which is surprising, since he's not a scientist. Yet he displays a better appreciation and capacity to grasp the science than Pistorius. Why is that surprising? Because ever since this story broke, it was always going to be a question of science - Pistorius and his team had to have known that ultimately, they would need to win the argument on scientific grounds. Yet they have been completely ignorant, their science has been laughable and they have nothing but hollow claims to show for their efforts.

To date, that is the only science that has come out of the news of Pistorius' appeal. There is talk, admittedly, of "experts" who have seen flaws in the IAAF testing. But then there are also rumours that Pistorius is consulting with local scientists in an attempt to help his case. These "local experts" do not have the necessary expertise to challenge a world leading German lab on this topic, pure and simple.

The science does not matter to Pistorius - only the exposure and media attention

To me, it is clear that the science is the furthest thing from the agenda. Indeed, Pistorius' agent, Peet van Zyl, was quoted as saying that the case is not going to argued "on technical matters only". So instead of focusing on the facts, we are going to be treated to smokescreens and mirrors, with the bizarre notion that banning an athlete with an ADVANTAGE is discriminatory! In otherwords, the science says he has an advantage, but that is insufficient to prevent him from competing!

Can I suggest that the next step is that a drug cheat will have to be allowed to compete against other athletes because he is simply not as naturally talented as the other athletes and so the drugs are NECESSARY even though they give him an advantage! Too small at birth? No problem, use steroids and growth hormone to bulk up, and if they ban you, just point out that it's not your fault you are not a natural power sprinter. That seems to be where the argument is going.

Unless, that is, Pistorius can prove that the legs don't provide an advantage...but then, that would require scientific testing and evidence, which seems to be in short supply. The reason for that, incidentally, is because the only science that does exist says the advantage is enormous, but selective hearing is fully in play on this one.

Quite frankly, the process is ludicrous, and the cards need to be placed on the table - there is no science to support that there is no advantage, only talk. And unfortunately, the media has willingly gone along with this "truth". There is only the desire to keep this story in the public eye for as long as possible, because the longer it stays there, the longer the cheques are written and the balance climbs. At the risk of sounding cynical, this is not an issue of courage and human spirit any longer, it's financial, and marketing and endorsement related.

So unfortunately, this issue will only end for Pistorius when the auhorities say that "There is NO advantage". This is of course untrue, so I suspect we have much longer to travel on this issue. But don't expect valid scientific facts in defence of Pistorius any time soon.



Ian said...

If he can keep this in the public eye for long enough it will only be a matter of time before someone in the media decides to cry out against the IAAF. On the surface the story can seem terribly unfair to Pistorius, and unfortunately the public rarely gets a much more in depth look than just the surface, and least here in the US.

It would make for good TV and sell newspapers to run with the headline "Double Amputee Banned!" By the time everyone examines all the facts and realizes that Pistorius has an unfair advantage the papers will have been sold and the ratings will have increased.

I think it will be interesting to watch this play out.

Unknown said...

so if I follow you, as every body experienced, it is better to have no leg than one, to cut off your leg than using them to run and to have a hudge advantage over able-bodies than
than other parlympians !


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hey Vanilla

Good to hear from you again. Thanks for the comments.

I agree 100% with you. When this story first hit the media, last year May, everyone knew that the science would be pivotal in the final decision - if Pistorius seriously wanted to run in the Olympics, he'd have to prove no advantage, pure and simple. Pistorius himself knew that, because he'd been told by a few people who I know personally.

Yet what happened is that the Pistorius camp purposefully moved the focus away from the science. So at a time when the IAAF and all the "experts" were discussing the scientific merits of the case, Pistorius chose instead to go to the USA on what he called a "tour to gather support" - no mention of science. All he kept saying is "This is unfair, there is no advantage"

And the media lapped it up, so the IAAF were on the back foot from the beginning. To this day, Pistorius has still not produced a valid scientific argument - his case is, to be blunt, scientifically non-existent, and the latest tactic, where he's mentioned that other athlete van der Linde as a reason why he has no advantage is laughable. Particularly since that very athlete disagrees with him!

And the point I've made from the beginning is that Pistorius knows the science won't support his efforts, and that's why they've evaded GOOD science at every turn so far. So in my opinion, this whole thing is not about the merits of the case, it's about the marketing, the PR and the money, to be the cynic.

So yes, I'm interested to see how it plays out as well.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jean-Francois

Well, no I'm afraid you don't follow correctly. Some people have suggested that this whole story is a sign that athletes should simply amputate their legs and they'll run faster. That's ridiculous, and again, it depends on whether you wish to argue this as a scientific issue or an emotive one. I was emailed by someone who suggested I amputate my own legs to prove it, which betrays a completely illogical approach.

And so what you've done is make the same knee-jerk reaction that the Pistorius campaign has told you to have.

But just to clarify:

There is no question that the prosthetic limbs provide an enormous advantage to Pistorius. You may wish to go back onto this site and look at the articles that have discussed this.

Secondly, if you are double amputee, you have a massive advantage over a single-leg amputee, because you have balance and half the muscular work to do. This is the point I made in this very post. Therefore, Pistorius should only be allowed to run against double-amputees, not singles.

Thirdly, you cannot simply cut off the legs as an adult and expect to learn to walk again, let alone run. People who lose a limb later in life have little chance of getting back to 100%. If they lose both legs, the chances are zero. Pistorius is a unique case of someone born without fibulas and he learned to walk on prosthetics - there is no balance problem for it.

So that's it in a nutshell - the arguments are not ridiculous, but to suggest amputation as a performance enhancer is, on the other hand, just that.


Unknown said...

so Pistorius MUST NOT RUN :
neitheir with the able-bodies (over whose he has an advantage), nor with the paralympics ! Or may be able-bodies have no advantage over paralympics ?

Anonymous said...

Once again I totally agree with Ross and Jonathan. I am sorry Jan Francois but you let your emotions cloud your judgment. Oscar is a courageous athlete as are all Paralympians but the simple truth is that he cannot be compared to able-bodied athletes, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Let me give you an example:

An able-bodied athlete runs the Marathon in 2:07 and a disabled athlete runs in his wheelchair in 1:30. Who is a better athlete? Can you compare these two athletes?

Science is about facts not emotions. I too would like to see Oscar win a race competing against able-bodied athletes but as an exhibition event only, otherwise it would be unfair for both able-bodied athletes and Paralympian athletes.


adventurelisa said...

Great blog; my friend just sent me the link.

Let's say hypothetically that the studies showed no advantage and that he was putting out exactly the same power, propulsion, stride length and every other assessed component as an athlete with complete legs.

The fundamental flaw, even in this hypothetical situation, is that Oscar does not have feet, with all their little bones and muscles. He does not have lower legs, with their calf muscles, potential for shin splints and stress fractures, Achilles tears and tendonitis and fall-to-the-ground calf cramps.

All of the above are huge considerations in training, not just in race day performance.

Just this alone makes him different and in another category all together.

Oscar is a fine athlete but he will never be an able-bodied athlete. The moment you lose a limb (or functionality of your limbs) you change categories.

If you've been on this planet for 35 years you'lll never get back into the junior age group.

This is actually now a whole big emotional issue, not a physical performance issue. This battle should have been nipped in the bud early on but because we're so afraid of offending races, minorities, previously disadvantaged and, in this case, physically different (to the 10-fingers and 10-toes norm) individuals, our "political correctness" has created a media tea party.

Oscar was born into paralympics by the wave of a genetic wand. That he can run is an achievment indeed and that he's the fastest man on no legs is to his credit.

While Oscar is able, he will never be able-bodied.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Lisa, George

Thanks for your input, very well said to both.

I think just to respond to Jean-Francois' second post, I do believe that Pistorius should NOT be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes - the fact that his advantage is so big, both in theory and in terms of the results produced by the IAAF, would, quite frankly make a mockery of the ethos of "competition".

Can you imagine, for example, that Pistorius goes away for 3 months in the winter, and comes back in the new year and runs a full 2 seconds faster? Everyone is saying "Was this the training he did in the off-season? Or perhaps he's worked with his team of engineers and they've developed technology that saves on energy use even more than the current blades?"

To me, that is a farce - you'll never know whether his performances are improving due to his training or his technology. That to me is the biggest problem - forget about whether he is currently able to run a 44second time. Forget about other athletes wanting to cut off their legs to benefit. The issue is whether you'll be watching technology in action, or a human at their limits. And frankly, I do not believe that he is a 45 second athlete.

Now, as to the next question, should he be allowed to run in the Paralympics against single-leg amputees? That is a more ethical issue, and a very tricky debate. But the fact is, his advantage over single leg amputees is real. If I was a single leg amputee, who was losing out on medals and marketing and sponsorships as a result, I know I would be appealing his participation in the single-leg amputee class. That, unfortunately, is the consequence of his "challenge" so far - he's shown the size of his advantage.

But no, he must continue to run in the Paralympics, though he's clearly in a category of his own. But he can inspire and motivate, and should continue to do so in the future.

Now, George and Lisa, good points. On the note of running in exhibitions, the only pitfall is that it serves only to keep the focus on the issue, and I really feel it's not good for the sport. For sure, the IAAF have been portrayed in a very bad light by the Pistorius media unit, and that's unfair on them. So if running exhibitions raises funding for amputees and maybe victims of landmines, then I'm all for it.

The problem is, I've seen little to suggest that Pistorius would be that gracious about his role for those people, and I suspect that exhibitions would simply serve as a platform to label the rest of the world and the scientists as "discriminatory", as has been done for the last year.

Finally, you put the issue very well, Lisa. It should have been nipped in the bud early on. THe media were to blame for that though, because they were fed "lies" by the PR guys for Pistorius and gladly published it every day. All I was reading were Pistorius' quotes saying "I promise that the blades give no advantage", and the media reported it as fact.

Now, one year on, the facts are present, the advantage is clear, but it's been shrouded in so much emotion that it's difficult to see truth anymore.

And welcome to the blog, Lisa, hope you enjoy the last year's worth of reading!


Dr Craig Richards said...

May I lighten the tone by pointing out that the google ads beside this post currently feature a number of performance enhancing drugs including this link http://www.hgh.com/. Isn't it wonderful how the world works :)

Anonymous said...

Great Blog entry, as usual.

In your opinion, are there any lessons that could be learned from the case of the american golfer C. Martin who a few years back was trying to get onto the PGA tour? In his case, his use of a golf cart was considered an advantage. It seems that much of the debate/emotions run along similar lines.

Anonymous said...

Did you actually read the Bruggemann report, or are you relying on accounts in the press?

A person with a Ph.D. ought to be enough of a critical thinker to not just rely on heresay.

On the other hand, a person with a Ph.D. in sports science ought to be able to recognize the serious shortcomings and biases in the Bruggemann study.

Here is a link to the report: http://www.aipsmedia.com/allegati/Pistorius_Final_Report.pdf

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Thanks for the tip on reading the full report - I actually did, it did in fact occur to me that reading the media's summary might not be the full story, so I have read it. But I'm sure others will use the link you provided, thanks!

On that note, I would like to point out to everyone that anyone who has ever supported Pistorius, the Pistorius-sympathizers, are very fond of throwing out innuendo and hints at "major flaws", but I have yet to see anyone argue the point with facts, rather than rhetoric. I was recently in the USA, where the election primaries are taking place, and Barack Obama has been accused of over-doing the rhetoric. I don't think that's true, but it's certainly true of this debate!

The problem up to now is that there is no debate, because all I ever read is accusations of major flaws in the testing, problems with this, issues with that. And still I wait to actually hear those people put forward their opinions. I believe that the Bruggemann study is excellent. Of course, there are issues, as there will be with any research. But those issues can easily be accounted for in this study, and I would love for someone to please come forward and actually present facts, not rhetoric.

Please do share your wisdom and actually explain what the problems are, instead of hinting at them in order to keep the issue alive - debate is the name of the game, not baseless accusations and unsupported claims.


Anonymous said...

Oscar is playing high stakes poker with the IAAF and the Court for Arbitration in Sport. He and his team would be foolish to show their hand at this point especially on a blog.

Here is one fact. Bruggemann claim Oscar uses 25% less ENERGY based on 25% lower VO2 during a 400m time trial. We know that only maybe 50% of the ENERGY during a 400m comes from aerobic sources. Thus, 25% would actually be something like 12.5%.

Deceptively inflating numbers like that is something a politician would do

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Sure, I don't think anyone was expecting the results to be published on a blog - point is, going back to this time last year, the "debate" has centered around science from one side, marketing from the other. I have a few interesting anecdotes about this latest "case" at the CAS that will out eventually, but this is simply the latest in a long line of things.

Just on the note of the energy issue, you're stuck in the old "paradigm" of quantifying the source of energy as aerobic or anaerobic - there is a large move in the sciences away from that, for it seems the classic old graphs that showed the distinction between the two are in serious need of revision.

The point of that particular finding is that the oxygen cost of the running on the blades is a massive 25% lower than for an able-bodied runner. Note that athletes all around the world are training 4 hours a day to scrape 1% off their bests. 25% is a lifetime. Now, one can pick holes at where the energy comes from and so forth, but the question is: Do you have any reason to suggest that if the aerobic energy requirements are lower, that the anaerobic requirements are suddenly similar? On what basis would the TOTAL energy demand be different, in any way, to the measured energy using VO2? That is the crux of that particular argument.

Also, having discussed the physiology of the blades extensively, the prediction that is made is that the VO2 would be lower at all speeds for Pistorius than any other athlete - there are about 4 or 5 theoretical reasons why this would be. To then have a result this clear, confirming the theory, is a very strong argument. I'm not sure how a follow up study can possibly overcome such a massive difference, particularly given the obvious conflict of interests, which is what this is really all about.

Can you imagine the news headline:

"Oscar Pistorius funds research, finds large advantages"? Or how about "Pistorius' research confirms IAAF result, Oscar ackonwledges advantage"?

Of course not, so in a way, Pistorius is compelled to come out with this argument and the IAAF will defend their claims. But I side with the science and the theory is so strong, so compellingly saying ADVANTAGE, that I fail to see how it can be spun the other way. So rather than attacking the study on shaky grounds, I'd like to hear the theory behind why Pistorius has not got a large advantage. And I don't mean theory like when he had a "scientist" claim the human tendon returns 240% of the energy! That was laughable science. Let's hear the real theory.

But then, April Fool's Day is just around the corner, I expect many more stories to emerge.


saporedolceamaro said...

I'm writing my dissertation on the Pistorius case but, as I study Anthropology, I am focussing on a slightly different area than the one covered here. So I write as a person who does not have a deep knowledge of the "science", not having read the report in full.
But I am wondering what the IAAF did to test for different conditions. Pistorius ran a terrible race at Sheffield last July, due to the heavy rain that graces Britain at all times. So I'm wondering: how come the tests were not carried out in the rain? You might say that it's absurd because there is no reason to choose that particular condition, but is it any less arbitrary to choose NOT to carry them out in the rain?
What I'm trying to say is that it seems impossible to me to determine what a "normal" body in "normal" conditions would do. Brought to an extreme, this is the argument of "He might have a prosthesis that makes it easier for him, but he has to go through a lot of a bigger deal of psychological pressure" but I expect that those who believe it should all be resolved by drawing upon empirical evidence will frown in front of this way of reasoning. But even if we keep to tests, how on earth are these tests decided? There are so many variables in sport performance that it seems impossible to me that they even expect they can have a definitive answer.
I hope this wasn't too vague, and look forward to a reply... if this post hasn't been buried in the meantime.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Eleonora

Thanks for the questions and comments - I can assure you that NO post ever gets deleted here (well, we sometimes get spam with a great deal of swearing, or advertisements, which are deleted), but since our intention is to create debate and look at the issues more thoroughly, this kind of comment is immensely valuable, so please do continue to challenge assertions!

To respond:

It's interesting that the perception has been created that Pistorius struggles to run in the wet conditions. ON that day in Sheffield, Pistorius ran a time of 47.7 seconds (and was disqualified). A few days before, Pistorius ran a time of 46.7 in Rome.

Therefore, the weather caused PIstorius to slow by 1 second in the race. Of course, there are numerous factors in a race like this, so I am oversimplifying, but I do wish to make a point.

The race winner was a guy called Angelo Taylor from the USA. He won the race (a very competitive race, which meant he was working hard and not holding back) in 45.25 seconds. A few days later, he would go on to run in the mid-44 second range. So he slowed down by 0.8 seconds as a result of the difficult conditions!

The same happened for the other runners - the guys in 2nd and 3rd also ran about 0.5 to 1 second slower than their times would be only a few days later.

The perception that Pistorius has a greater disadvantage in the wet is therefore false - everyone had the same problem. This is, to me, another example of how the media has been "spun" to create a perception of disadvantage when none exists.

So there is no need to test for different conditions. Ethically, if you start doing that, then you have the problem that every runner in history will start claiming that certain conditions affect them differently. Someone like Paula Radcliffe, for example, might claim that her larger size means that she is not so good in hot conditions, so she is at a disadvantage, and therefore needs to have some concession made. It gets quite ridiculous.

But apart from this, Pistorius had no disadvantage, so it's not even an issue. The same goes for his running around the bend - he told the world that his big problem was balance around the bend. Turns out, that's the bit where he runs the fastest. So the evidence has never supported his claims.

Now, your next point about the psychological pressures is another common debate actually - I think it came up in previous articles I wrote,so you might go back and check those out. But my belief is that you cannot characterize Pistorius' pressure as different from that faced by any other athlete. For all I know, Jeremy Wariner has debts of millions, his family relies on him to earn the money, and his pressure is survival.

If you take a Kenyan athlete, they overcome massive disadvantages - lack of food, lack of money, lack of security and safety, yet we cannot make a concession for them, so why for Pistorius? The psychological argument holds little water, because it is presumptious to assume that one athlete faces more pressure than another.

Finally, you cannot weigh up all the factors against one another and try to come up with some equation to tell you if he has an advantage or not. That's what the IAAF tried to do initially, and they were pursuing a dead-end street. This will never work, because there are too many factors.

So what had to be done in the case of Pistorius, and eventually the IAAF did it - was to find differences. They found differences in the way that he runs, in his metabolism, in the legs. These differences basically mean that when you watch Pistorius, against 7 other guys, they are not all "running". 7 men are running, Pistorius is doing something never seen before - it's a unique, physiologically impossible motion. And based on that, they cannot allow him to compete.


saporedolceamaro said...

It is exactly for the last reason you quote that I believe that testing in this case hardly has much to say. If we allowed Pistorius "psychological pressure" to be weighed in, so would all sort of other psychological pressures, and it's perfectly right to want to avoid that.
But then I find it a bit hypocritical to exclude certain conditions from the testing by saying that Angelo Taylor was delayed by nearly a second too. It's not enough to just say that, it should be tested too. But is it really possible to test for all these conditions? (Not just weather, I'm sure there are others like the bend, the wind, which track they run in, and all sort of things). It is of course impossible to do a thorough testing. And I remain a bit unconvinced by a test that tries to determine 'normality' but cannot account for all the possible conditions.
My way of looking at it is that technical aids should be treated in the same way as drugs: if you need it for a medical reason, no-one goes to test whether it help you or not, you are just allowed to use it if you're prescribed it. Similarly, if he needs a prosthesis to run, he should just run with it, since he needs it for a medical reason (i.e. the fibula missing, not just a whim of having his legs amputated).

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi again Eleonora

I'm not sure what you want to test Angelo Taylor for? To see whether he is affected by the weather? Sport can't work like that - you can't make concessions for certain people based on conditions, so the question of wet vs. dry is a moot point. I don't believe that Pistorius has a disadvantage, but if there was one, you still couldn't accommodate him just because of it. What would one do in response - allow him to run when it was wet because his advantage is negated? That would cease to be sport, in my opinion.

And if you expand this to include the bend, the track etc, then it becomes a completely ridiculous state of affairs where each competitor must be treated differently based on an ability that, to be blunt, can never be proven. It's not as simple as it may seem to test for those things.

The problem is that if you try to account for all the possibilities, then you create a very contrived situation where, for example, you might find that Pistorius has this 25% advantage running in a straight line in the dry, but no advantage around the bend in the wet (not that I thinnk this happens, but bear with me).

So having found this, what you can then say is that it's fine for Pistorius to race against other able bodied athletes, but ONLY IF:

1. It's wet
2. He runs on a bend

That's not competition - if this was the standard by which one judged things, then I too would be eligible for competition on the grounds that I have disadvantages running in certain circumstances. So all I have to do is find the situation that allows me to compete, and I must be treated differently. Again, that's not sport.

Now, the comparison between this and people with drugs is that in those people, the drug is used to return a physiological function to NORMAL. In other words, asthmatics are allowed to use certain substances because they help get their respiratory function to NORMAL. But what you don't know is that some drugs used by asthmatics are banned. Why? Because they might improve function beyond "normal". Therefore, the drug comparison is incomplete, because ifa drug is able to improve function so much that it exceeds normal, then it is banned.

These carbon fibre blades have been shown to improve certain aspects of function beyond what is "normal" - as I said, he runs a never seen before race, and his physiology is competely unique. Therefore, if we treated this as a case of doping, he would be banned.

Bottom line, if he is allowed to compete, then the technology is only going to improve over the next few years. He could conceivably go away for a few months, work with a team of engineers to develop a blade made out of new material, with a new shape, new method of fitting to his leg, and he comes back and runs 2 seconds faster. He might, therefore,improve by 2 seconds without training at all. That, again, is not sport, and that's what needs to be prevented. It's technological doping, and just as it's outlawed for drugs, it should be here.

Your next questino, of course, is whether they could make him a set of prosthetics that don't give him the 25% advantages. Of course they could. But then it would become an irrelevant issue, because he'd suddenly be 80m behind the other runners, because without that advantage, he is simply not an elite 400m runner.

saporedolceamaro said...

I totally agree with you that it would be impossible to test for all those possibilities, because then every single athlete could come up with something. But what I conclude from that is simply that no testing can be reliable, for it selects only one section of all the possibilities. I'm not suggesting you should test for all of them, I'm just suggesting that it is a bit sinister to claim it is possible to have a conclusive test in a case like this, simply because tests would need to be selective.

Admittedly I did not know that some drugs are still banned while others aren't, but I would be interested to know how those are tested.

This is a bit "philosophical" perhaps, but it is extremely interesting that you mention what "normal" is. That's exactly what my thesis is about, what concepts of the 'normal' body emerge from the Pistorius case. The point is, is there such thing as a "normal body's ability"? We could go into endless discussion here, but perhaps the quickest way to show this point is to say that, of course, world records keep being broken (although at a slower and slower rate nowadays). I wouldn't dare to say that the actual human potentiality increased, that's absurd --- it's too much of a short time for evolution. Also cases like Dick Fosbury are rare. So what does it actually mean that the world record for the 400m dropped by 3.34 seconds from 1928 to 2004? Partly, of course, a wider participation to sport, a bigger amount of money spent in research for the best training, the increasing importance of personal training, etc. But also, an incredibly more advanced technology in shoes, in (permitted) drugs, perhaps even the clothes they wear count. So why are high-tech shoes "normal" and high-tech prosthesis aren't? It does take a big leap to think it imaginable, but I think if eventually we did it would even make sport more interesting!

Anonymous said...

Pistorius blades = Speedo LZR Racer

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Eleonora

Good points. But I think it's actually easier than you make it sound - the test to do is to check whether Pistorius is DIFFERENT from other runners. Because if you can find difference, then what you are watching is not a contest between runners, it's an unequal race between runners and someone who is doing something other than running.

The pursuit of finding a "level playing" field, a point at which advantages cancel out disadvantage is futile, because it can't be studied. The only way to do it is to look for difference, because that tells you whether it's a relatively level field.

Now, there is such a thing as "normal" because in every single human being, there is a predictable response to an applied stress. In other words, our tendons respond predictably when a force is applied to them. Our heart and lungs and muscles all have a predictable and measurable response to any stimulus. It's the same as when you throw a ball against a wall - you can predict where it will bounce, but you can't model it down to the 100th degree.

So when we look at Pistorius, there most definitely is a means to look at whether something is "normal" or not, because we can compare his heart, lungs and muscles and tendons to those of everyone else. And as I've said, Pistorius is a never seen before specimen - his carbon fibre blades store 40% more energy than any human being's tendons. His forces and biomechanics are so different that what he does is not even running, it's a movement that we've never seen before. His heart and lungs are not those of an elite athelte - in fact, his VO2max, which is a reasonable measure of fitness, is actually lower than many people who do no exercise at all.

So there most definitely is a way to quantify "normal", and any analysis you do on Pistorius' legs shows that he is not normal. He's unique, and simply not an elite 400m runner.

Now, how much difference has technology made to performance since 1928. I'll bet that if you look at the current world record holder, and he ran in the shoes they used to wear in 1928, he'd probably be a second or two slower than he is now. That's because training has improved and so on. But the bigger point is that this is all available to every competitor, so the race is still a race. It's still man against man, and not down to technology. Pistorius' technology is not available to everyone, so there's immediately a problem.

If you decided to let Pistorius run, you'd create a situation where everyone has to be given the same technology. If that happened, then we'd all regret it, because I can assure you that if shoes were made with the same technology that the Cheetahs are made, then times would plummet. In two years, the record would fall by perhaps 2 seconds. Now, that would create a situation where athletics is a lot like swimming is now - I see someone else commented along those lines, and I'll respond to that separately.

But right now, swimming is in crisis, because 30 years of history are being made irrelevant by a suit that is improving performance so much that records are broken by 8 seconds in some cases. That's still OK because all the swimmers have access to the suits, so no problem there, but it's a major issue for records. And FINA, swimming's governing body, is being hugely criticized for not preventing this from happening.

The IAAF have attempted to stop this, and they are also being criticized. So who is right? I assure you that if the IAAF were to allow PIstorius to run, they'd very soon regret it, because in the right hands, the technology that makes Pistorius a 46-second 400m runner would revolutionize the sport.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI anonymous

Touche! That's an interesting point, and worth considering.

I don't quite agree, because the one difference is that the Speedo is, in theory, available to everyone. At least, everyone who is able to afford it, but at $500 it's not quite in the league of bicycles or yachting or horse-riding on the list of expensive sports.

So the Speedo is, in theory, available to all. That doesn't mean it's not a similar problem, because what the LZR Racer has shown is that the introduction of technology into sport negates history - world records are being rendered completely meaningless. The same would, in my opinion, happen if Pistorius was allowed to run, because his technology is only going to improve over the years. and that improvement will create improvements in times and performances that do not require any training at all.

So therefore, I agree that both should be looked at as "illegal" because of this effect - performance is vastly improved without training. So I'm with you there.

The only other issue worth mentioning is that the Speedo is not going to take an average swimmer and turn him/her into a world class one, or even an Olympian. The advantage is about 5%, according to reports, and about 2%, according to coaches. I'll take the word of the coaches, and say that it makes perhaps 0.5s difference per 50m. That seems to be about the number, given the world records and the margins by which they've been set.

Now, the Cheetahs have been shown to have physiological differences of 25% to 35%. That is far larger than any advantage due to the Speedo. It's of course impossible to say what this translates to in performance in a 400m event, but it's clearly more than a few milliseconds per 50m. My opinion, based on the science and insight from physiology, is that Pistorius is getting about 5 to 7 seconds in a 400m race. That means the Speedo is inferior to the Cheetah.