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Friday, March 07, 2008

Sports news interlude

Some news snippets ahead of the weekend

We're taking a break from the series on running shoes today, to look at some sports news that came across the wires in the last couple of days. I'll tackle another post on running shoes over the weekend when there is a little more time to get through some biomechanics articles on the subject - the thing about shoes that it takes you into the field of biomechanics of running, which is highly specialised and vast, so I would want to do justice to the studies.

But for today, some sports news from the last few days, starting with the latest installment in the Oscar Pistorius case.

Oscar Pistorius announces that his own research suggests he has no advantage, and the IAAF were wrong

Well, this is hardly surprising, of course - Oscar Pistorius yesterday announced that he has conducted his own studies in Texas, and they have contradicted many of the results from the IAAF testing performed in Cologne, Germany, last year.

Regular readers will know my take on the situation, and this is simply the latest act in a saga that threatens to be drawn out well beyond Beijing. The IAAF, for their part, have dismissed the research, which is understandable, given that Pistorius and his team went off and had it done all by themselves.

Remember, when Pistorius was tested in Germany last year, he and his team were given opportunities to discuss and consult with the IAAF on the tests. That is, they had input and opportunity to help design the studies, and were of course on-hand when the testing was done, to ensure that it was being done fairly. Pistorius was allowed by the IAAF to have representation in whichever form he chose - lawyers, scientists, podiatrists, coach, family - whatever he wished.

That is the reason why, when the IAAF announced that the testing had found large advantages (25 to 30% for mechanical and energy efficiency), it was strange that Pistorius questioned the completeness and validity of the research. This reaction was tantamount to an admission that his own team had failed to contribute to the research, since they had opportunities to ensure its validity before and while it was conducted.

So now, Pistorius has gone off to an unnamed lab in Texas and done his own work. Work he paid for, consulted on, designed, and was involved in. Not a single IAAF official was present, the IAAF was not consulted in any way, and had no opportunity to view the testing while it took place. The IAAF have therefore dismissed the test result - it is the equivalent of a court case in which the "defendant" is not even invited to the trial.

So what did they find?

I would love to be able to give you a critical analysis of the Pistorius testing, but unfortunately, that is not possible, since Pistorius and his lawyer have refused to say who did the testing, what it consisted of, and what it showed. This is however understandable - one would hardly expect him to reveal the results in the media while a case looms on the horizon. As one reader commented this morning:

"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..."

I agree with that, but then it's odd that he chose to announce the test result at all - the great paradox here is that he chose to release a provocative press release. Clearly, the comparison with poker is a good one, because Pistorius may be playing a great game of deception in the media. I don't see that the IAAF are playing the same game - they have flat out dismissed the research, no case of bluff and double-bluff there. Does he have proof? Who knows? Does the result show anything conclusive? Your guess is as good as mine!

One thing I will say is that we have always been big on conflicts of interest here on this website. And I cannot think of a bigger conflict of interests than when you pay for your own research, with the specific intention of proving other work wrong in order to retain a spotlight that must be providing financial rewards. Think for a second about what possible conclusion they could draw - that the blades do in fact give an advantage, and the IAAF were correct?

Can you imagine the headlines: "Pistorius commisions his own tests confirming his advantage over able-bodied athletes", or "Blade runner performs his own research, finds an advantage". Well, of course not - that's a headline that will not seem out of place in a few weeks on April 1! The reality is that Pistorius cannot say anything but that his research proves the IAAF wrong - his entire campaign, and all the spinoffs, depend on it. Similarly, the IAAF cannot at this point apologize for their science being "wrong" and welcome Pistorius into the sport! So we have an impasse, but the circumstances of this latest "research" are so dubious, so suspect, that I find it inconceivable that he would be so presumptious as to even make the claims he has.

What I would love, however, is to see what the "evidence" is. It struck me yesterday that to date, the science of the issue has never been debated - it's been science vs. marketing, no dialogue, only monologues. We've tried to cover the story here, and evaluate the science, and we've received a few emails from people who have blasted it and claimed that it's unfair and untrue. Yet no one has actually presented the counter-argument, either in terms of theory or research results. To date, the rhetoric has been abundant - claims and promises and threats, but nothing concrete. Perhaps Pistorius now has this concrete result, but I'd love to hear how he is going to cancel out a 30% advantage found by the IAAF.

The other thing that is strange is that this testing was done in Texas a month ago - I know for a fact that three weeks ago, Pistorius was investigating the prospect of actually doing the testing here in South Africa. He wanted to have his scientific case prepared from here - so that seems peculiar given that two weeks before this, he had this "exciting" result from Texas. If this is a game of poker, then either someone is bluffing, or perhaps simply ignorant of the science. I've seen little science in the last year, apart from a claim that the human tendon returns 240% of the energy it stores! That "science" was laughable, but perhaps the latest installment will be similar?

Time will tell how this all transpires, and just what testing was done in Texas. To take on the very best scientist in this field in the world (Prof Bruggemann), and the best research facility for this purpose in the world (Cologne), that research must be spectacular.

The IAAF World Indoor Championships

The big sporting event (from a running point of view) this weekend is the IAAF World Indoor Championships from Spain. It's the culmination of the indoor season, and some big names are taking part.

For two informative articles on the weekend, and who to watch, check out the following two articles:

Guide to men's events in Valencia (they don't have a women's guide, unfortunately)
Steve Cram picks his 10 to watch (a bit biased towards British athletes)

If I had to pick two big events to watch, they would be:

  • Dwain Chambers in the 60m sprint - only because this is a story we featured here in the last few weeks, and for all the wrong reasons - Chambers is returning to international competition following a break, which followed a forced break caused by his drugs ban. There was huge controversy as to whether he should even be picked for the squad, and he now takes on what is a relatively thin field. If he wins, the story will gather momentum and the headache for the British Athletics (and the world's) fraternity will increase - the spotlight on drugs in sport will only be intensified. Apparently, Chambers is hoping that a medal will help him re-integrate into the sport. Fact is, it's likely to fragment it even further...
  • Men's 60m hurdles, where the new sensation Dayron Robles will have his first chance to turn up the heat on Liu Xiang ahead of the Beijing Olympics. Robles has been in great form this year, while Liu has hardly raced, so this is the ideal opportunity for Robles to make a statement on what is possibly the most unequal playing field he'll encounter this year. Liu is going to go through 2008 under the most intense pressure perhaps ever placed on an athlete, because he is the face of the Beijing Olympics, and once in Beijing, he'll be carrying the hopes of billions. He's withstood it so far, but Robles can add to it in this race
But, there are some great races in the middle distance events too - the men's 800 and 1500m races, and then Craig Mottram races in the 3000m in a field that's missing Kenenisa Bekele, so he's a good bet for a title there. And in the women, the farewell season of Maria Mutola begins as she runs in the 800m.

Paula Radcliffe to miss London Marathon with injury

Bad news for Paula Radcliffe as she builds up to the Beijing Olympics and the elusive gold medal - she has injured her toe and will not race in London.

The Radcliffe camp are downplaying the significance of the injury, and the reports are that she probably could have raced in London, but would have been below her best, so the wise approach is to rather focus on training for Beijing.

Fortunately, we're far enough away from Beijing that this kind of injury doesn't threaten her big season goal, but it does affect her racing schedule - Radcliffe has always been an athlete who races well and regularly, and of course, given the long layoff she had before New York last year, a few races will be an important part of her Beijing build-up.

However, perhaps this incident will be beneficial - she may now end up racing more at the shorter half-marathon distance, which might ultimately prove to be an advantage, if she can go into Beijing with a little more speed and racing experience in what are likely to be tighter races.

All in all, disappointing for London, but Radcliffe remains on course for Beijing. Time will tell, once again!

She could always try barefoot running - maybe it was her shoes that hurt her big toe!

Join us soon for the third part of the running shoe trilogy!

Have a great weekend!


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Hi Ross,

The latest Runner's World arrived today and I caught your quote about Pistorius on page 21. Did you know they were going to quote from your blog?


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Stan

Thanks for the email. I did have some contact with a few people from Runners World, so I'm not completely surprised. What was the quote, if I may ask? I have emailed back and forth in the last few months and so it's quite possible something I said in an email later found its way into a post. So no problem, just curious about which quote it was?


Unknown said...

There's a two-page photo of Pistorius and an able-bodied runner racing. The quote is in a large font and all caps. It says, "WHILE IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO DETERMINE EXACTLY HOW MUCH TIME THE PHYSIOLOGICAL DIFFERENCES SAVE PISTORIUS IN A 400-METER RACE, IT'S CLEAR WE'RE TALKING ABOUT SECONDS RATHER THAN MILLISECONDS."

I've seen Amby Burfoot mention your blog a couple of times. Methinks he's a fan of yours.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Stan

Thanks for that info. As I said, I remember at the time the test results were released, I was contacted by RW and referred them to the article that quote came from. I'm sure there are some who will dispute it, but when you consider that athletes are training to find 1% improvements in performance, a 30% improvement in running economy and a 25% advantage in mechanical energy return adds up to far more than the milliseconds that separate the elite. I really wish there was some way of determining just how big the effect was - I still think that the idea put forward last year is the best: Get Jeremy Wariner to run in a pair of shoes from the 1996 Olympics (Michael Johnson's gold spikes, perhaps), and let Pistorius race in the carbon fibre from that long ago, and you'd get a good idea of just how much technology has contributed to his running ability - you'd see him lose seconds off his time, I have little doubt.

Of course, some will say that shoe technology is far older than carbon fibre technology, which is true, but not really the point. The issue is that in the future, the carbon fibre technology will only improve, the result being that his advantages will grow in size, while the disadvantages will never change. End result - improvements in performance of seconds, thanks to technology. We'll see if there's any reaction to that RW article...

As for Amby Burfoot, we're very lucky to have his readership, for sure. But he's no more a fan of ours than I am of him - he writes a regular feature for RW website detailing some of the latest science of running, and it's easily the best collection of relevant articles you'll ever find. I met him at a Sports Science conference in Nashville a few years ago, where he was interviewing a colleague of mine, and we keep in touch often - great contact and inspiration to have.