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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Drugs in Sport: Trevor Graham case

Trevor Graham Case: Convicted of lying, but the truth remains only partially-exposed

Yesterday saw the verdict in the court case against Trevor Graham, the former Track coach who was implicated in the BALCO scandal and its subsequent perjury cases.

For those who haven't been following the news, the (very) short version of the story is that Graham, the coach of now-disgraced and imprisoned track stars Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones, was being tried on three counts of lying to federal investigators during their investigation into the now infamous BALCO scandal. If you want a quick run-down of the "Who's who" in the case, check out this site: Steroid Nation

Those three charges involved:

  • Lying to investigators about whether he had ever met an alleged "drug-dealer" (in performance enhancing drugs, that is) named Angel Heredia, in person
  • Lying to investigators when he said that he had not spoken to Heredia since 1997
  • Lying about whether he had worked together with Heredia to supply his elite athletes with banned substances

Unfortunately, the jury could only reach a decision on ONE of the THREE charges, and convicted Graham on count number 2 - lying about whether he'd spoken with Heredia since 1997.

That is, Graham alleged that he hadn't spoken to Heredia for 11 years, and then prosecutors produced phone records documenting over 100 calls made between the two.

If it seems obvious that he'd be convicted on that basis, consider that the jury, led by a man being described by some the "crazed jury foreman", failed to convict Graham of the first charge (that he had never met Heredia in person), even though the prosecution produced PICTURES of Graham and Heredia together. Apparently, that was not enough, and the jury returned a verdict of 11-1, with the foreman being the lone voice in the night.

But did Graham provide athletes with drugs? The answer we want to know

As for the one conviction that all athletics-lovers were hoping for, the one that related to Graham providing his athletes with performance-enhancing drugs, the jury went 10-2 on that one, with the Foreman again being one of those against conviction. That happened despite the fact that athletes testified at the trial (Antonio Pettigrew was one), and former athletes have all either tested positive or admitted to doping under Graham. Yet the prosecution could not PROVE its case, and so a man who has been tainted with the worst of the sport's ugly side is cleared on the most serious allegations and faces a short stint in prison, and nothing else.

And while I do not wish to advocate a "witch-hunt" (because if there is no proof, then of course the system cannot pursue a man to make him a scapegoat), the whole process delivers a long-term blow to the sport and the fight against doping, because a known "dirty" coach, a liar and a man who sits at the epicentre of all the problems in the sport today is largely cleared because of a legal system that, in my opinion, fails to work on the basis of what constitutes "Proof", and which ultimately provides a lop-sided bias towards clearing a man who athletics-lovers believe has done perhaps irreparable harm to their sport.

Tie up the loose ends first

There were, it must be noted, shaky procedures and an admittedly very suspect witness on the part of the prosecution - the problem with using "drug-dealers" like Heredia to testify is that they are inherently lacking credibility! And as pointed out in the comments section below, it is of course not ideal to pursue a man on a "witch-hunt" campaign based on evidence that does not stand up to scrutiny. So I'm all for a retrial and another attempt at hopefully tightening up the case. I guess in that regard, the prosecution must shoulder some blame for not making the thing so overpowering that there was no choice but to hang ALL the dirty laundary out!

However, that's not what this post is about - this is about the loss of opportunity to expose athletes and names of people who have dragged the sport into the mire.

These cases are always hyped as an opportunity to clean up the sport, with allegations of names and details hitting the headlines long before the witnesses hit the courtroon. Yet that has again failed to happen, and I get the uncomfortable feeling that someone (perhaps all of them) don't really want the truth to come out. It happens with regularity in the world of sports doping - Marion Jones "confesses" but doesn't fully come clean, people are indicted but never fully admit (think McNamee and Clemens - whatever came of that - big show, no action). It seems that inside the murky legal system, facts can be buried from the inside, and this Graham case is no different.

I must confess that a legal system where the clever work of some lawyers (and scientists, in some recent high profile cases in athletics) manages to create enough doubt to allow those who are known cheats (to everyone within the sport) to escape from those outside it. The only loser in all this is the sport, and Trevor Graham, and his group of merry dopers, live to dope another day.

Final word from Heredia (and a word that should worry us here in South Africa in particular), who was at the centre of the alleged provision of drugs to athletes:

"Conte was sent to jail, I don't know what is going to happen to me, but I could go to jail, too. But I can tell you, nothing is going to stop. Athletes are still going to South Africa to train; they're still doping."

And thanks to the Jury Foreman and unscrupulous defence lawyers, that prediction will be true.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Can a Kenyan win the 2008 Olympic Marathon?

World leaders named to team, but can they reach the podium in Beijing?

The big-city Spring marathons are long gone, and in fact we are moving into Athletics season now with the Hengelo meeting already behind us. But in their wake the spring marathons left a pile of dominant Kenyans. Namely, Martin Lel, Sammy Wanjiru, and Robert Cheruiyot. Those three runners were named officially to the Kenyan marathaon team, but in fact between Paris, London, and Rotterdam, fully six Kenyans broke 2:07, and Cheruiyot, with a 2:07:46 in Boston may well have broke 2:07 on any other course. We have gone on about Martin Lel as perhaps the best marathoner ever, and we were most impressed with how Cheruiyot decimated the field from the front and ran away with the win in Boston, but even with this impressive trio lining up in Beijing can Kenya bring home the gold?

A dearth of Kenyan marathon medals

Although we associate Kenyans with middle-distance and marathon dominance---Kenyan men have won 16 of the last 20 Boston races---to date no Kenyan has won marathon gold, and in fact they medaled only thrice, with two of those medals from the same runner:

  • Douglas Wakihurui, 1988 Silver medalist
  • Eric Wainaina, 1996 Bronze medalist
  • Eric Wainaina, 2000 Silver medalist
So in spite of utter dominance on the road circuit, and in the middle-distance events on the track (especially the steeple chase), the Kenyan men are without marathon gold. Admittedly, only 13 different countries have taken Olympic gold since 1896 (25 races), and only two men have won twice. So it is not an event that one country appears to be able to dominate across the years. But this seems strange given how dominant the Kenyans have been at the shorter distances, too, as the faster runners over 5000 m and 10000 m distances tend to be the faster runners in the marathon. So one would think that the runners would filter through from the shorter events and continue to dominate over the marathon distance.

But the really interesting thing is that when you examine the dominant middle-distance Kenyan athletes from the 1980's and 1990's, we see that very few, if any of them, "graduated" to the marathon. It seems the only Kenyan track star to move on to the marathon is Paul Tergat. However, in previous years it also does not seem as though the Kenyan men have shown such incredible depth and form in the marathon going into the games. Have Kenyan men won big races like Boston and London in Olympic years? Boston, yes, but London, no:
  • 1988 - Henrik Jorgensen, DEN
  • 1992 - Antonio Pinto, POR
  • 1996 - Dionicio Ceron, ITA
  • 2000 - Antonio Pinto, POR
  • 2004 - Evans Rutto, KEN
And Rutto was not selected for the 2004 Olympic Marathon team, with Tergat and the veteran Eric Wainaina the only two Kenyans lining up for that race, which is interesting in itself that Kenya had only two runners in that race when all countries were allowed a maximum of three. It is unclear why the medalists in the 800 - 10000 m never moved up to the marathon. Perhaps there was no incentive to carry on training so hard as those athletes had achieved financial and other success already, and most likely secured their retirement at an early age.

But perhaps this is the year of the Kenyan Olympic Marathon champion? We are not betting men, but if we were, the smart money is on "no." The history of the Olympic Marathon race tells us that it is too unpredictable. In fact going into the Athens race in 2004, Paul Tergat was hands down the fastest man on the line, posting his then WR of 2:04:55, which was nearly 90 s faster than South Africa's Gert Thys. Yet both of these runners were well off the pace and finished far out of contention.

This unpredictability is likely the result of a number of factors, perhaps most importantly that nations can field a maximum of only three runners in the race. This makes the odds a bit more even for any country to win gold. Next is the nature of the Olympic marathon courses. Seldom are they flat and straight, and instead tend to wind thru the host cities with no regard for hills and climbs. This changes the racing tactics away from a fast "time-trial" like event and more into a "wait and see" race of attrition. Finally, the environmental conditions tend to be hot and humid---it is the Summer Olympics, after all---which as we mentioned here previously does not suit the Kenyans due to their choice to remain at altitude, where it is temperate and dry, during their Olympic preparations.

But there is hope. . .!

Young Sammy Wanjiru, he of blistering half-marathon speed and a 2:06:01 average for his first two marathons, is based in Japan and trains with a Japanese coach. Should he win Olympic gold, he will be the youngest Olympic marathon champion as he will be only 21 when he races in Beijing this summer. Lel is the King for now, but Wanjiru gets the nod from us as the best hope for a Kenyan marathon medal due to his training base in Asia.

And with only about 70 days remaining until the opening ceremonies, the marathoners (and other athletes, too) will be entering into a crucial phase of their training. It takes some time to make training adaptations, and so they will be aiming for two periods of very hard training now from which they will benefit only in August.

In the meantime we will watch with much interest how everyone performs in the IAAF meets in June and July as this will provide some insight into their current form. Watch for the perennial favorites who are not producing top times, as running so fast now would indicate peaking too early, and it is difficult to maintain such great form for over two months. Instead we should see them near the top, maybe winning, but with times off their best performances. In any case it will be a most interesting lead up to Beijing, and be sure to join us here for all the analysis along the way!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Fatigue Series Part 5: Exercise in the heat

Anticipatory regulation of exercise in the heat: Discussion continues

About a week ago, in our last post of our Series on Fatigue, we looked in some detail at a study by Frank Marino which found that African runners paced themselves differently to White runners during 8km time-trials in hot, but not cool conditions. Part of this difference was likely the larger body size of the white runners, which meant that their rate of heat storage would be higher than the African runners' at the SAME SPEED. Therefore, the theory put forward was that the RATE OF HEAT STORAGE mediates a reduction in running speed well before any potentially limiting level of hyperthermia is reached.

A couple of things arose out of this post. First, we got quite a few posts by people saying that they should have controlled for body size, and made sure that the two groups were equally large (or small, as they case may be). This is probably correct, technically speaking, but a little harsh and maybe missing the point of the study. The key here was not so much the mechanism for the different pacing strategies of Africans and White runners, but rather the fact that they did it at all. Perhaps it's genetic, perhaps size-related, perhaps metabolic, perhaps related to running economy? That's all for future work to establish, hopefully. But the point is that athletes pace themselves differently and the rate of heat storage is a very likely candidate that mediates this difference.

One reader said that they should have controlled for calf-size as well, which is also probably true, but if you go down that road, then you have to control EVERYTHING. And physiology is simply too complex to do this. That is why, as you may recall, we discussed how for many years, scientists used to limit themselves to these fixed work rate trials to exhaustion - they are simpler to manage. As soon as you allow pacing, the complexity becomes enormous, but it's the only realistic way to assess how PHYSIOLOGY works in the field.

Today, we look at further studies that have attempted to assess this, but this time, with a possible mechanism. For that, I get to summarize my own study, which is a little self-indulgent. It was not intended in this way, but was rather the result of the fact that five or six years ago, nobody was doing this kind of work. Still today, there are some problems with it (again, the motto is "Nobody can PROVE anything"), but it's worth looking at.

Anticipatory regulation of performance in the heat

Refresh your memory on the state of the knowledge prior to 2003. The thinking regarding exercise in the heat was that you fatigued because you were hot. That is:

  • Exercise increased heat production
  • In hot and humid environments, you are not abe to lose that heat
  • Your rate of heat storage is positive, so your body temperature rises
  • It rises until it reaches a critical limiting level of about 40 degrees Celsius
  • At that point, your brain fails to activate the muscle, your level of effort hits maximum, and you stop exercise
Impaired performance in the heat is thus the result of GETTING TOO HOT, to put it simply. This theory was borne out by studies that showed how brain activity was altered and EMG activity was lower when the body temperature was 40 degrees celsius. The problem was, these studies all fixed the cycling power output (or running speed), and so there was no room to slow down - it's either go or stop.

So, in 2002, I did a study in Cape Town that aimed to determine WHEN the decision is made to slow down or speed up, or, in the case of the existing theory, stop altogether?

This study, which was published in the European Journal of Physiology (Tucker et al. Eur J Physiol; 448: 422-430, 2004, for those interested), aimed to answer the following questions (in lay terms):
  • During exercise in the heat, WHEN does the athlete slow down? The current thinking was that they slowed down BECAUSE they got too hot. But Marino and some others were suggesting it happened before this.
  • What mechanism might exist to cause this slow down during exercise in the heat?

The study was relatively simple: 12 well-trained cyclists performed 20 km time-trials in the lab, either in the hot condition (35 degrees, 60% humidity), or cool (15 degrees, 60% humidity). During the trials, we measured something called EMG activity, which is basically the electrical signal sent from the brain, to the muscle to cause it to contract. This method, which is the same as was used previously to show how the brain activated less muscle when it reached 40 degrees, always ends up being the point of attack for people who don't buy into the whole regulation of exercise argument, but more on that later.

Things like heart rate, Rating of Perceived Exertion, skin temperature, body temperature were all measured during the trials as well. I'll sum up the two key findings below:

1. The pacing strategy differs, almost from the start of the trial

The graph below shows the power output measured through the trials. You'll not that in the heat, for the first 5 km, the power was the same as in the cold, and then it started dropping, whereas it was maintained in the cool trial. The result was that the overall power output was lower in the heat. Nothing unexpected there...

The mechanism - muscle activation and anticipatory regulation

But, what you should be asking is the following:

Why did the cyclists slow down after only 30% of the trial was completed?

There are two possible answers to that question:

You could say, based on the theory of heat LIMITING performance, that they slow down because their body temperature has risen quite high in those first 5km, and they slow down, because as was shown recently, a high body temperature directly prevents the brain from activating muscle;

OR, you might say

They slow down at this point so that they don't get hot later on during exercise. That agrees with the Marino theory for anticipatory pacing, and something other than high body temperature is responsible for reducing their power output.

The graph below shows the answer to this question:

What this graph shows is the EMG activity (as a % of maxium - we express it relative to some maximal value of muscle activity, measured before the trial when the cyclist pushes as hard as possible for 5 seconds) over the course of the trial.

You'll notice two key things:

1) First, the EMG activity is lower in the heat than in the cold, almost from the outset

2) The EMG activity increases significantly at the end of the trial - the "endspurt"

These changes in EMG activity EXPLAIN the changes in power output in our previous graph. That is, the power output in the heat is lower BECAUSE the activation of muscle is lower from very early on. Then, at the end of the trial, the power output increases substantially because the brain is activating more muscle. More muscle activation means more force, and that means more power.

But perhaps the key to all this comes from the tables I've inserted over the graph, which show that:

  1. The athlete slows down (the power output graph on top) and activates less muscle (the EMG graph below) even though their body temperatures, heart rates and even their Perception of Effort (the RPE) are THE SAME as in the cool condition. If you compare the HOT to the COOL conditions, you see that the body temperatures are "only" 38.4 degrees celsius, which is not different from the COOL condition, and nor is it anywhere close to the supposed "limit" to exercise of 40 degrees.
  2. Think for a moment about that for a moment - they "choose" to activate less muscle, to cycle at a lower power output, despite the fact that they are NOT HOT, and nowhere near the supposed "critical limiting temperature". This may strike you as obvious, but again, you need to ask HOW they could possibly know this, and based on what information is such a 'decision' made?
  3. Then, at the end of the trial, the athlete is able to SPEED UP in the cold trial, activate MORE MUSCLE, even though their body temperature is higher than it was before

Quite clearly, the decision to speed up or slow down has nothing to do with body temperature, which is what the textbooks say. These findings show that the activation of muscle, the power output and hence performance are regulated by something much more complex that simply the direct effect of body temperature.

The most amazing of all - you slow down, even though you feel the same!

What is perhaps most remarkable of all is that the cyclists slowed down in the heat even though their perception of effort was the same as in the cool condition. This perception of effort basically measures an overall Rating of Exertion, which is to say it's a mix of fatigue, effort and general perception. It's a highly complex measurement, and we'll come back to it later in this series.

Point is, it's not as though they felt worse, and therefore slowed down! That's what you might think, but the finding above suggests this is not the case. In other words:

  • you feel the same in terms of your effort and fatigue levels
  • you're equally as hot as you were in the cold condition
  • your heart is working at about the same level

yet you slow down through the activation of less muscle.

Now, there are many issues here that I won't get into for this post, but will gladly discuss in question and answer things (so do read the comments at the bottom of this post because your question may well come up there!). So yes, there are some grey areas, there are mechanisms still missing (what causes them to slow down, for example?) and there's much to be discovered still. But the take-home message here is that:

A model that says that you fatigue in the heat because you get too hot is clearly incorrect. Rather, fatigue in the heat is complex, and impaired performances happen long before athletes ever get hot. The regulation of exercise happens in anticipation of overheating, and it's mediated by factors that are still too complex to pin down exactly. However, there are theories, and that's what we will address next.

Join us then!


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Athletics season starts: News

Gebrselassie turns back the clock, and a star emerges in the women's 800m

Yesterday saw the "start" of the European track and field summer, with the Hengelo Athletics meeting. This meeting, which is usually the first of the big meets of the European calendar, has become famous for its Ethiopian flavour, thanks largely to Haile Gebrselassie, who, back in 1994, set his first track world record over 10,000m at the meeting.

Jump ahead to 2008, and remarkably, Gebrselassie was at it again, in the men's 10,000m race, though it was not world records, but Olympic qualification that was at stake this time around.

Just about everyone knows that Gebrselassie has withdrawn from the Beijing Olympic Marathon, citing the pollution as a "risk to his long term health". Instead of the marathon, the event at which he is of course the world record holder, he expressed an interest to qualify for the Ethiopian team over 10,000m, and Hengelo was his chance, since the race amounted to a virtual Ethiopian qualifying race.

Kenenisa Bekele, world record holder and defending Olympic Champion is an automatic selection, leaving two places for the Ethiopians to fill. One would surely go to Sileshi Sihine, who has a collection of silver medals that make him the "bridesmaid" of the event, unfortunately. And the third, well, that's up for grabs.

Yesterday, in Holland, Gebrselassie went a long way towards writing his name down on the team list, by finishing second to Sihine in a time of 26:51.20. It was only Sihine's kick in the final 120m that created the half-second gap over Gebrselassie, and at 35, Gebrselassie showed he has what it takes to mix it with the best, even after 5 years of dedicated marathon training.

Among his more notable "victims" where Eliud Kipchoge (who finished third), and Patrick Komon, the runner up at the recent World Cross Country championships. Most notably, Geb finished comfortably ahead of Gebre Gebremariam, who is really the third of the "Big 3" Ethiopians leading into Beijing.

And with that performance, Gebrselassie looks a good bet to run in his 4th Olympic 10,000m race come August.

But is he in with a chance? Or a sentimental favourite?

I guess, in many respects, that question doesn't really matter, because realistically speaking, there are probably only three men in with a chance of winning in Beijing: Kenenisa Bekele is an 80% favourite, and maybe Sihine and Zersenay Tadese are outside medal chances. Gebrselassie simply won't have the leg speed in the final 2000m to match it with the younger generation, and for all his ability, if the pace over the first 5000m is slow (anything outside 13:45 is "slow"), then the second half will find him struggling when the 60 second laps start appearing at the end.

So no, probably just a sentimental favourite. What will be interesting is the pollution angle. Having withdrawn from the marathon because of the air quality in Beijing, Gebrselassie is now going to run an event (assuming he's chosen, of course) that I believe poses even MORE risk to his breathing than the marathon. Think for a moment of a smoker, or even an unfit person: If you are a smoker, would you rather walk at a low intensity for 60 minutes, or run at a higher intensity for 10 minutes? I think most will recognize that the slower option is easier, despite its longer length, because if you're going to have problems breathing, they'll happen because the RATE of breathing is high, not the total volume (obviously, if the exposure is long enough, this no longer applies, but 2 hours is not a long time).

So, my opinion is still that if Gebrselassie was worried about the marathon and breathing, then the 10,000m, because of its very high intensity (95% VO2max) should terrify him!

I still don't believe that the pollution was his major problem, however - I think it was always a question of running the Berlin Marathon, and the Olympics Marathon just didn't fit well with that plan. So rather than forgo the world record attempt and huge payday in Berlin, he opted for the shorter race in August and cited pollution as the (unsupported) reason. The irony is that his altnerative - the 10,000m - poses more risk, exposing his reasons to begin with. Still, it will be great to see him in Beijing, though a medal will be a remarkable achievement, I would say he's likely to be running for fifth. We'll see how he goes...

Pamela Jelimo - a star in the 800m, and the latest in a line of young superstars

The 800m even FOR MEN was building up to be one of the highlights in the Olympic Games, with about 8 men who, on their day, could win it. What made it even more exciting was that many of them are newcomers, young men like Rudisha of Kenya and Kaki Kamis of Sudan.

Well, now the women's event is heading the same way, with a 19-year old Kenyan, Pamela Jelimo, emerging from nowhere to run an incredible time of 1:55.76.

More than the time (which is spectacular - a world junior record by just under 2 seconds, and a PB by 3 seconds), it was the manner of the performance that was so impressive. Jelimo went to the front almost as soon as the pacemaker had dropped out (after a quick first lap of about 57 seconds), and drove home an advantage, leaving some accomplished 800m runners in her wake.

Jelimo only took up the event three months ago, having previously been a sprinter (a rare species in Kenya) and she's proving the value of speed over the shorter distances as she carves her way into the event record books. At only 19, she should get faster over the coming years, assuming she's managed correctly. Who knows, perhaps that world record from the drug-infested 1980's is even under threat? It currently stands at 1:53.28, by Kratochvilova.

Two seconds is a lifetime, of course, but with age and training, it might be possible. What makes the event even more exciting is that only one year ago, everyone was heralding the arrival of another superstar from Kenya, Janeth Jepkosgei. Jepkosgei won the World Championships in Osaka with a dominant display of front running, in what was one of the most impressive performances of the Osaka Championships.

Had I shown you the result from Holland and said that a Kenyan won the race running from the front, you would automatically have assumed it was business as usual for Jepkosgei, and you'd have been wrong. It was Pamela Jelimo, and remarkably, Kenya now has two incredible 800m WOMEN athletes. Bring on Beijing!


Saturday, May 24, 2008

How a sprinter takes drugs

The method behind the doping: Victor Conte's sensational letter spills the beans on drug use by sprinters

We interrupt our series on Fatigue (which is progressing rather more slowly than I'd like - my apologies, but work has been heavy of late!), to bring you a news-story from last week.

It concerns the ongoing saga of Dwain Chambers, the British sprinter who made news here about 10 weeks ago when he returned to the sport following his two-year ban after failing a drugs test for THG, the designer steroid at the centre of the now infamous BALCO case. Chambers caused a massive headache for the authorities by qualifying for the British World Indoor Team (where he went on to claim silver), and is currently making a push for inclusion in the British Olympic setup. Presently, the British Olympic Committee issue immediate life-time bans for drug offenders, and Chambers is doing his best to get past that small obstacle!

As part of this case, he's roped in none other than Victor Conte, the man behind THG and BALCO. His story was brilliantly told by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams in their book "Game of Shadows" - well worth a read, if you can get hold of it.

So it was just over a week ago, last Friday, that Dwain Chambers met the British Olympic authorities in an attempt to clear his name, fight against drugs cheats. Part of the plan was to reveal everything, blow the lid right off doping, and inform the authorities just how athletes were getting away with drug use.

Enter Exhibit A, a letter written by Victor Conte, which explains the process, the drugs, the secrecy, the methods behind the cheating for Dwain Chambers. We've taken this letter from the BBC site and pasted it below, in dark grey text, in its full form. Well worth a read, and highly informative. Of course, there will always be questions about the source, since Conte is a man who undoubetdly enjoys the "attention" this kind of story provides. Nevertheless, amazing inside information.

Before you read, three things to take note of from a Science of Sports point of view:

  • Seven prohibited substances, ranging from THG (called "The Clear") all the way down to a thyroid hormone, with pretty much everything in between
  • The athletes are extremely adept at dodging the system for long enough to get away with drug use for those substances which can be tested for. Of the seven, two have no tests, with others having rather sketchy tests. Conte's letter gives examples of how the athletes get away with it, in what he calls "ducking and diving".
  • He reveals some interesting statistics that implicate a rather unusual (and certainly inferior, if he is to be believed) testing pattern, with fewest tests during the off-season when the athletes are competing. Of course, logistically, it's easier to test athletes in-competition, but if Conte is truthful (and I suspect in this part, he is), then the athletes are of course doing their doping work out of season, and so one might expect the testing numbers to reflect that.
The letter is below:

Dear Dwain,

Per your request, this letter is to confirm I am willing to assist you in providing UK Sport and others with information that will help them to improve the effectiveness of their anti-doping programs.

The specific details regarding how you were able to circumvent the British and IAAF anti-doping tests for an extended period of time are provided below.

Your performance enhancing drug program included the following seven prohibited substances: THG, testosterone/epitestosterone cream, EPO (Procrit), HGH (Serostim), insulin (Humalog), modafinil (Provigil) and liothryonine, which is a synthetic form of the T3 thyroid hormone (Cytomel).

THG is a previously undetectable designer steroid nicknamed "the clear." It was primarily used in the off season and was taken two days per week, typically on Mondays and Wednesdays. Generally, these were the two most intense weight-training days of the week. The purpose was to accelerate healing and tissue repair. Thirty units (IU) of the liquid was place under the tongue during the morning time-frame. THG was used in cycles of "three weeks on and one week off."

Testosterone/epitestosterone cream was also primarily used during the off season. It was rubbed into the skin on the front of the forearm two days per week, typically Tuesdays and Thursdays. The dosage was ½ gram which contained 50mg of testosterone and 2.5mg of epitestosterone (20 to 1 ratio). The purpose was to offset the suppression of endogenous testosterone caused by the use of the THG and to accelerate recovery. The testosterone/ epitestosterone cream was also used in cycles of three weeks on and one week off.

EPO was used three days per week during the "corrective phase", which is the first two weeks of a cycle. Typically, it was on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It was only used once per week during the "maintenance phase" thereafter, typically this was every Wednesday. The dosage was 4,000 IU per injection. The purpose was to increase the red blood cell count and enhance oxygen uptake and utilization. This substance provides a big advantage to sprinters because it enables them to do more track repetitions and obtain a much deeper training load during the off season. EPO becomes undetectable about 72 hours after subcutaneous injection (stomach) and only 24 hours after intravenous injection.

HGH was used three nights per week, typically on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Each injection would contain 4.5 units of growth hormone. Once again, this substance was used primarily during the off season to help with recovery from very strenuous weight training sessions.

Insulin was used after strenuous weight training sessions during the off season. Three units of Humalog (fast-acting insulin) were injected immediately after the workout sessions together with a powdered drink that contained 30 grams of dextrose, 30 grams of whey protein isolates and 3 grams of creatine. The purpose was to quickly replenish glycogen, resynthesize ATP and promote protein synthesis and muscle growth. Insulin acts as a "shuttle system" in the transport of glucose and branch chain amino acids. There is no test available for insulin at this time.

Modafinil was used as a "wakefulness promoting" agent before competitions. The purpose was to decrease fatigue and enhance mental alertness and reaction time. A 200mg tablet was consumed one hour before competition.

Liothryonine was used help accelerate the basic metabolic rate before competitions. The purpose was to reduce sluggishness and increase quickness. Two 25mg tablets were taken one hour before competition. There is no test available for liothryonine at this time.

In general terms, explosive strength athletes, such as sprinters, use anabolic steroids, growth hormone, insulin and EPO during the off season. They use these drugs in conjunction with an intense weight training program, which helps to develop a strength base that will serve them throughout the competitive season. Speed work is done just prior to the start of the competitive season.

It is important to understand it is not really necessary for athletes to have access to designer anabolic steroids such as THG. They can simply use fast-acting testosterone (oral as well as creams and gels) and still easily avoid the testers. For example, oral testosterone will clear the system in less than a week and testosterone creams and gels will clear even faster.

Many drug-tested athletes use what I call the "duck and dodge" technique. Several journalists in the UK have recently referred to it as the "duck and dive" technique. This is basically how it works.

First, the athlete repeatedly calls their own cell phone until the message capacity is full. This way the athlete can claim to the testers that they didn't get a message when they finally decide to make themselves available. Secondly, they provide incorrect information on their whereabouts form. They say they are going to one place and then go to another. Thereafter, they start using testosterone, growth hormone and other drugs for a short cycle of two to three weeks.
After the athlete discontinues using the drugs for a few days and they know that they will test clean, they become available and resume training at their regular facility.

Most athletes are tested approximately two times each year on a random out-of -competition basis. If a tester shows up and the athlete is not where they are supposed to be, then the athlete will receive a "missed test". This is the equivalent to receiving "strike one" when up to bat in a baseball game. The current anti-doping rules allow an athlete to have two missed tests in any given eighteen-month period without a penalty or consequence. So, the disadvantage for an athlete having a missed test is that they have one strike against them. The advantage of that missed test is the athlete has now received the benefit of a cycle of steroids. Long story short, an athlete can continue to duck and dive until they have two missed tests, which basically means that they can continue to use drugs until that time.

In summary, it's my opinion that more than fifty percent of the drug tests performed each year should be during the off season or the fourth quarter. This is when the track athletes are duckin' and divin' and using anabolic steroids and other drugs. Let me provide some rather startling information for your consideration. If you check the testing statistics on the USADA website, you will find that the number of out-of-competition drug tests performed during each quarter of 2007 are as follows: in the first quarter there were 1208, second quarter 1295, third quarter 1141 and in the fourth quarter there were only 642.

In late 2003 I advised USADA about the importance of random testing during the fourth quarter of the year. They did initially seem to follow my advice because they increased the number of fourth-quarter tests in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

However, they failed to continue this practice in 2007. Why would USADA decide to perform only 15% of their annual out-of-competition tests during the fourth quarter? Let's not forget that this is the off season before the upcoming summer Olympic Games. This is equivalent to a fisherman knowing that the fish are ready to bite and then consciously deciding that it is time to reel in his line and hook, lean his fishing pole up against a tree and take a nap.

On several occasions, I have provided detailed information to both USADA and WADA in an attempt to help them establish more effective testing policies and procedures.
I certainly have more information that I would like the opportunity to provide to you and UK Sport, but I will leave that for another time.

Hopefully, this information will be helpful and I am available to assist you further upon request.

Yours sincerely,
Victor Conte

There you have it, straight from the mouth of the "conductor" of the doping symphony. Note also Conte's reference to "more information" that he is leaving for "another time"!

This is by no means the only sensational drugs story doing the rounds at the moment. There is also the Trevor Graham case, which threatens to be even bigger, and maybe more damaging to the sport - so far, it's . We'll bring you some insight into that particular case next week, so join us then!

And also, we'll gradually chip away at Fatigue!


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fatigue Series Part 4: Exercise in the Heat

Exercise in the heat: Predicting the physiological future - African runners outperform white runners in the heat

We're back with Part 4 (or is it 5 or 6? I've lost count!) of our Series on Fatigue during exercise. In our last post, we looked at exercise in the heat, and found that:

  • Laboratory research shows that human beings will stop exercise when their body temperature rises to a certain level. That level is of course dependent on the athlete's motivational levels, though interestingly, not necessarily on their training status or performance.
  • We also saw that the science has shown that when the body temperature rises to reach about 40 degrees, the brain actually activates less muscle than a "cooler" brain, and that there is evidence for reduced arousal and motivation.

So, the hypothesis, based on these constant workload studies, is that the heat affects performance because:

A high body temperature DIRECTLY inhibits the ability of the brain to activate muscle.
Therefore, exercise stops (because in these studies, remember, slowing down is not an option)

What happens when the athlete CAN slow down? Self-paced exercise

Today we turn our attention to the case where athletes can slow down - this is arguably more representative of what you will see in Beijing later this year, since any athlete can, at any stage, choose to drop off the pace. Of course, they lose their medal chance this way, but it's a much more applicable form of testing.

And to understand this, we look a few studies. We'll do it in a couple of posts, because otherwise the length would become enormous. So today, we consider one study, with more to come in the next few days.

In 2000, a study by Tatterson (J Sci Med Sport) found that cyclists slowed down soon after they started a 30-minute performance trial in hot, but not cold conditions. What was significant is that their body temperatures were not higher in the hot than in the cold when they slowed down. Obvious, yes, but quite contrary to the theory that your brain stops activating muscle AFTER your body temperature hits the "threshold". They didn't measure any index of muscle activation, however, but it was a crucial observation that something else (and not direct body temperature) was playing a role in the heat.

African runners in the heat - anticipatory regulation thanks to their smaller size?

Then, a study done by Frank Marino while he visited Cape Town a few years back, was one of the first to use the words "anticipatory", because his finding (discussed below) found differences in the pacing strategy of African runners compared to white runners in hot conditions. So the conclusion is that something is happening BEFORE the body temperature rises, slowing the runner down so that they don't overheat.

And this is obvious. Think for a moment about when you go and train on a very hot day. You do not simply go out and run or cycle at your normal pace until suddenly, overcome with a sensation of hyperthermia, you slow down! Rather, your entire approach to the session is changed and you slow down LONG BEFORE you ever get hot in the first place! Within the first few strides, you're probably already going slower. So this is one of those examples we spoke about a long time ago - intuitively, we know what happens.

The question is HOW? And also, we have to consider the prevailing expert opinion of the time. In this case, remember, the "textbook" knowledge says that exercise is impaired because the HOT BRAIN directly inhibits muscle activation after body temperatures are raised by exercise.

So, let's look at the study by Frank Marino. I'm sure he'll forgive my very rudimentary depiction of his methods below:

So he had 6 African and 6 white runners, quite well trained, doing a performance trial after a 30 minute steady run in either HOT (35 degree) or COOL (15 degree) conditions.

The starting hypotheses for this study, had you read the theories about exericse in the heat, would be:

  • Performance would be impaired in the heat, so the runners would be slower during the 8km trial in the hot condition. This is fairly obvious.
  • They'd slow down in the HOT trial because they'd be much hotter than in the cool trial - the high body temperature (and HOT brain) is failing to activate muscle, as we're told by other research.
This is what was found:

Graph of running speed (km/hr) against time for the 12 runners during 8km time-trial performances preceded by 30minutes run in hot and cold conditions

I've highlighted with a red circle one of the more significant findings - the white runners started the 8km trial much slower than the black runners did, from the first minute. Of course, both groups eventually slowed down in the heat compared to the cold (the black symbols on the graph), but it's this difference between black and white runners that should be of interest. So, why then, do the white runners start so much more slowly?

Option 1 is that they are already hot. They might be finishing the 30 minute steady run with higher body temperatures. That would agree with the theory that the hotter you are, the slower you go...

However, look at the graph below:

Graph of rectal temperatures during the course of the trials in hot and cold conditions

Again, I've highlighted the key point there - the black and white runners had THE SAME rectal temperature when they started the 8km run. And not only this, but the temperature was "only" 38.2 degrees, so they were way cooler than the supposed "limiting temperature".

Yet, for some reason, despite the fact that the black and white runners have the same temperature and are not in any danger, the white runners "chose" to START an 8km time-trial slower than the black runners. We can therefore dismiss Option 1 from above, and say that it's clearly not a case of a hot athlete slowing down! If it was this simple, with some "direct effect" on the athlete, then the slowing down would happen equally in the two groups. This is an amazing finding given the prevailing view that the heat impairs performance directly, I hope it strikes you that way too!

So what, then, is the reason? Well, that's of course difficult, if not impossible to PROVE (as we've seen recently courtesy the CAS, "proof" in science is not as easy to do as people think), but here's a theory from the Marino paper:
  • The African runners were much smaller than the White runners - 59 kg compared to 77kg, to be exact. The white runners were taller, however, and had a larger body surface area.
  • We know from previous research that a smaller runner produces less heat while running at the same speed as a larger one. That is, the total heat PRODUCTION is dependent on body mass, and smaller people produce less heat.
  • Smaller runners also lose less heat, however, because they have a smaller body surface area to lose heat to environment.
  • But the key is: These two factors don't exactly cancel one another out. The result is that even though they lose less heat, smaller runners are still able to lose more heat RELATIVE to heat production than larger runners. This has to do with the ratio their mass to body surface area - they may lose on surface area, but their lighter weight more than makes up for it.
  • The net result of all this, is that smaller athletes have a reduced RATE OF HEAT STORAGE than bigger runners.
  • Now, given this fact, if two runners are going along at the same speed, the smaller one will be storing less heat, and therefore his/her body temperature will be climbing slower than that of the big runner.
  • Put differently, it means that if both athletes are concerned about how hot they are getting, then the bigger runner will have to slow down in order to prevent his heat storage from rising, which would ultimately increase his heat production.

Now, with all those facts on the table, the results start to offer an interesting theory:

The rate of heat storage is responsible for Anticipatory Regulation of exercise and pacing strategy in the heat

The theory is that the white runners, by virtue of their bigger size, have an increased rate of heat storage. (Note that this effect (the different pacing strategies, that is) is likely due to size - had the groups been matched for mass and height, the result might have been different - see the comments section to this post!)

The brain is "clever" enough to know that if the athletes starts their 8km time-trial at a fast pace, then their very high rate of heat storage is going to see their body temperature RISE very rapidly. They are in danger of reaching a core temperature of 40 degrees BEFORE the end of the time-trial (which they know is 8km long). Remember, at this temperature, the brain says "Enough" and exhaustion usually occurs (or soon after).

Therefore, the brain says "Whoa, back off a little!", long before the athlete overheats, and with the intention of making sure that they do not reach this limiting temperature before they are able to finish the trial - it would be a complete failure to do this, and reach the 6km mark by the time their brain says "enough". So instead, it REGULATES their performance IN ANTICIPATION of ever reaching that limit. That Anticipatory Regulation is achieved or mediated by the rate of heat storage, which is different from the very early stages of exercise.

On the other hand, the African runners, who are smaller, have no such problems. They thus maintain a higher speed, and a similar rate of heat storage, leading ultimately to an improved performance. Note, very importantly, that in the cold, this difference between black and white runners does not exist. Therefore, it's not a case that the white runners are just inferior to the black runners - it applies only in the heat, when the environmental temperatures bring this heat storage aspect into play.

Looking ahead

What this study does not do is measure anything related to brain function. Now, that's very difficult to do during dynamic exercise, and is often criticized, but we'll discuss a study tomorrow that looked at EMG activity (a measure of how much muscle is being activated by the brain) during trials in the hot and cold. This was the first study to find evidence for it. It was also a study I did for part of my PhD, though I'm not claiming anything here - it was be default, more than anything else!

So that's coming up in our next post - evidence of Anticipatory Regulation of Exercise Performance, along with a few more concepts to build on the ideas put forward here.

Join us then!


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Pistorius verdict comments and responses

Great discussion on previous posts: Law + marketing trumps science

Having initially decided to wait on the "science" to be released before tackling the Pistorius decision further, we've had some really fantastic responses to our previous articles on the ruling by the CAS that Pistorius is eligible to run in the able-bodied Olympics, should he qualify.

I felt that so good were these comments that they warranted a separate post, since many do not read the comments (or can't via email subscriptions). So below are excerpts from those comments, which you can also read in their original form here. The comments are in blue italics, and my response to each is below, in regular text.

Before that, however, a summary of my take on the full CAS report (which I was going to do later, but thought it better to put in now).

Summary response to the CAS report

It's quite clear that the IAAF made many errors in the PROCESS, and these errors have cost them in the verdict. The report actually states that the IAAF "fell short of the standards" expected of it, which is quite damning criticism. However, the report makes little mention of the science, and frankly, that's what I'm interested in. There is some mention of the Houston testing showing that Pistorius has the same oxygen consumption as normal runners - the IAAF found it to be 25% lower, and so either someone is lying, or their equipment was broken, or they were testing VO2 in completely different circumstances. This third option is most likely, and I expect I'll be discussing it when I finally get to see that evidence.

The Houston report also mentions that Pistorius "fatigues normally". I can hardly wait to see that test - those who have been reading this blog over the last two weeks will recognize just how complex fatigue is. And with the greatest of respect to the biomechanists and engineers who were the experts in this case, "FATIGUE" takes on a very different meaning to an exercise physiologist. How was fatigue measured? What circumstances surrounding the test, and was it a performance test? All must be revealed.

Another great example is lactate - the IAAF, in their "wisdom", tried to measure lactate levels and VO2 during a 400m race to prove a "metabolic advantage". This kind of thinking is 20 years out of date, and lactate is a completely useless marker of what they were trying to do. I made this point last year, saying that lactate was irrelevant, and that they should be looking at the pacing strategy to understand fatigue - lactate was one of the myths that should have been dismissed from the start. Ultimately, they paid for a lack of physiology understanding in their process. They covered the biomechanics, yes, but the physiology was poor. I look forward to the "physiology" from Pistorius group, which I expect to be equally easy to dismiss.

I feel, based on these discussions and the report and the other feedback to date, that this is a case won on a "technicality", much like a criminal getting off based on improper evidence collection. The legal requirement for proper procedure is important, however, and I'm not condoning the IAAF's apparent errors. Perhaps the most blatant example of this IAAF "error" was the reported testimony of Dr Elio Locatelli, who said that the IAAF would not ban Pistorius from running in the 100m or 200m events, but only the 400m, where his advantage catches up with his disadvantage. Quite clearly, the ban should stand across all events, and this testimony is typical of the relatively weak case the IAAF apparently created.

However, as I state lower down in this post, I believe the NET advantage exists, and I believe it is a very large advantage (both performance and physiological). I base this opinion on the physiological facts and discussion that has taken place completely apart from the IAAF testing, since this opinion, and the reasons for it, were stated last year in June, long before the IAAF ever did testing to confirm those theories. The theories hold true today, as does the advantage, and I look forward to the day when someone else (not Pistorius, for I don't believe he is capable) will run the 400m event in 42 seconds using this technology.

Comments by JM:

Interesting: The matter was agreed upon to be a de novo investigation into the matter, yet, a lot of reliance was placed on the testimony and the findings of the previous testing done. Surely, to be technically correct, if a de novo investigation was done it would mean that a complete new test would be done under the auspices of the tribunal and THEN a decision would be made.

The burden of proof was deemed to be a "balance of probability". This means that the more probable viewpoint would be deemed to be the correct one. I cannot see, on the raw evidence of the science, how they could find Pistorius' version to be more probable.

Yes, agreed. The point that I've made in the last few days is that science holds one thing above all others to be fundamental, and that is discussion, peer-review and analysis of the work of others. Complete transparency is the critical component - the sanction of INDEPENDENT, new tests under the auspices of the tribunal, perhaps using the experts from both parties would have resolved this issue. I am not sure that the CAS allows such a process to be followed, however.

Instead, what has been done is an argument around the testing gathered by the IAAF. I guarantee that if the Pistorius "science" is ever released (someone said it would be, I'm sceptical), it will be easily challenged, for that is the nature of science. Regular readers of our blog will know how many issues in running and sport are "unprovable". Think of hydration, think of muscle cramps and salt supplements, think of running shoes and injury, running technique. These are topics that have been researched hundreds of times, and still, there is no consensus. Well, now we can add to that list the advantage of Pistorius.

When the opposing view is finally presented, it will be very easy to dismiss, because that's how science works often, and in this case, I have 100% confidence that the advantage exists.

However, the LAW says is not yet proven (see Norrie's comments later). The consolation I have, scientifically, is that some day, it will be proven, and it will take less than 42 seconds to prove the advantage exists and expose this particular case, because that's how long a more genetically gifted athlete (dare I say from West Africa) will take to run 400m.

An interesting point on the proceedings is that the experts went into a room to find out what they agreed upon and what not. According to the finding, the experts agreed that Pistorius had less up and down movement. They also agreed - and this I find interesting because that's not what I understood from this blog or from prof Bruggerman's report - that Pistorius fatigued at the same pace as ablebodied athletes running at sub-maximal speed.

That I don't get - it was shown that Pistorius has a faster second 200m than anybody else in history, but he supposedly fatigues at the same rate? How?

Your guess is as good as mine. In his testing in Cologne, Bruggemann did not directly measure any kind of fatigue at sub-maximal speeds. So this may be part of the yet-to-be-revealed science gathered by Pistorius. To my mind, the pacing data is the most conclusive and damning evidence to date (something I've said many times), and in the coming week, I'll take another look at it and discuss why. So how do you prove that he fatigues at the same rate? To an exercise physiologist (as opposed to a biomechanist or engineer, as the experts are), that question is in fact laughable - it can't be answered, because fatigue is enormously complex (as we're seeing in our series on it here at the moment!). Define fatigue, for example? If it's running speed, then it's obvious that he has an advantage, so they have looked at something else.

So again, what the LAWYERS have done is to ask the right question to suit their case, and the IAAF are painted into a corner. When I finally get to look at that science, it will be easy to dismiss this argument, I can assure you.

To me it seems that this thing came down to what most cases come down to - a discussion of the process. It looks, from the findings, that the IAAF slipped up in a big way at some points - thus leaving a gap that was forced open. It was the process that was adjudged to be unable to provide the probability, rather than the science, which is a great pity.

In my humble opinion a legal tribunal is the last place to adjudicate these kinds of scientific things, but that was the only option available. The tribunal made a legal decision - and on the face of it, it seems the correct one if one looks at what they say they were presented with.

Again, agreed (and our next poster also says pretty much the same thing). It boils down to a battle of perception, which was first manipulated in the mainstream media (go back to our posts on this topic last year to see that), and then the door was slammed open by some high-powered law. It was not science. Or perhaps, put in the words of our next poster from below, it was Law vs. Science. With marketing as the referee.

I also agree that the IAAF made some big errors, not only in the CAS hearing, but in the last 14 months. They were, after responsible for saying some pretty ridiculous things before the October testing and were caught napping when this situation presented itself. So the IAAF certainly have some hand in their own problem (a problem that is only going to grow moving forward). I agree with JM that it was a great pity, that the science should be soured by a technicality.

I still believe in that science, and let me make a very important point: My opinion that Pistorius has a large advantage is NOT based on the IAAF testing. If you go back to June last year, 4 months BEFORE that testing was already done, I wrote the reasons for the advantage based on physiological facts, and believe that they are still correct. It is that theory, borne out by Pistorius' pacing strategy and the IAAF result that form the basis to reject the fact that he does not have an advantage - he does, a large one, and it will become obvious in time.

The IAAF testing from October served merely to confirm what had been hypothesized (here on this site and elsewhere) leading up to it. But the theories, and the reasons for it, are the foundation - every testing result by the IAAF and from Pistorius' races so far confirms the hypothesis, which I stand by. In fact, I don't even think that the IAAF results are the most important pieces of evidence in this case. They confirmed the theory, and to now see those results "greyed" by the law is a pity.

Comment by Norrie:

Initially I was floored by the CAS decision, but upon reading the judgment and documents - it is clear that:
IAAF looked only at one rule - which I believe to be a mistake.
That the protocol given to the testing team in Cologne was flawed in that it looked to prove advantages and not overall advantage in performance (all athletes have strengths and weaknesses with the overall performance being the time - Oscars slow start outweighs performance at 100 and 200 - but 400M? and in future 800 to 1500?)

I agree in principle, but this is a classic example of how marketing/promotion and clever legal work has twisted the realms of what is possible. How do you measure PERFORMANCE advantage in this case? How is it even possible to answer the question? It's not, because the only study that would PROVE it is one where you made someone run in normal legs, then amputated, and had them run in prosthetics!

Obviously, that's not possible, and so the IAAF had only one option - evaluate the physiology and the mechanics of Pistorius' running. They did it, and found huge differences. So large, in fact, that one can say that Pistorius is a completely different proposition from any other runner. His advantages, physiologically, were huge. His pacing strategy (not the IAAF finding, but mine), suggest massive performance advantages, but can't prove them, because the "burden of proof" cannot be met by science in this case, as it was set out by the CAS.

But yes, the IAAF got killed in court because clever lawyers asked the right question: "Can you prove performance advantage?" The answer is no, and it shows that the trick is to ask the right question as I said in yesterday's post.

The burden of proof lay with the IAAF and the measure was 'balance of probability' In effect there was little need for Oscar to prove his disadvanatge only to create question over the method of appraisal- It was law versus Science

I am amazed that the burden lay with the IAAF. It should have been with Pistorius to prove that his legs did NOT provide an advantage. I can think of few sports where the governing body must prove that some piece of equipment is not advantageous before banning it. If I took to the tennis court with some new device, I'd have to first prove to the authorities that my device was not altering my ability unreasonably. I believe the burden should have lay with the person wishing to gain special permission to use the blades. This is yet another example of how poor control of this situation allowed the door to be left ajar and smashed open by clever lawyers. We wrote over a year ago that the burden should always have been on Pistorius.

But back to Oscar (which this case should never have been about - it should have been the principles and future practicailites as well)

The judgement refers to him as a 100m 200m and 400m athlete - so presumably he is restricted to this (although my feeling is 1000m will prove to be his optimum distance - lets see what you get Ross - so 800m 1500 in competitions)

Yes, the case should always have been about the future implications and not Pistorius. This is where the marketing and media bandwagon that Pistorius had behind him should take a bow and the credit, because they positioned this as a case of Me vs Them, when it never was. This too, was written on this blog over a year ago.

As for Pistorius' best distance - the 800m would be better than the 400m, if he was prepared to train for it. I think that right now, he probably couldn't run a good 800m, simply from lack of training and conditioning. But given the right training, a sub-1:40 800m time is easily on the cards. Of course, this will never happen, because then the fraud would be obvious and the ban would be easily implemented.

In fact, I don't think that Pistorius will ever run an 800m competitively, because it would expose him and he wouldn't put in the necessary training. However, my hope is that someone else does - perhaps in ten years' time, someone will do that, and expose the true size of the advantage.

The immediate future sees a possible 400 relay, with a rolling start over 20m! - that puts a different spin on things - Running in the second lap, with the protection of 100m plus of lanes in which momentum will be maximised could carve seconds from his lap time!

Yes, excellent point. Of course, that's not conclusive of anything - his team will merely point out what a fabulous athlete he is and how good he would be if he didn't have his problems with balance at the start. The SA team (if he's in it), might consider giving him the full 20 m head start to make the most of his advantage in the final 300m of the race. But it's his pacing strategy that I look forward to analysing, as well as the science when it eventually is presented.

Until then, though hopefully it won't be long, I wait for 42 seconds of proof.

Thanks for the comments and discussion, which has been excellent - I was reading a local newspaper this morning, and the editors of that paper would be well advised to listen to thoughtful, objective discussion such as yours.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

Pistorius cleared Part 2

Views from the running industry: Logic and implications

Yesterday (or earlier today), depending on your location, we brought a preliminary response to the CAS ruling that will see the introduction of technology into running over the next 50 years (you can read this below, if you are receiving this as an email). The ruling applies specifically to Oscar Pistorius, but has far-reaching ramifications, many of which are not even apparent today. One thing I feel sure of is that the day, 16 May, will be looked back on with a great deal of regret some day, because it is a mistake for the sport.

For today, however, I thought I'd rather refer to a couple of discussion threads on the topic, from within the running community. They give some diverse insight and opinion. I've also posted in two of the discussion pages, so my opinion is clear there (some repetition between the two), and it means I don't have to double post. Those discussions:

Before you jump to those (if you have time!), I do have two observations about these discussions that sum up pretty much what is in those discussions and should be read first:

1. The running community looks at this differently, and "knows"

First, it's interesting to me that within these running "communities", the prevailing opinion is that he has an advantage, whereas currently, most people outside of the sport say he does not. I feel that over time, that perception will change (wait for it to become obvious that the advantage exists, and then everyone will "see the light"), but it's nevertheless interesting that informed runners see the advantage logically and clearly, while those outside, or with any other incentive (other than the sport of running, that is), fail to recognize it.

I wonder if something in our experience as runners (particularly if you've been semi- or fully-competitive) provides this? Some will argue that it's false perception, but certainly, the logic of the arguments, and the relative lack of emotion, is completely different from what you see in general discussions, and it interests me that the opinion could be so polarized, with runners, in my opinion, knowing the truth.

2. The range of implications- endless, worrying and very likely

A. Deliberate amputations

Secondly, you'll see in these discussions many people's response is that the logical consequence of this decision is that people will cut their legs off and try to gain an advantage. I don't think this is beyond the realms of possibility - remember that a survey once found that 70% of elite athletes would take steroids to win gold medals, even if it was GUARANTEED to kill them by age 50! So it's not as extreme an option as people think!

However, this drastic approach of amputation would probably not work in adults, because an adult could not, in all likelihood, learn to run well enough on the blades to compete at a high level (though in the future, the technology may even allow this to happen, which is a huge concern, and should have been fundamental to the CAS decision).

B. Companies "scouting" for talent

A child, however, is another proposition. And I honestly do believe (you can save this post and refer back to it one day, whether I am right or wrong!), that this decision will inspire sports companies to go out and hunt for double amputee CHILDREN. Because a child, given the right equipment (which is expensive) and the right support (also costly) CAN learn to run on prosthetics. And so for that reason, I believe that the implications of this decision will not be felt now, but in a generation from now, when a West African child, or perhaps one from Jamaica or the USA, reaches the age of 20 and goes out and runs 40 seconds for 400m!

Consider for a moment the following fact: 95% of the world's fastest sprinters (100m, 200m and 400m) originate in West Africa. For some reason, we have all implicitly assumed that Oscar Pistorius has a "natural ability" to run 46 seconds. But why should this be? It's quite conceivable to me that there is a West African, Jamaican, and US runner, who would be capable of running 4 or 5 seconds FASTER than Pistorius if given the blades and the training at a young enough age!

It's for this reason that if I was a rep at Nike, Adidas, Mizuno, I'd be drawing up plans to get into West Africa right now, and find those people. In 12 years time, an 8-year old today, could win an Olympic title in every event from 400m upwards. The world records would stand at 41 seconds and 1:36 for 800m. That is perhaps the most realistic, though long-term implication.

C. Performance improvements in a laboratory: Technology and overnight speed.

A third possibility, of course, is that now that the technology has been introduced, someone has to regulate it! It's possible that over the next few months, the massive increase in funding (driven by the now real prospect of Pistorius running in able-bodied races), will see technology advance to the point where performance improves by 2 seconds, almost overnight! That destroys the spirit of sport, it compromises its integrity, and it most definitely makes a mockery of the "science" provided by Prof Hugh Herr, who himself doesn't want human legs back because because they will be archaic.

This prospect is the most likely short term implication. Now, the CAS should have considered this aspect in their decision, but based on the news releases, their decision was based around Pistorius and evidence for HIS advantages. There are many problems with that approach, as we discussed last week, but the pivotal issue in this whole trial is that Pistorius, through clever PR and marketing, managed to make this about himself. It never should have been - this was about technology in sport. And Pandora's box is now open, and how the IAAF, or any other sport, will regulate this, is beyond me. Drugs, cheating, fraud, and now this - sport is heading down a cul-de-sac that destroys the very integrity of the game.

To quote something I wrote on one of the discussion threads:

In marketing at University, they teach you all about managing people's perceptions through the media, through PR, and through clever use of facts. It's all about creating a mindset in people and the "positioning" your product in their minds in a certain way. And there's a great saying I recall: "What is the difference between a rat and a squirrel?" The answer is marketing. That is the power of positioning something in your mind - same "product", different perception.

And I thought of that yesterday, because one might ask "What is the difference between a ban and a clearance for Pistorius?". And the answer would be the same - it's marketing. It used science, yes. And it really irks me that science can be that "corrupt". But then just look at the supplement industry, which is, I am beginning to realise, looking more and more similar to this saga - big companies, big finances, big incentives, big secrecy. But it's marketing that won this battle, and in years to come, the sport will pay for that.

Looking forward: The week ahead

So, I believe it's a matter of time before the advantage becomes very obvious (and Prof Herr is proven correct - human legs will be "archaic"), but until then, we don't plan on dwelling on the verdict. However, I'm intrigued by a question posed by our friends over at LetsRun.com. They ask:

What could Pistorius run for 800m?

Next week, I'll do an analysis of Pistorius' pacing strategy and predict his 800m time.
Let's also say that we'll never see Pistorius run the 800m event, because then his advantage would be obvious. But it makes an interesting discussion point, so we'll look at that.

The whole pacing strategy issue, and the fact that Pistorius is the only athlete who has ever sped up in the second half of a 400m race was :

i) Conveniently overlooked at the CAS hearing, and
ii) Ignorantly dismissed by Pistorius' experts.

We'll look at this issue, because it is still, to this day, the single most damning evidence that he has an advantage.

That also links in nicely with our fatigue series, which we'll attack next week, with a post on exercise in the heat. So do join us then!



We have received some terrific feedback and discussion to this post (it can be found below under "Comments" if you're on the site, or if you are reading this as an email, click on the post title to be taken to the site). But for those on email, I thought I would post one comment in particular, and my response to it, which is an absolutely crucial piece of this puzzle.

Post: From Coach Dan:

Clearly, the decision was made due to the lack of scientific evidence that there is an advantage. In fact, if you read earlier sections of the decision, it notes that Dr. Bruggeman indicates the testing did not prove a competitive advantage

My response:

When you ask the question: Does the research prove that Pistorius has an advantage? This question is completely unanswerable, nobody on earth can say either yes or no to it. If they do, they are lying or ignorant.

The truth is that the only way to find an advantage is to do an experiment where an athlete runs in normal legs, then in prosthetics. Of course, that's impossible, and so the only approach for the scientist to this matter is to look for differences that imply advantage - to actually confirm advantage is impossible.

Now, this has been known since last year - we wrote it on this blog in June, and numerous others were saying the same thing - you CANNOT prove a performance advantage. But you can PROVE PHYSIOLOGICAL DIFFERENCE. And if you find that difference, then it is grounds for a ban.

The CAS have clearly seen it differently - thanks, in no small part, to 7 lawyers from New York. Therefore, if you ask the question: Is there a PHYSIOLOGICAL advantage?..the answer is YES. Is there a performance advantage? The answer is probably, but not 100% certain. And that is where marketing takes over, and three lawyers can be led to the incorrect verdict.

This case should always have been about the possibility that the technology can provide an advantage, or a difference. Yet miraculously, not a single "expert" (IAAF or otherwise) has recognized the absolutely crucial evidence that Pistorius does not slow down in the second half of the race. In fact, this is THE CRUCIAL finding, and it's been dismissed. This finding does show a PERFORMANCE ADVANTAGE.

So, the law says "Can you prove it?" Science says "Can you suggest it, based on hypotheses and physiological theory?" What Professor Bruggemann's study did was confirm the existing theories for an advantage - classic science, hypothesis - research - result - conclusion. But proof? That's a legal issue. And if you stop to think about it, little is actually 100% provable. Do violent TV games lead to more gun crime? Does watching TV lead to lower IQ? Many studies have looked at questions like these, and found very good associations, proving a link. But the trick is to ask the right question. When you have 7 top lawyers from New York, you know that they'll ask the right question, and that was done here.

Pistorius appeal: Science sold

Going, going, gone: Pistorius wins appeal, and Pandora's box is now open - good luck to athletics

I have no doubt that many have by now heard the news that Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, has been cleared by the CAS to compete in able-bodied races against able-bodied runners. Little more than this has been released, so the grounds for the clearance are guess-work, other than to say that it was not a huge surprise, given the way that the case had developed. The sentiment before today's announcement was in fact that the verdict would favour him, because of the nature of the CAS process and the fact that three lawyers were required to evaluate two conflicting scientific arguments.

Perhaps most significantly, one of those scientific arguments, that of the IAAF, had been discussed and dissected for months before now, whereas the other, that of Pistorius, has still not be revealed to anyone. Quite what this shows is beyond us, and it will certainly be interesting to have a look at apply the same magnifying glass to them. I suspect the results will surprise.

Those who have followed this saga over the last 12 months will have little doubt as to our opinion on the science of Oscar Pistorius, and the size of his advantage. This LEGAL ruling does not change this - we are interested in the science, not the judicial reasons. And over the coming weeks, we hope that the "science" that is now being readily flaunted by those supporting this bid is revealed.

Peer-review, and obejctive, analysis of scientific research, is the fundamental basis on which science is built. The concept of "secret" research, done by scientists who are neither objective, nor independent, and certainly not neutral, is foreign to science. To have overturned a decision such as this one based on clandestine testing, which took place entirely in the absence of any independent expert, is a travesty of justice, more than it is a scientific proof of anything.

I eagerly await the first publication of those "scientific studies" which prove that there is no advantage. I do not believe that this research will be forthcoming, now that the dollar signs are in place and the incentive has been achieved by those who have much to gain from today's decision.

What I do believe is that this decision has changed the face of athletics, and a journey has now begun which we will ultimately all regret. So the day of May 16, 2008, will indeed go down in history (as Pistorius is quoted to have said), because it is the day that Pandora's box was opened.

Good luck to the IAAF, good luck to the sport, and good luck to all those spectators who wished for it to be opened. Whether it will take 4 months, 4 years, or perhaps 14 years, this day will one day be looked back on with a great deal of regret. The time will come where the effects are so obvious that even the most parochial and emotive supporter begins to recognize the problem, and what has been discussed will become unavoidable. Until then, the IAAF have to evaluate how to implement the far-reaching consequences of this decision. Shoulder replacement surgery and shot-put records of 25 m is the next step, followed by 42 second 400m times.

The next step is to wait on the scientific evidence, and just as Pistorius and his team of highly paid lawyers were able to criticize the IAAF-study, so too, his research should be exposed to the public. Indeed, this should have been the case from the outset, but nothing about this entire saga has been managed correctly. As soon as the scientific motivation is released, you can be sure we'll discuss it.

Until then, we leave you with a quote from the scientific expert, Hugh Herr, who defended Oscar Pistorius after performing his top-secret, unverified research. He advocates the introduction of this technology into the sport. This quote is no doubt familiar to many of your who are regular readers:

A bilateral amputee professor named Hugh Herr works here (at MIT). If anyone can predict what sports will look like in 2050, it's Herr, who lost his legs 26 years ago in a climbing accident. Herr wears robotic limbs with motorized ankles and insists he doesn't want his human legs back because soon they'll be archaic. "People have always though the human body is ideal", he says. "It's not".

Time will tell, but when the "expert" himself says that soon human legs will be "archaic", then good luck to the sport. May 16, 2008, and athletics' version of Pandora's box is wide open.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Athlete spotlight: Borzakovskiy and Radcliffe

Build-up to Beijing: Focus on Beijing preparations of Yuriy Borzakovskiy and Paula Radcliffe

A brief break from the fatigue series today, where we'll split the section on exercise in the heat up with some interesting articles we came across thanks to LetsRun.com (great site for running related news).

Yuriy Borzakovskiy - Olympic champion planning his defence

The first is an interview with Yuriy Borzakovskiy of Russia. He is the current Olympic 800m champion, and the 800m event, for those with an interest in the track and field races at this year's Games, is probably the most open event in the whole thing. There are probably ten men who, on their day, could win Gold. Last year, at the World Championships, for example, the top three were:

1. Alfred Kirwa Yego
2. Gary Reed
3. Yuriy Borzakovskiy

Only Borzakovskiy would have gone into the race a heavy favourite, though Yego and Reed are now realistic medal contenders in Beijing thanks to this result. But then so are about ten other men, including two young sensations: Abubaker Kaki Kamis of Sudan and David Rudisha of Kenya.

Kaki Kamis won the world indoor title earlier this year (in mighty imprssive fashion), while Rudisha, a young Kenyan, won in Doha on the weekend, running 1:44:36. And did we mention Saad Kamel, Bungei, Mulaudzi, Said-Guerni? The 800m event is so wide open that pre-World Championship favourites failed to even qualify for the finals! There are numerous reasons for this - the tactical nuances of the event, the unique physiological demands and difficulty of racing through two qualifying rounds, which many athletes are unaccustomed to, and don't seem to handle particularly well?

And then there is the psychology - in the article with Borzakovskiy, he alludes to the open nature of the event, insisting that there are no favourites for the Beijing title. But he does drop a few interesting hints at what it takes to win the title, including mention that Wilson Kipketer failed to win Gold in Athens because he was not "psychologically ready".

He also talks about how he is "in good psychological condition", and that he doesn't feel the need for any structured psychological intervention. Unfortunately, he doesn't elaborate on what that means, and he doesn't explain what he believes is the psychological "edge" that saw him win that gold medal, which would have been great insight.

Nevertheless, it's a great read, and really fascinating to see how he travels so extensively during the training phase. I count four different training camps in different locations, in addition to his home base, which is interesting, given that many of his rivals, particularly in Kenya, will find one single base during their build-ups.

The link again: Borzakovskiy article

Paula Radcliffe - Fear of failure and Beijing plans

The second and third articles concern Paula Radcliffe. Radcliffe is, obviously, one of the big names of the Olympics, perhaps more for her failures in Athens than her other magnificent achievements. The articles deal with the Athens Marathon and her now infamous DNF, which has been unfairly emphasized. She speaks in these articles about the burden of expectation and her fear of the same happening in Beijing.

I really do hope she can put this right in Beijing and win the title, though the challenges are numerous - apart from her rivals, there is the heat. Radcliffe is a bigger runner than many of the Japanese, Chinese and Kenyans she'll be racing against, and there is scientific evidence that size matters in the heat - bigger runners tend to fare worse in hot conditions (as we'll see in the next post on Fatigue and Exercise in the Heat).

The article alludes to the fact that Radcliffe is training in a humidity and heat chamber, which is of course vitally important in the build-up. Her injury is the other factor - a toe injury, which forced her out of the London Marathon. She seems to me to be the type of runner who needs and enjoys racing herself into better shape, and so that loss of a race may be substantial. She mentions in the articles that it's not a major concern for her.

Good reads, both articles, which you can find here:

Radlcliffe article 1
Radcliffe article 2

Looking ahead - picking up fatigue

Looking forward now, the next post on fatigue is on the way (as soon as time allows it!), and it will look again at exercise in the heat. This time, however, we'll concentrate on the regulation of performance (as opposed to the heat limitation of exercise, as we did yesterday) in the heat, with special focus on Beijing.

Join us then!