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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 This kind of thinking is 20 years out of date, and lactate is a completely useless marker of what they were trying to do.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.



adventurelisa said...

This is a shocker and I really hope Oscar doesn't qualify. Prosthetic limbs on an Olympic track (or any other able-bodied track) is flawed.
I'd be keen to see how fast Oscar would run in 7kg Cheetahs.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

Besides blogging about them, I've started making sites about the runners who inspire me. I made a site about Oscar Pistorius and this debate at the following URL:


It's got a biography, videos, polls, and a place to debate this very issue. I've also given The Science of Sport it's own link as one of the top sites covering this issue.

Though I still think Oscar should not be eligible, I tried to be very even-handed with the content on the site. Feel free to tell me where I can improve the content, though!

Anonymous said...

When did science ever help in formulating policy or directing public/ administrators opinions/ whims>

'Doping' is a good example - there is no evidence that beta-2 agonists improve performance yet the current WADA approach means there is an increasing number of asthmatics/ athletes with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction having to get TUEs. Similarly there is no data to suggest any advantage to growth hormone use; and even anabolic steroids (in the short term) have been shown to produce no benefit (how does this fit in with the perceived use of this by Floyd Landis?).

And don't get me started on the whole lactic acid in the muscles and collapse becuase of dehydration nonsense.

Unfortunately scientists (as you are implying) are not good at marketing information and lawyers are extraordinarily good at conveniently obscuring the truths!

Keep up the fascinating blogs.

JM said...

Ross, you make an interesting observation about who should carry the burden of proof. Convention would have it that he who alleges must show his proof in order for him who contests it to cast enough doubt on it to be unbelievable.

I think this is what happens here too. Oscar says he wants to compete, the IAAF says no, you have an advantage. Unfortunately, they have the power. Pistorius can't just ignore them because they have put policy in place preventing him from competing. So he takes them to task and say: "Proof it". They failed. Burden of proof should be on the IAAF.

Jamie said...

HI Ross

If the prothetics do not give an unfair advantage then surely the IAAF (or IOC/CAS) would not mind if everyone used them??????


runner said...

Now the first competitions are on: Pistorius vs. Wariner, Tayler & Co. And the Best: It will take place on the big stage and not in a local competition. The organisers of the Golden League meeting in Berlin invited him to compete in the 400.
"We would be the first meeting worldwide, where abled and disabled athletes run together in an A-Final".
Let's see if the battle will take place and how Oscar will look like next to the "phantom" (Wariner)

Stan Silvert said...

On Hal Higdon's board, I asked if people thought that "blade-runners" should have their own different division.

Hal made a very interesting observation. He compared the controversy to what happened with cross-country skiing. When competitors started to use the "skating" technique, it was obviously superior. So now they have different divisions for "skating" and "classic" style.

It is self-evident that the way Pistorius runs is at least as different as "skating" vs. "classic". Blade-running deserves its own division on that basis alone.


Anonymous said...

Article on the rebuttal study. Check out the high-res video.


Anonymous said...

Ross Tucker:
This is Ebenezer Samuel from the New York Daily News trying to get in touch with you. I wasn't sure how else to get in touch with you, because I saw you contact information for you on your site. But I am working on a story concerning Oscar Pistorius, and would like to get your opinion on this.

If possible, please email me at ebenezersamuel23@gmail.com so we can speak.

Thank you,
Ebenezer Samuel
Assistant editor
NY Daily News

Anonymous said...

Ross Tucker:
I am working on a story on Oscar Pistorius and was wondering if I might be able to speak with you.

If possible, please email me at ebenezersamuel23@gmail.com.

Thank you,
Ebenezer Samuel
Assistant editor
NY Daily News