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Friday, November 20, 2009

Sports Illustrated on Oscar Pistorius

Sports Illustrated covers Oscar Pistorius, and the latest on Semenya 

Yesterday I did a post looking at the latest research on Oscar Pistorius, which sensationally claimed that his advantage was about 10 seconds in a 400m race.  Nothing new from me today, but I do want to refer you to a great summary on the development by David Epstein of Sports Illustrated.

I had the pleasure of meeting David while in New York recently, and he covers the science, the politics and the personalities in great detail and logical thought in this article, which is well worth a read.

Of particular note is the following quote from Peter Weyand, referring to the fact that the media had, for the last 12 months, portrayed an extra-ordinarily one-sided perspective on the question of Pistorius' advantage:
"It was tough to watch Oscar on the Today Show after the [CAS] hearing saying, 'Hey, the best guys in the world have looked at this and said I don't have an advantage'," he said. "The history and evolution of it led him to believe he doesn't have an advantage, when our conclusion is he has a very clear one."


Ron George said...

That the blade runner enjoys a mechanical advantage comes as no surprise to me. Latest research studies from mechanical engineers at Penn State has it that among other elements, very fast runners have longer feet for more contact area while pushing off, and shorter Achilles tendon lever arms that generate more force if not sizable leverage. Looking at the prosthetic Cheetah blades, it sort of fits this description to me. Moreover, carbon fiber doesn't undergo the same wear and tear as muscles do so I speculate that his body doesn't need to divert as many resources to repairing the biggest muscles in his body upon post stress compared to other runners. Then the whole issue of having lighter blades as limbs also makes sense as CF is light so he's enjoying a distinct power to weight ratio. This is a total no-brainer to me. Look at airplanes made the traditional way and ones incorporating carbon fiber sections. The fuel savings are immense in the latter.

Farhad N Kapadia said...


Would it be possible to get the actual paper or the abstract. We can then try to evaluate the data itself.


The Sports Scientists said...

Hi Farhad,

Indeed, having the full text is best. I am not sure if you are referring to the point-counterpoint or the original article, however the links to both are below as the Journal of Applied Physiology has kindly made both texts available to the public free of charge:

The fastest runner on artificial legs: Different limbs, similar function?

Point:Counterpoint - Artificial limds do/do not make artificially fast running speeds possible

If you have not read these yet, they will give you some interesting reading. Please come back and tell us your thoughts and comments here.

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

Hello, I am a bit confused. It seems the current addition of JAP is publishing a point:counter point article of the Weyland group and another group. Originally I thought you said that the Weyland group argued that the blades DID NOT HELP. Thus Oscar should get to compete in the olympics. Now they seem to be arguing with a group that they DO help (which you pointed out yesterday). Is there some sort of history here. Are these two groups that originally worked together so that Oscar could compete in the olympics and then split after the Weyland group changed their stance? I am not confused about the experiments, research, etc. Just more of the background/history of these studies. Maybe you have some additional information since you guys are in the field.



Jeff Knight
Austin, TX

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jeff

No, you're 100% right, not confused.

This latest paper comes from two of the scientists who were initially part of the team that was put together to clear Pistorius.

They were formed in 2008, and took research to the CAS that they claimed showed no advantage. Now, 18 months later, there has very clearly been a split in the camp, and Weyand, who was really the senior figure in that scientific team, has gone with a colleague and published data they've had all along, showing that there was an advantage.

That's why it's so unbelievable. In my post yesterday, I started off by saying I was stunned when I heard. Not because of the advantage, or even its size - I guessed it to be 6 seconds. But the source. PIstorius' own scientist has now said he has an advantage. And the point I was making is that he's known this all along - his own words reveal that 18 months ago, it was obvious that there was this advantage. Yet all the while, we got hit with this message that the "science" showed no advantage. It's a complete farce.

If you want to understand the scientific process, the Sports Illustrated article provides a really good explanation, and you just need to read that.

It's an amazing about-turn, and it's clear that for 18 months, there's been this simmering knowledge, a split in opinion, but it was never disclosed, and decisions were made without ever acknowledging it. Amazing.


Mark said...


Have you seen the following articles?



Any thoughts?


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Mark

Thanks for the links. i saw those papers, yes. In fact, i was in the USA when they came out.

My first thought when I read the press releases (not the research) is that this is a diabolical misrepresentation of the science. The study done by Grabowksi et al was on single-leg amputees, and was completely distinct from the Pistorius research, but was suddenly being "spun" to link to Pistorius' case. When I read them, my first thought was that someone in a PR department somewhere was spinning a story.

The point is that to compare single-leg to double-limb amputees is analogous to analysing cross country skiing and then using the research to conclude something about running. Single leg and double-limb amputees are that different.

I thought it was a diabolical piece of scientific application. If you ever get video footage of two athletes running towards you, compare the difference between the single-leg and double-limb amputee and you'll see what I mean. Everything is different - vertical oscillation, leg turnover between the right and left leg. I met with some high performance coaches in the USA, and they said to me that single-leg guys are at a severe disadvantage because "they're only as fast as their able-bodied leg allows them to be".

They simply have less balance, because they have a major leg length difference during the stride. So to take that research and apply it to Pistorius seemed at the time to be a major stretch.

In hindsight, the reason is clear - they rushed this research into the media, and there WAS a PR company behind it - they knew the Weyand research was coming and so this was an attempt, in my opinion, to sneak in the "first blow' in what is clearly a battle between the two camps.

I don't put any stock in it at all.


Ivan Drago said...

The issue that I have having reviewed the papers is that there is a lack of a hollistic perspective. Weyands work is considering Oscar in motion yet no work has ascertained his ability when accelerating out of the blocks or the fact his inside leg will behave differently when running the bend.

I believe he should be banned not because of any advantages derived thus far but purely on the basis that it is a different form of locomotion.

fischöl said...

I have read the article which tells about the approving of the runner semenya which is under observation for the medical clarification to prove her gender .The given issue that I have having reviewed the papers is that there is a lack of a holistic perspective.I am waiting for clarification process and its details.

Phil Essam said...

Ross and Jonathon,
Do you have an email address? A friend of mine (Jesper Olsen - www.worldrun.org) arrives in South Africa from Mozambique on the 17 Dec. Im trying to get some publicity out to the South African running scene and hopefully get him some crewing help. My email is philip.essam@three.com.au Im the webmaster for Planet Ultramarathon and think we have talked before.

Samantha C said...

What are your thoughts about people denouncing the way the Semenya case has been handled?

I'm writing a paper on this case for my Media Ethics class and am curious to know, after reading your articles on Semenya, whether you feel that the information should have been leaked in the first place?

Do you feel that the person and their rights to privacy and protection from public defamation has been lost amid the controversy? Or that the public has the right to the knowledge and the truth? [especially when it comes to athletics]

Any thoughts on this would be helpful, thanks!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Samantha

There's no doubt that the leak should not have happened, I think that much is very clear. The IAAF policy actually states that confidentiality will be maintained,so whatever happened to break that, it was regrettable, and responsible for many of the subsequent problems for Semenya.

I think this is different from what we've seen in SA though, because the politicians in SA who have decried the testing and criticized it so roundly have not really focused in on the confidentiality issue as much as they have on the whole process. I think our response in SA has been embarrassing, to be honest. Our politicians have shown their foolishness and bravado, and little of it has been related to the confidentiality issue. For example, the latest claims that the testing results should be declared null and void because of the process are ludicrous.

But getting back to the media, once the story was out, I hardly blame the media for running it. You'll know the whole idea about in "the public interest", which one can debate. Was it in the public interest to run the story? I don't know. Perhaps on the medical details, it wasn't. But honestly, once that story was out, there was no way people would not speculate about it. I think the second big error (after the leak) was the failure to manage the information in the immediate aftermath of the story. Once it was out, it was going to be a big story - kicking and screaming about confidentiality was a waste of energy. What should have been done is a simple statement to clarify many of the issues that arose as a result of the speculation - terms like hermaphrodite were being thrown about, and to me, that aimless speculation was more damaging than a statement of fact would have been.

That statement needn't have gone into massive detail about the condition, but could have given enough to clear up issues. For example, a statement that yes, testing had been done, that Semenya will not comment on the specifics of the testing, but would be consulting with the IAAF and ASA to clarify the matters relating to the testing, and would comply with the findings. Once those results were released, she might have considered stating that the has opted for medical treatment (needn't announce for what) and looked forward to returning to running.

The problem with the media is that they will never let the facts get in the way of the story, and the protagonists of the story needed to manage those facts, rather than allow rampant speculation, which is what happened.


Anonymous said...

I have not read the article yet, but there is a major piece on Caster Semenya in this week's New Yorker (and you know they give their writers all the ink they want!)


Anonymous said...

I have now read the article, and it is excellent on the social and cultural background of the Caster Semenya "phenomenon."

C Ronk said...

I used to make artificial limbs for a living a long time ago. It would seem that things have really evolved since then.

It used to be that missing a leg put you at a real disadvantage. Now it seems that in some areas it offers an advantage.

I wonder how long it will be before someone decides to cut off their own legs to become more competitive.

Anonymous said...

One thing I'm curious about regarding the Oscar Pistorius controversy is that I remember a female double amputee, Aimee Mullins, who was famous for running the 100 meters for her college team and in the Paralympics about a decade or so ago. She apparently had the same amputation as Pistorius -- below the knee -- and she wore the same brand of prosthetics, but her times were nothing to boast about. Do you consider that she was simply not that great an athlete to start with? Or maybe she should have run a longer distance to gain an advantage?

I feel bad for Oscar Pistorius, because if his blades really do give him an advantage, who exactly is he supposed to compete against? There just aren't that many double-amputee track athletes out there. I empathize with his frustration at being put in this position by an accident of nature.

Holly W.
Boston, MA USA

Anonymous said...

On Semenya-

The problem is that if Semenya chooses to have the operation "in order to continue competing as a woman with no advantages over other women," then it is clear, by simple logic, that she won this medal in a state that offered her an advantage. Otherwise there is no need for any operation.

This also contradicts the fact that the other competitors have a right that people follow the rules about who can compete in what category.

The secrecy about the test results only reinforces the suspicion of serious wrongdoing by one or more parties involved in the case and that Semenya won the race unfairly.

It seems "everybody" wants Semenya to keep her medal and prize money because it will avoid all parties involved from being shamed in public, that is, it's nothing but a nice little group cover-up.

However, the loser in the cover-up would be the IAAF, because they are the ones most accountable for cover-ups of this nature. If they don't uphold the rules, as an organization, they are done for. (And maybe that's what many people think of them already).

It doesn't really surprise me that they haven't agreed to the "deal" yet. At the same time, it won't really surprise me either if they do agree to any such deal in the future. Then again, they know as well as anyone, that the more they cover-up, the more they leave for the good media reporters to uncover. As they should.

Mister Suss said...

curious about your guys' take on this article: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/11/30/091130fa_fact_levy?currentPage=all