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16 May 2008

Oscar's win - what now?

Oscar Pistorius won his appeal and will now be allowed to compete in able-bodied events at the Beijing Olympics. But what will this mean for the future of athletics?

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Double-amputee athlete Oscar Pistorius won his appeal on Friday and will now be allowed to compete in able-bodied events at the Beijing Olympics.

While IAAF-commissioned research previously showed that Pistorius' bionic Cheetah limbs give him an advantage, his appeal succeeded on the grounds of independent tests conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Hugh M. Herr.

One expert believes that this final decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) will cause a ripple effect that might be felt throughout the world of international athletics. According to South African exercise physiologist Dr Ross Tucker, it represents the introduction of technology into the sport that may ultimately harm its credibility.

What's more, Tucker notes that the opinion of Prof Herr can't be considered objective. A double-amputee himself, Herr is a co-developer of Ossur prosthetic limbs, and a collaborator, contracted expert and speaker for Ossur - the self-same company who manufactures the high-tech, carbon-fibre blades Pistorius uses to run (Read more on Scienceofsport.blogspot.com).

While the research by Herr and his team from MIT hasn't been published - and no conclusions can be drawn by independent experts at this stage - it's clear that there is a conflict of interest. "How the CAS managed to put this guy on the stand, beats me," Tucker says.

A case in point
The Pistorius case can be likened to a situation which is currently also turning the swimming world on its head, Tucker says.

When the International Swimming Federation (FINA) recently approved the use of the Speedo LZR Racer suit, arguing that it complied with FINA regulations as they stood at the time, it effectively allowed Speedo (and other manufacturers in the future) to push the 'Reset' button on swimming.

Just in the first few months of 2008, 37 world swimming records have already been broken – an astounding feat considering the fact that the average number of world records generally broken in the months leading up to an Olympic Games is five.

Tucker believes that this situation is directly linked to the Speedo suit, noting that "twenty years of sports history have been erased and rendered relatively meaningless by the never-seen-before technology in the pool".

A similar fate for athletics
One possible implication of Pistorius' participation in the Olympics is that a similar Pandora's Box would be opened for athletics, which could see world records broken one after the other as newer and better artificial aids are introduced.

But Tucker believes that this extreme scenario is unlikely, as it would be relatively easy to keep the situation under control by simply restricting the introduction of new technology to Cheetah limbs for amputees only.

However, the expert isn't convinced that this would be a solution either: "It may work, but it would be very difficult to enforce a standard of technology, even in the very tiny population of people who now participate with amputations and high-tech carbon-fibre blades".

The big problem, according to Tucker, is that technology will achieve two things: it will reduce the size of the disadvantage, and increase the size of the advantage.

"Whatever is found as 'acceptable' today will change over time, solely due to engineering developments," he says. "This means that you may well see seconds coming off performance times thanks to an engineering breakthrough such as a new material or a change in the shape of the blade." The equipment would need constant review and inspection – a situation which could become a logistical nightmare.

Why Pistorius has an advantage
Tucker takes matters a step further by saying that what Pistorius does when he's out there on the track can't actually be classified as "running".

"The research by the IAAF (which Tucker believes is more objective) found some enormous differences in mechanics between Pistorius and able-bodied runners," Tucker says. "They found that what Pistorius is doing is not 'running' as we understand it from a biomechanical point of view. It's a never-seen-before movement, aided by technology that's not available to anyone else."

In a previous article on Health24, Tucker laid out the differences in Pistorius' movement pattern, saying that the most telling evidence that Pistorius has an advantage is this: when Pistorius runs a 400m race, he maintains his speed for longer and runs the second half of the race much faster than the first – something that's never done in a high-speed 400m event. Able-bodied athletes always get slower as the race progresses.

Tucker hypothesised that three factors could be giving Pistorius an advantage:

  • the spring action of the blades propels him forward;
  • the blades never fatigue because they don’t require the same muscle activity to store and release elastic energy; and
  • the limbs have a reduced mass, which means less work goes into accelerating them.

All these factors mean that Pistorius uses less energy than a normal runner – something which clearly has major advantages.

Tucker's theory was confirmed by IAAF test results which showed that:

  • energy consumption, measured by oxygen consumption, is 25% lower in Pistorius than in any other runner;
  • mechanical efficiency and energy return from the Cheetahs is 30% higher than that of human tendons;
  • the Cheetah blades contribute to a 30% advantage in energy storage and release during running.

Tucker notes that from a biomechanical, physiological and performance point of view, Pistorius is completely different from able-bodied runners. "His locomotion is different, his physiology is different, and the science suggests an enormous advantage. He is immune to fatigue as a result of this advantage, which is in the range of seconds, not milliseconds."

Naturally gifted runner?
We're also all assuming that Pistorius has a natural ability to allow him to run 400m in 46 seconds. According to Tucker, this assumption provides the starting point for a circular argument that has major implications for the final decision.

“Everyone assumes that Pistorius is a naturally-gifted, world-class runner, able to run 46 seconds without the blades," he says. "The problem is that he might not be. If the IAAF advantages are real, and he has perhaps 20 to 30% advantages, then his natural ability is in fact well short of this."

But, Tucker says, there might be another amputee out there who does have that ability, and this person, wherever he is, has the genetic potential to run perhaps 4 or 5 seconds faster than Pistorius.

By allowing Pistorius to run, Tucker notes, we might very well see a case where another runner, perhaps two or three years from now, comes out and runs 41 seconds (the current world record is 43 seconds). "That would be a major embarrassment for everyone, and the world would regret its decision from 2008, because then the presence of an advantage would be clear."

Tucker's point is that we’re all assuming Pistorius represents the pinnacle of athletic potential, when in fact he may be well below it. "The same technology on another athlete may blow the sport wide-open, and then we would have to back-track rapidly."

All technology should be banned
Tucker's argument against Pistorius' participation is therefore twofold:

  1. His participation creates a real problem for the IAAF in that it will make it extremely difficult to enforce laws. The international authority would either have to make the technology available to all athletes (as in the case of swimming) or they have to very specifically enforce and monitor the technology for Pistorius only.
  2. Allowing Pistorius to run creates a situation where "competition equality" is damaged and athletes are suddenly taking part in mixed competitions, i.e. the other participants are running while Oscar is doing his adapted form of movement.

The ruling of the CAS has now given manufacturers a chance to take advantage of the situation.

- (Carine van Rooyen, Health24, May 2008)

Read more:
Does Oscar have an advantage?

 
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