20 November 2009

Oscar: scientists backtrack

The same people who said he has no advantage, now say he runs faster. Dr Ross Tucker comments.


The same people who said he has no advantage, now say he runs faster. Dr Ross Tucker comments.

”Ten seconds over 400m - the magnitude of Oscar Pistorius' advantage in a 400m race”. If you did a double-take as you read that headline, you're not alone. Yet there it is - an article that has the startling conclusion that Oscar Pistorius, the self-styled Blade Runner, "runs the distance 10 seconds faster than he would if his prosthetic limbs behaved like normal legs".

The actual discussion and research findings and interpretations will be published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, and I'll definitely be quicker getting to that one, and will post more on it then. But for now, I have to throw out some thoughts on this latest revelation, which has clearly taken me by surprise, though not because of what it finds, but rather because of who is suggesting it and based on what it is suggested.

Pistorius' 10-sec advantage
So let's cut right to it - the statement you see above, that Pistorius has a 10 second advantage in a single 400m race, was made by two of the scientists who did the testing that cleared him at the CAS hearing in 2008.

That's right, the research that was presented by the science and lawyers to allow him to compete against able-bodied runners has now been interpreted to show that he enjoys what amounts to an advantage that is, quite frankly, large enough to turn a merely decent high school runner into a world class 400m athlete.

The author quoted is Peter Weyand, who was part of a team who Pistorius contacted to help build the case that he did not receive an advantage thanks to the high-tech carbon fibre blades. Some of the talking points from the release include:

  • “Pistorius’ sprinting mechanics are anomalous, advantageous and directly attributable to how much lighter and springier his artificial limbs are,” Weyand said in a statement. “The blades enhance sprint running speeds by 15-30%.”
  • "We are pleased to finally be able to go public with conclusions that the publishing process has required us to keep confidential until now. We recognised that the blades provide a major advantage as soon as we analyzed the critical data more than a year and a half ago (my emphasis)"
    • The main reasons for the advantage, incidentally, relate to the mass of the blades, which is substantially reduced, and allow Pistorius to reposition his legs much faster.

      Added to this is the elastic property of the blades, which allow reduced energy cost of running, increased energy return, and of course, reduction in fatigue over the course of a race.

      "New evidence" that has been around for a while
      Now, there are some pretty big questions about the process that jump to mind here. Firstly, if the analysis of the data "more than 18 months ago" suggested that there was an advantage (Weyand's own words, because I know a lot of people have been critical of me for suggesting this since the whole issue began), then how did the CAS not see that data or at least hear the possibility when they had to make the decision?

      This is not "new" research, it's just newly released.

      And while it's only being published now, it seems to me that this possibility has been known by those intimately involved in the case, but not disclosed, when it needed to be.

      Why not?

      The CAS process in 2008 disregarded the entire peer-review process in the lead-up to the judgment. They clearly did not consider all the evidence, but framed a very specific question regarding the IAAF research.

      Whether the research was published or not was irrelevant to the CAS back in 2008 when they cleared Pistorius. So saying the finding was not published is not an excuse for not disclosing it back then. The result was a verdict based not on truth, but selected manipulation of opinion, by scientists, lawyers, or both.

      Inconsistencies in the process
      I have maintained from the outset that there is an advantage, as regular readers are well aware. I even threw out a figure of five to six seconds, based only on coaching information and knowledge of the local running scene.

      The theoretical basis for this advantage has been discussed over and over. However, take a look at what was said 18 months ago, in a press release issued around the time of the CAS verdict. Note that this came soon after the decision, and was done to throw scientific weight behind what was said at CAS:

      "Based on the data collected at Rice, the blades do not confer an enhanced ability to hold speed over a 400m race," Weyand said. "Nor does our research support the IAAF's claims of how the blades provide some sort of mechanical advantage for sprinting."

      How can these two statements be reconciled:

      • "Based on the data collected at Rice, the blades do not confer an enhanced ability to hold speed over a 400m race" (16 May, 2008)
      • "We recognized that the blades provide a major advantage as soon as we analysed the critical data more than a year and a half ago," said Weyand and Bundle in a statement (17 November, 2009 - both refer to the same time period)

      I am amazed.

      I suspect, given the nature of science, that this may revolve around the nature of the question being asked, and the 'burden of proof' to show that the advantage existed.

      The legal process ended up creating a situation where the IAAF evidence had to be evaluated, and that was all. Refute the evidence, win the case.

      No need to actually find the truth. It was the sports science equivalent of a technicality.

      However, the point remains that there was clearly a differing view, one that was never offered, either deliberately or by accident, and that is wrong.

      Then there is the issue of scientific disagreement, which happens all the time. Indeed, the Weyand article in JAP tomorrow is a counterpoint article with Hugh Herr, who was another of the scientists involved in the research process.

      This suggests that one half are saying there is an advantage, one half saying there is not. Such is the nature of science - different interpretations of the data happen all the time.

      But this only serves to emphasize that the decision should never have been made the way it was, in the absence of this very debate.

      The scientific peer-review process serves to bring out the truth, whereas what transpired at the CAS did not - at best, it failed to reveal all sides to the scientific debate.

      At worst, it allowed them to be deliberately buried.

      And the subtle changes in question are good and well, but let's be straight - the CAS should have evaluated the question that Weyand has very clearly admitted suspecting an answer to 18 months ago.

      Yet all reports seem to suggest that the CAS was given a very different picture, a very different interpretation, and what I have maintained all along is that the wrong decision was made. This does little to suggest otherwise.

      Have we reached a satisfactory conclusion?
      In my opinion, at least we've arrived at the right answer. There are questions around the CAS process, no doubt. Did the legal team win that argument? Did Pistorius "buy" the verdict (note that I am not implying any financial incentive, since I believe none was involved. However, the question remains, was there some manipulation behind the scenes?).

      Were Weyand and Bundle 'silenced' until now in the name of Pistorius making dollars out of commercial sponsorships and science? What went on that saw an "obvious" conclusion buried while "bad science" was propagated as "proof" of no advantage?

      I can tell you how Pistorius sourced those experts - he effectively did the equivalent of "door-to-door" selling, because he approached every single university in SA first, and asked them to prove that he had no advantage.

      I know this, because the big irony was that I was asked to look at his case in 2007 (by SA government, who he asked to help him). I wrote back (as did a number of others) and said that there was an advantage, so we would not be able to assist.

      Then he wound up in the USA, where he found a team who would do the research, and present it to the CAS. What happened in between, I don't know.

      Flawed research, flawed process, time to review
      What I do know is that the research he presented was flawed, there were some fundamental problems with it, including issues around the timing of testing, the selection of the control subjects, and the basis for doing some of the tests.

      However, this latest paper, and Weyand's quotes, suggest something bigger in play. I will confess that I am relieved to finally hear another scientist speaking openly and definitively (to the degree that they're actually claiming a time saving in a race) about this topic. It has been long overdue.

      But for now, I'm still amazed that this knowledge has seemed to exist for 18 months, but legal decisions have been made, and 'definitive conclusions' have been reached.

      This is the reason that the CAS verdict should not have been made until peer-review, discussion and the opportunity for many people to examine the method and results of the research. It was clear in 2008, and it has been exposed now.

      So Pistorius did a smash-and-grab at the CAS in 2008. Nothing new there.

      The big question now is whether the right thing will be done and this 'latest evidence' (which is actually 18 months old) will be used to reverse that decision, or whether the decision is binding.

      The point is that even if Weyand is wrong, and the advantage is five seconds instead of 10 seconds, that's enough.

      It's a massive advantage, the kind that turns a mediocre club runner (51 seconds) into an Olympic hopeful.

      And the fact of the matter is, that should be disallowed, because someday, a good runner (46 seconds) will run in the high-tech blades, and the 40-second barrier will fall.

      Time will tell. More to come, once the JAP paper is out and I've seen it.

      Dr Ross Tucker, is Health24’s FitnessDoc and has a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the University of Cape Town and a Post-Graduate degree in Sports Management from the UCT's Faculty of Commerce. He is currently employed at the University of Cape Town and Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and works as a consultant to various sporting teams, including South African Sevens, Canoeing, Rowing and Triathlon SA. He also blogs on

      Pistorius prosthetic advantage



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