Oscar Pistorius: A case where the science does not matter

21 Feb 2008 Posted by

Latest news on Pistorius – the appeal that will focus on “non-science” matters

Why science appears irrelevant to Pistorius

Well, it’s been a prolonged absence, but I’m now back in SA having had a great time of it travelling through the USA and Egypt. And so we’ll get right into some of the meaty issues that have developed in the last week. And what a week it’s been – Roger Clemens and McNamee taking their case to Congress, Dwain Chambers and a brewing storm over his participation, and breakthroughs in the study of fatigue. Those issues to come in more detail…

Pistorius to appeal ban at CAS

But for today, a brief update of the ongoing story of Oscar Pistorius, the South African Paralympic runner who is vying to compete in the able-bodied Olympic Games.

The story is now into its second year, after first hitting the major headlines last year. And we’ve tried as much as possible to cover the developments with a more critical eye. Indeed, part of the reason for steering the blog in the direction we did (a news site) was to report on scientific issues in a little more detail than the mainstream media.

So this particular issue is a fascinating one, and in a series of posts on it, we’ve looked at the realm of theoretical evidence that suggests that Pistorius does have a large advantage as a result of his high-tech carbon fibre blades. We then added to this by analysing his début performances in Europe last year, where all that theory was proven correct and he ran a race that is physiologically impossible. That alone should have been enough to issue a ban ON SCIENTIFIC grounds, but the IAAF, to their credit, performed very extensive testing on the limbs (see links at the bottom of this post).

Their result? They showed conclusively that Pistorius has a LARGE ADVANTAGE over able-bodies athletes. What was most amazing about this finding, is that that there was an advantage, but just HOW BIG IT WAS – we’re talking 30% differences in economy and mechanical efficiency. Difficult to know how that translates to performance, but it’s clear it’s seconds, not milliseconds. This has not discouraged Pistorius from taking the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, citing “new evidence” and challenges to the IAAF result.

The only answer that Pistorius will accept

The IAAF testing really should have been the end of the debate, especially considering that Pistorius had opportunities BEFORE the testing to consult his own experts and contribute to the research process. To say after the fact, once the result is announced, that the testing was faulty is either an admission of incompetence to begin with, or simply a plea to keep this issue in the media for a little longer.

Point is, the IAAF tested everything, in duplicate, comprehensively. The theory pointed to an advantage back in June last year, the results from his races suggest that he has the advantage by confirming those theories, and the IAAF testing proved it, beyond all measure of SCIENTIFIC doubt, in my opinion.

But the science is not the issue for Pistorius, the media is

But this is clearly not about the science to Pistorius. Rather, it is obvious that the only answer they will accept is the one that allows him to run. To date, 9 months into this debate, and the Pistorius group has not produced a single shred of valid scientific evidence. In fact, everything scientific they have claimed has been downright laughable. Last year, there were claims that lactate production caused Pistorius’ back pains, they have also “proven” that he has no advantage by pointing out that his strides are normal in length.

And now, in the latest of the “scientific barrage” being generated, we have been told that Pistorius clearly has no advantage because another runner, who lost his leg in an accident, has not run faster on the blades than before.

The extent of Pistorius’ science

In the latest retort, Pistorius has decided to appeal the IAAF ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. He does this “for all disabled athletes”, despite the fact that the Paralympic community are largely silent on this issue. I know personally of at least five Paralympic athletes who are OPPOSED to his campaign (that is 100% of my own sample), but I guess they are not part of the “athlete group” he refers to?

In his latest scientific angle, he draws on the story of a fellow South African, Joseph van der Linde, who was a good, promising sprinter, before a farming accident forced the amputation of his right foot.

He duly continued running, wearing a SINGLE carbon fibre blade. His times, however, were never able to reach those his “pre-accident days”. In Pistorius’ words:

“If my artificial limbs gave me an advantage, as alleged by the IAAF, Joseph should run faster, not slower,” he said.

Never mind the fact that:

  • Once an athlete (like van der Linde) loses the limb later in life, they must relearn all the motor control patterns, which means the chances of running properly again are very minimal. Pistorius learned to walk and run on prostheses, so he is an entirely different class of athlete. There is therefore no comparison between the two.
  • Pistorius runs on two blades, van der Linde only runs on one. The result is that Linde is unbalanced, and this costs MASSIVE energy as he runs, because one leg is highly variable in length, while the other is relatively fixed. This is in fact something we’ve discussed in detail in the past. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Pistorius should be banned from competing against single-leg amputees, because his advantage of them is even bigger than the advantage over able-bodied athletes. Again, the point is, van der Linde is a completely different case and the comparison is worthless.

The truth of the matter – not even van der Linde agrees with Pistorius’ argument

So what we have here is Pistorius bringing another athlete into the debate, entirely unwittingly. And what is more, his comparison is not even valid. Now, the only thing that could possible make more of a mockery of this “evidence” is if that athlete himself doesn’t agree with Pistorius! And that is exactly what happened!

Joseph van der Linde himself disagrees with Pistorius. Yet somehow, he finds himself in the category of “evidence supporing the defence”! A truly bizarre twist in this story…

But, don’t take my word for it. Joseph van der Linde has himself ridiculed Pistorius’ comparison, saying that “you cannot compare [him] to Oscar”, and that “Pistorius enjoys advantages over other athletes”. You can read his summary and reasons here.

van der Linde actually cuts right to the facts, which is surprising, since he’s not a scientist. Yet he displays a better appreciation and capacity to grasp the science than Pistorius. Why is that surprising? Because ever since this story broke, it was always going to be a question of science – Pistorius and his team had to have known that ultimately, they would need to win the argument on scientific grounds. Yet they have been completely ignorant, their science has been laughable and they have nothing but hollow claims to show for their efforts.

To date, that is the only science that has come out of the news of Pistorius’ appeal. There is talk, admittedly, of “experts” who have seen flaws in the IAAF testing. But then there are also rumours that Pistorius is consulting with local scientists in an attempt to help his case. These “local experts” do not have the necessary expertise to challenge a world leading German lab on this topic, pure and simple.

The science does not matter to Pistorius – only the exposure and media attention

To me, it is clear that the science is the furthest thing from the agenda. Indeed, Pistorius’ agent, Peet van Zyl, was quoted as saying that the case is not going to argued “on technical matters only”. So instead of focusing on the facts, we are going to be treated to smokescreens and mirrors, with the bizarre notion that banning an athlete with an ADVANTAGE is discriminatory! In otherwords, the science says he has an advantage, but that is insufficient to prevent him from competing!

Can I suggest that the next step is that a drug cheat will have to be allowed to compete against other athletes because he is simply not as naturally talented as the other athletes and so the drugs are NECESSARY even though they give him an advantage! Too small at birth? No problem, use steroids and growth hormone to bulk up, and if they ban you, just point out that it’s not your fault you are not a natural power sprinter. That seems to be where the argument is going.

Unless, that is, Pistorius can prove that the legs don’t provide an advantage…but then, that would require scientific testing and evidence, which seems to be in short supply. The reason for that, incidentally, is because the only science that does exist says the advantage is enormous, but selective hearing is fully in play on this one.

Quite frankly, the process is ludicrous, and the cards need to be placed on the table – there is no science to support that there is no advantage, only talk. And unfortunately, the media has willingly gone along with this “truth”. There is only the desire to keep this story in the public eye for as long as possible, because the longer it stays there, the longer the cheques are written and the balance climbs. At the risk of sounding cynical, this is not an issue of courage and human spirit any longer, it’s financial, and marketing and endorsement related.

So unfortunately, this issue will only end for Pistorius when the auhorities say that “There is NO advantage”. This is of course untrue, so I suspect we have much longer to travel on this issue. But don’t expect valid scientific facts in defence of Pistorius any time soon.


This post is part of the following threads: News/Controversies, Oscar Pistorius – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.