Pistorius cleared Part 2  //  Views from the running industry: Logic and implications

17 May 2008 Posted by
Yesterday (or earlier today), depending on your location, we brought a preliminary response to the CAS ruling that will see the introduction of technology into running over the next 50 years (you can read this below, if you are receiving this as an email). The ruling applies specifically to Oscar Pistorius, but has far-reaching ramifications, many of which are not even apparent today. One thing I feel sure of is that the day, 16 May, will be looked back on with a great deal of regret some day, because it is a mistake for the sport.

For today, however, I thought I’d rather refer to a couple of discussion threads on the topic, from within the running community. They give some diverse insight and opinion. I’ve also posted in two of the discussion pages, so my opinion is clear there (some repetition between the two), and it means I don’t have to double post. Those discussions:

Before you jump to those (if you have time!), I do have two observations about these discussions that sum up pretty much what is in those discussions and should be read first:

1. The running community looks at this differently, and “knows”

First, it’s interesting to me that within these running “communities”, the prevailing opinion is that he has an advantage, whereas currently, most people outside of the sport say he does not. I feel that over time, that perception will change (wait for it to become obvious that the advantage exists, and then everyone will “see the light”), but it’s nevertheless interesting that informed runners see the advantage logically and clearly, while those outside, or with any other incentive (other than the sport of running, that is), fail to recognize it.

I wonder if something in our experience as runners (particularly if you’ve been semi- or fully-competitive) provides this? Some will argue that it’s false perception, but certainly, the logic of the arguments, and the relative lack of emotion, is completely different from what you see in general discussions, and it interests me that the opinion could be so polarized, with runners, in my opinion, knowing the truth.

2. The range of implications – endless, worrying and very likely

A. Deliberate amputations

Secondly, you’ll see in these discussions many people’s response is that the logical consequence of this decision is that people will cut their legs off and try to gain an advantage. I don’t think this is beyond the realms of possibility – remember that a survey once found that 70% of elite athletes would take steroids to win gold medals, even if it was GUARANTEED to kill them by age 50! So it’s not as extreme an option as people think!

However, this drastic approach of amputation would probably not work in adults, because an adult could not, in all likelihood, learn to run well enough on the blades to compete at a high level (though in the future, the technology may even allow this to happen, which is a huge concern, and should have been fundamental to the CAS decision).

B. Companies “scouting” for talent

A child, however, is another proposition. And I honestly do believe (you can save this post and refer back to it one day, whether I am right or wrong!), that this decision will inspire sports companies to go out and hunt for double amputee CHILDREN. Because a child, given the right equipment (which is expensive) and the right support (also costly) CAN learn to run on prosthetics. And so for that reason, I believe that the implications of this decision will not be felt now, but in a generation from now, when a West African child, or perhaps one from Jamaica or the USA, reaches the age of 20 and goes out and runs 40 seconds for 400m!

Consider for a moment the following fact: 95% of the world’s fastest sprinters (100m, 200m and 400m) originate in West Africa. For some reason, we have all implicitly assumed that Oscar Pistorius has a “natural ability” to run 46 seconds. But why should this be? It’s quite conceivable to me that there is a West African, Jamaican, and US runner, who would be capable of running 4 or 5 seconds FASTER than Pistorius if given the blades and the training at a young enough age!

It’s for this reason that if I was a rep at Nike, Adidas, Mizuno, I’d be drawing up plans to get into West Africa right now, and find those people. In 12 years time, an 8-year old today, could win an Olympic title in every event from 400m upwards. The world records would stand at 41 seconds and 1:36 for 800m. That is perhaps the most realistic, though long-term implication.

C. Performance improvements in a laboratory: Technology and overnight speed.

A third possibility, of course, is that now that the technology has been introduced, someone has to regulate it! It’s possible that over the next few months, the massive increase in funding (driven by the now real prospect of Pistorius running in able-bodied races), will see technology advance to the point where performance improves by 2 seconds, almost overnight! That destroys the spirit of sport, it compromises its integrity, and it most definitely makes a mockery of the “science” provided by Prof Hugh Herr, who himself doesn’t want human legs back because because they will be archaic.

This prospect is the most likely short term implication. Now, the CAS should have considered this aspect in their decision, but based on the news releases, their decision was based around Pistorius and evidence for HIS advantages. There are many problems with that approach, as we discussed last week, but the pivotal issue in this whole trial is that Pistorius, through clever PR and marketing, managed to make this about himself. It never should have been – this was about technology in sport. And Pandora’s box is now open, and how the IAAF, or any other sport, will regulate this, is beyond me. Drugs, cheating, fraud, and now this – sport is heading down a cul-de-sac that destroys the very integrity of the game.

To quote something I wrote on one of the discussion threads:

In marketing at University, they teach you all about managing people’s perceptions through the media, through PR, and through clever use of facts. It’s all about creating a mindset in people and the “positioning” your product in their minds in a certain way. And there’s a great saying I recall: “What is the difference between a rat and a squirrel?” The answer is marketing. That is the power of positioning something in your mind – same “product”, different perception.

And I thought of that yesterday, because one might ask “What is the difference between a ban and a clearance for Pistorius?”. And the answer would be the same – it’s marketing. It used science, yes. And it really irks me that science can be that “corrupt”. But then just look at the supplement industry, which is, I am beginning to realise, looking more and more similar to this saga – big companies, big finances, big incentives, big secrecy. But it’s marketing that won this battle, and in years to come, the sport will pay for that.

Looking forward: The week ahead

So, I believe it’s a matter of time before the advantage becomes very obvious (and Prof Herr is proven correct – human legs will be “archaic”), but until then, we don’t plan on dwelling on the verdict. However, I’m intrigued by a question posed by our friends over at LetsRun.com. They ask:

What could Pistorius run for 800m?

Next week, I’ll do an analysis of Pistorius’ pacing strategy and predict his 800m time. Let’s also say that we’ll never see Pistorius run the 800m event, because then his advantage would be obvious. But it makes an interesting discussion point, so we’ll look at that.

The whole pacing strategy issue, and the fact that Pistorius is the only athlete who has ever sped up in the second half of a 400m race was :

  1. Conveniently overlooked at the CAS hearing, and
  2. Ignorantly dismissed by Pistorius’ experts.

We’ll look at this issue, because it is still, to this day, the single most damning evidence that he has an advantage.

That also links in nicely with our fatigue series, which we’ll attack next week, with a post on exercise in the heat. So do join us then!

Ross

LATE EDIT TO THIS POST + ADDITION:

We have received some terrific feedback and discussion to this post (it can be found below under “Comments” if you’re on the site, or if you are reading this as an email, click on the post title to be taken to the site). But for those on email, I thought I would post one comment in particular, and my response to it, which is an absolutely crucial piece of this puzzle.

Clearly, the decision was made due to the lack of scientific evidence that there is an advantage. In fact, if you read earlier sections of the decision, it notes that Dr. Bruggeman indicates the testing did not prove a competitive advantage. Post: From Coach Dan

My response:

When you ask the question: Does the research prove that Pistorius has an advantage? This question is completely unanswerable, nobody on earth can say either yes or no to it. If they do, they are lying or ignorant.

The truth is that the only way to find an advantage is to do an experiment where an athlete runs in normal legs, then in prosthetics. Of course, that’s impossible, and so the only approach for the scientist to this matter is to look for differences that imply advantage – to actually confirm advantage is impossible.

Now, this has been known since last year – we wrote it on this blog in June, and numerous others were saying the same thing – you CANNOT prove a performance advantage. But you can PROVE PHYSIOLOGICAL DIFFERENCE. And if you find that difference, then it is grounds for a ban.

The CAS have clearly seen it differently – thanks, in no small part, to 7 lawyers from New York. Therefore, if you ask the question: Is there a PHYSIOLOGICAL advantage?..the answer is YES. Is there a performance advantage? The answer is probably, but not 100% certain. And that is where marketing takes over, and three lawyers can be led to the incorrect verdict.

This case should always have been about the possibility that the technology can provide an advantage, or a difference. Yet miraculously, not a single “expert” (IAAF or otherwise) has recognized the absolutely crucial evidence that Pistorius does not slow down in the second half of the race. In fact, this is THE CRUCIAL finding, and it’s been dismissed. This finding does show a PERFORMANCE ADVANTAGE.

So, the law says “Can you prove it?” Science says “Can you suggest it, based on hypotheses and physiological theory?” What Professor Bruggemann’s study did was confirm the existing theories for an advantage – classic science: hypothesis – research – result – conclusion. But proof? That’s a legal issue. And if you stop to think about it, little is actually 100% provable. Do violent TV games lead to more gun crime? Does watching TV lead to lower IQ? Many studies have looked at questions like these, and found very good associations, proving a link. But the trick is to ask the right question. When you have 7 top lawyers from New York, you know that they’ll ask the right question, and that was done here. 

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.