Thursday, 17 July 2008

Taking the Pis...

Oscar Pistorius missed out on qualifying for the Olympics 400m event on Wednesday. And I can't say that I wasn't pleased. While I wish Oscar, the person, PBs and athletic achievements, I maintain that Oscar, "the fastest man on no legs", should not be competing with able-bodied athletes. Oscar is able, but he is not, and will never be, able-bodied.

First of all, when the whole Oscar Pistorius saga started too many months ago, the IAAF and other athletic governing bodies made a fatal error; they hesitated and entertained Oscar's request for the prosthetics to be tested to prove that they give him no advantage. The studies were done, the word was given that they do and then a back and forth legal and emotional rally ensued. It has been a long saga.

For me, the bottom line - advantage or not - is: Oscar does not have lower legs! This fact alone makes him different to able-bodied runners. He cannot tear his Achilles tendon. He cannot get a lower leg stress fracture. He cannot get plantar fascitiis and he can't even get a calf cramp; afflictions not uncommon to sprinters.

Unfortunately Oscar has shamefully played on the emotions of public perception; on people who are too politically correct to say, "the guy has talent but he's a disabled dude with no lower legs and so he can't compete against the other children". Instead the story of the child whose lower legs were amputated pulls on the heart strings and the general public is swayed by the awful adversity that the young boy overcame into cheering for him to run on the Olympic track.


The Sports Scientists have done a fantastic job of covering the scientific elements of Oscar's case since it began. I've included links to their postings below.

Forgetting for a moment that Oscar DOESN'T HAVE LOWER LEGS, let's consider the Cheetah blades he runs on. Quantitative scientific study has found that the blades do give him a performance advantage (for various biomechanical reasons). In a brief summary (by Ross Tucker) the IAAF found:

  1. Oscar loses less energy in in the phase of foot motion between the foot striking the ground and pushing off (9.3% vs 41.4%). Thus he has more power per stride.
  2. When your foot strikes ground, energy is sent into the ground and some is received in return, which helps to properl you forward. The stiff Cheetah blades produce three times more energy return than a human ankle.
  3. Because of this energy return Oscar can run the same speed as an able bodied runner using 25% less oxygen. That's why he speeds up in the second half of a 400m race, where most sprinters slow down.
  4. Faster runners bounce up and down less than slower ones (vertical oscillation). Therefore they waste less energy. Cheetahs produce less vertical force than the human foot. The energy return from the blade pushes Oscar in the right direction - forward instead of up.
  5. The loss of propulsion that Oscar has by not having lower leg muscles is made up for by the fact that Cheetahs can't fatigue. Plus they weigh far less than a lower leg. Each Cheetah weighs around 99g, which is 6-7kg less than a human lower leg.
I have included the following links for you to buff up your knowledge so you're not led down the mass media garden path. Believe facts, not emotions. This is a scientific issue and has no bearing on Oscar as a person. I've put them in the order to be read from top to bottom.

They've also posted a comment tonight on Oscar's failure to qualify and how Oscar is contemplating legal action against the IAAF for trying to exclude him from selection for the SA Olympic team ("They're all out to get me!").

How much difference does 0.7s make?

Another interesting topic came up on the radio this afternoon. Oscar missed qualifying by 0.7-seconds. Yes, not even a second. It seems those emotional individuals in Oscar's camp think he should be allowed in; afterall, it isn't even a second...

Oscar ran 46.25s and the qualifying time is 45.55s. This was a new personal best (PB). Arnaud Malherbe, South African sprinter (and SA 400m record holder), came on air to talk about just what that 0.7-seconds means.

If I was running against you and you were 0.7-seconds faster than me, you'd be about six to seven metres ahead of me on the track in a 400m race. Yes, at an average pace - not considering starting or the faster finishing speeds - a 400m sprinter covers just under nine metres per second. Being just over 6-metres behind you at the finish doesn't even require a photograph to judge the winner. When 0.7s equates to distance the difference is marked.

Something else Arnaud mentioned was very interesting.

I remember many years ago when I ran my first sub-60 10km. Over the next two years I took over 13-minutes off this time without too much effort. To get a sub-45 took decidedly more effort. Now, years later, having gotten into distance running, I've paid little attention to speed. I've managed to drop my time down from where it was 4 years ago, but getting consistent sub-50's is now hard and to achieve faster times I need to put in speed work. It will take months - and even a good year or two - to get back to my 1999 form.

The moral of this reminiscence is that it's easy in the beginning; later shaving off those minutes and milliseconds is hard, hard work.

Arnaud mentioned how he was stuck for months in the low-46's and then the mid-45's. He said there seem to be certain times you just get stuck on. It took 18-months to knock a few milliseconds off to get him sub-45. And then another 1 year of intensive training to get him from 44.81 to 44.59!

It could take Oscar two years to shave off almost a second from his PB to get to Olympic qualifying. 0.7 is really not a small fraction and Arnaud mentions that there are easily 40-50 athletes sitting within this time gap, all of them aiming for the qualifying time.

Training aside, if we forget for a moment that Oscar DOESN'T HAVE LOWER LEGS, then you'll realise why it has been so important to prove whether the blades provide an advantage or not. Even 0.5-seconds makes a BIG difference.

But, the fact remains; OSCAR DOESN'T HAVE LOWER LEGS and in my mind this alone excludes Oscar from able-bodied competition and I can only shake my head in bewilderment that the IAAF and other athletic bodies let this saga get this far.


Anonymous said...

It is exactly how I have felt over the past months. Glad you had the courage to voice your opinion in public!!

Anonymous said...

I really wish the media
would stop towing the party line and report the facts. They'll pick him for the Olympics, in part thanks to the positive pressure being applied through the media.

Anonymous said...

Agreed 100%, brilliant post there Lisa!

Anonymous said...

geeev heem a chuns!!

Anonymous said...

I'd actually love to see him compete - rather someone's 'aided' by blades than by drugs!

Athletics does need something to re-capture the publics interest and i think many would tune in to see this guy...

steve said...

oh yeah, he missed the relay team too. Storm in a teacup when we saw how far he was off the pace, but he'll be aiming for London right now.

As for Natalie Du Toit qualifying for the 10km marathon swim, totally different story. just imagine if they put some carbon (or rubber) on her amputated leg?

ps. i think Arnaud was talking sub 60 "400m" and not "10km".

Anonymous said...

If non-full bodied athletes should not compete in the Olympics, then Natalie du Toit should also not be going.

I totally agree with scientic facts that if his equipment gives him advantage it is unfair. But I don't think that he should be dscriminated against because he's not full-bodied.

adventurelisa said...

Oscar cannot run on 0.5 + 0.5 legs without a prosthetic of some kind. I'm "discriminating" against him because he has to use a prosthetic that is man-made and different to a lower leg because it can't cramp, feel pain, sprain, strain or pull.

As for Natalie... I'm undecided on her because I don't know much about swimming. Like Oscar, she weighs less due to the missing leg and may even float better because the non-leg can't drag in the water. She doesn't use a prosthetic. And, on the other hand, she may indeed be at a disadvantage because doesn't have two feet to kick, just one. So, she has to rely more on upper body strength.
How much does the water compensate for her deficiency? Certainly Oscar can't run on stumps.

Unknown said...

brava! nicely put, and i love the evidence and data to back it up. 'believe facts, not emotions'. nice!

Anonymous said...

There is a very good reason he was considered to have an advantage.

It actually has nothing to do with those blades. The blades were blamed so that people could fixate on that and not the real issue, which you mentioned but did not expand upon. This is his body-weight loss by about 12kg.

Strap that weight on his back, let him run and then tell me how much better off he is with those blades than a normal runner of the same weight!

Now, if a race or competition has say a ten million dollar prize for first place - how many will deliberately amputate their limbs to be in the same category as Pistorius and then go out to win that money - if that was allowed?

This is not as ghastly as you might think. This was a very real
option for Formula One some years ago until they hastily changed rules to ensure only able-bodied people drive those vehicles. The US Airforce has developed so far that they hardly need a human brain, let alone something with limbs to operate their sophisticated aircraft.