(Note: This is another post from our archive. While Oscar Pistorius is no longer at his peak, the after-effects of his participation in London are still reverberating. This is still an interesting, and relevant, discussion.)
By Dr. Mike Stone & Dr. Bill Sands
There has been a great deal of recent discussion about the inclusion of Oscar Pistorius (Blade Runner) in the Olympic games – here are some questions that have come up in several e-mails and also at the recent ACSM - you might think about these:
1. Will the inclusion Pistorious damage the Para Olympics and Special Olympics and the other special Games for those with physical and mental challenges by encouraging such entrants to pass up them up for the mainstream or remove the “special” from special Olympics?
The “Special” Olympics is an event designed to serve mentally challenged children and adults. As such, I do not believe the Special Olympics are in danger of being overwhelmed by bioengineering. However, other events, such as a (lower case) special Olympics may indeed need to be inaugurated for those with physical challenges that can be enhanced via biomaterials, prostheses, robotics, and so forth. The current Paralympics already has considerable problems with classifying the myriad of physical disabilities in order to allow fair competition. A dwarf discus thrower is clearly at a disadvantage when compared to a “normal” size, lower extremity amputee who can use lower extremity prostheses. Arm length will likely establish an insurmountable obstacle for dwarfs who want to compete in the discus, or perhaps any throwing event. If memory serves, this is not a fictitious problem but one that actually happened at the Paralympics.
The ancient Olympic Games saw the use of performance enhancing substances (or at least, so they thought, strychnine, etc.), and the application of semi-sophisticated engineering to enhance specific event performances. For example, the ankyle in ancient Greece was used to enhance the throwing distance of the Olympic javelin and its cousin – the war spear (23), Murray, et al., in press. We now know that this leather strap actually worked, and increased throwing distance about 50%.
We also know that often the decisions of whether something is allowed or not is fairly capricious. The Fosbury Flop (Mexico, 1968) got in. The somersault long jump (Tom Ecker, Ron Galimore) did not. I understand the somersault long jump was not allowed because “it didn’t look like long jumping.” Although debated by scholars regarding techniques, halteres were used to enhance long jumping performance. If anyone is interested, I plan to study the technique of halteres as one of my first studies upon landing at ETSU. Dr. Murray can correct me, but I believe the scholarly/historical debate is whether the jump was running or standing, and if running, then how many steps.
I think I can say without hesitation that whatever happens, some person or persons will make money, have a conflict of interest, use little hard reasoning for the decision, and “special interests” will be involved.
The current Olympic Games are already “corrupted” by both money and a desire for national prestige. It is hard to draw a line between fair play and “otherwise-enhanced” play. The inclusion of professional athletes (i.e. those athletes who are paid to play their sport and make their living by such play) has already changed the face of the Games to such an extent that the original spirit of the Games has been almost completely lost. In the modern era, drugs were the tool of enhanced performance, but recent evidence indicates that countries simply “buy” athletes willing to change their citizenship (including the U.S. in several sports) and thereby create medal contending performances for their national prestige (1-15, 17, 18). Lying about age has occurred in gymnastics and the Chinese lost a medal and the U.S. team got a post hoc bronze (16, 19, 21, 22, 24-26). When drug use was rampant, especially among females, it was thought that female endurance athletes might surpass males. However, this never happened perhaps because of better drug testing (27). Although maybe stretching the idea of performance enhancers, even living and training at altitude has come under scrutiny (20). No “altitude tents” were allowed in Torino. The Italian government apparently passed a special law prohibiting them just for the Games. Thus, one faced criminal penalties for using them, not just IOC stuff.
2. Would physically challenged athletes with one blade now want their other leg removed so they would have two blades and run faster? (don’t laugh apparently it’s already happening)
I have also heard that this has been discussed, but whether anything has actually happened is hard to say. I would be surprised if any physician, worthy of the name, would conduct the amputation. “At least do no harm…”
3. Are the blades themselves "fair" against feet and legs of the other competitors? There has been discussion and research dealing with advantages of the blades dealing with the energy conservation and return – evidence indicates that he may not be able to accelerate as fast – but could sustain a high velocity for a longer time period.
Peter Bruggemann (I know through gymnastics, former and occasional national coach for women’s gymnastics in the former West Germany and later the re-unified Germany) apparently did the only study I know of with the “Cheetahs.” He indicated that Pistorius could run at the same speed as able-bodied runner using only 3/4s of the energy. As far as I know, no one has replicated the study, and no one has questioned the results. Bruggemann also indicated that there was an issue with acceleration, but I’ve never seen the study published. Like cold fusion, I believe the press got to it before anything could be reviewed. In Bruggemann’s defense, he is a top-drawer scientist and I personally trust him.
The issue of running “rhythm” is an important one, but usually seen only in quadrupeds. Many animals have to go through a walk, trot, canter, gallop sequence to rhythmically synchronize their legs prior to reaching top speed. I understand that it takes a Cheetah a little while to reach top speed, apparently getting legs synchronized and working most efficiently. However, cats don’t canter so I suspect getting to a gallop occurs more quickly.
As you probably already know, there have been studies of carbon fiber insoles (I have a box of them now at the ETSU Lab). We studied them at BYU with female T&F athletes and they appeared to work. At least one other has found similar results and some good rationale (28-31). Here’s another study for anyone interested. I have some insoles, and they looked promising. Unfortunately, they’re expensive (about $100 per pair), and you need different sizes. I had two stiffness types made. The least stiff was clearly the most popular and easiest on the feet.
Interestingly, I also found some runners (not all) got plantar fascitis relief when using them (at CMU).
4. If you believe the blades (other types of blades) are "fair" for running events, would "fairness" be retained if they were entered in the high jump or other more "springy" events? Would they be an "unfair" advantage in say, high hurtles as well?
If they’re allowed in one event, I’m not sure how one could justify excluding them from others. However, such a thought would probably result in outlawing them completely. I could see him running as an “exhibition.” I think the IOC could sell that and it would make a boatload of money whether he won or lost.
5. Could you “cheat “ by developing new more efficacious blades that are not IOC approved and sneak them into competition?
I talked to Craig Poole at length about this idea when we tested the carbon fiber insoles. I understand (according to Craig) in Sydney that the person who got the silver was wearing Adidas shoes with carbon fiber in the soles. However, he got beat by someone wearing Nikes. Nike went for aerodynamics and apparently Adidas later abandoned the idea. Unfortunately, I have no idea if any of this is true. Moreover, I asked Craig if anyone had ever “inspected” athletes’ shoes and his response was – never. Peter Vint did a study (very loosely defined) of volleyball players and jumping (females I think), and didn’t find anything. However, I think the study was so poorly done (not all Peter’s fault) that one could not really tell one way or another.
5. If Oscar ends up defeating the “non-challenged able bodied” entrants (the non bladed entrants), what do you believe will be the result of this and do you think it will result in a ban? Could there be court challenges as to the "fairness" of the entry?
I personally doubt he will be allowed to compete with the able bodied. However, as you know, stranger things have happened. Heck, there’s always Jerry Springer.
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