Monday, September 3, 2012

Your Legs are Too Long

UPDATE: The Science of Sport blog has a nice discussion of this issue here.

In the 2012 Paralympic Games in London Brazilian sprinter Alan Oliveira upset South Africa's Oscar Pistorius in the 200 meter race, marking Pistorius' first defeat at that distance (watch the race above). Immediately after the race Pistorius lodged a complaint in a media interview:
"Not taking away from Alan's performance - he's a great athlete - but these guys are a lot taller and you can't compete (with the) stride length," Pistorius said in a broadcast interview. "You saw how far he came back. We aren't racing a fair race. I gave it my best. The IPC (International Paralympic Committee) have their regulations. The regulations (allow) that athletes can make themselves unbelievably high.

"We've tried to address the issue with them in the weeks up to this and it's just been falling on deaf ears."

For Pistorius, it is "ridiculous" that Oliveira could win after being eight meters adrift at the 100-meter mark.

"He's never run a 21-second race and I don't think he's a 21-second athlete," Pistorius said. "I've never lost a 200-meter race in my career."
Later Pistorius apologized for the timing of his complaint but did not back dwon from the substance of his criticism:
The South African claimed gold medallist Alan Oliveira's artificial legs were too long and criticised the International Paralympic Committee.

In a statement, he said: "That was Alan's moment and I would like to put on record the respect I have for him.

"I want to apologise for the timing of my comments but I do believe there is an issue here."
The length of prostheses is specified by the International Paralympic Committee in a process called "classification" which it describes as follows:
To ensure competition is fair and equal, all Paralympic sports have a system in place which ensures that winning is determined by skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus, the same factors that account for success in sport for able bodied athletes.

This process is called classification and its purpose is to minimise the impact of impairments on the activity (sport discipline). Having the impairment thus is not sufficient. The impact on the sport must be proved, and in each Paralympic sport, the criteria of grouping athletes by the degree of activity limitation resulting from the impairment are named ‘Sport Classes’. Through classification, it is determined which athletes are eligible to compete in a sport and how athletes are grouped together for competition. This, to a certain extent, is similar to grouping athletes by age, gender or weight.
There are exacting guidelines for the allowed length of leg prostheses, specified on pp. 45-47 in the IPC Athletics Classification Rules and Regulations – version 9/2011 (here in PDF).

Pistorius' complaint appears to be not that Oliveira broke the rules but that the rules themselves are flawed. For its part the IPC said,
"All [competitors] were within the regulations outlined in the IPC Athletics Classification Handbook." 
Pistorius, whose impressive record as a sportsman and an athlete will surely survive this particular controversy, is playing a losing hand here. Not only is he an interested party in the design of the rules, but he has been competing for years under those very same rules, representing a form of acceptance of those rules as legitimate. (Indeed, in the recent Sparks ruling on the Lance Armstrong case, the judge argued that Armstrong's decision to compete under WADA rules represented  an acceptance of them as legitimate and binding.)

That said, Pistorius is correct about the more fundamental issues as debate and discussion over prosthetic technology is sure to continue.

Postscript: In my fall graduate seminar, half of the students in the class are hard at work developing a proposed policy for participation of runners with prostheses in the Olympics. When they report to the class I'll share their results.


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