Monday, January 23, 2012

The Blade Runner

The New York Times Magazine has a nice essay by Michael Sokolove on Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter born without lower leg bones and who runs on prosthetic legs.  The piece touches on the debate over the difficult question of what it means to allow or not allow Pistorious to compete with runners who do not use prosthetic legs.The debate involves science, values and governance.

Here is an excerpt:
[I]n 2007, the I.A.A.F. instituted a new rule, ostensibly not aimed specifically at Pistorius, relating to running-shoe technology that employed “springs.” It then turned its attention to the world’s most prominent disabled runner. The I.A.A.F. videotaped a race involving Pistorius and had its scientific advisers analyze it. Several weeks later, Pistorius underwent tests conducted by an I.A.A.F.-chosen researcher at the German Sport University in Cologne. The organization then declared him ineligible based on findings that his “bouncing” locomotion was an advantage and that he required less oxygen and fewer calories than able-bodied runners going at the same speed.

An athlete, under international rules, is considered eligible to compete unless a good reason is shown otherwise, not unlike a criminal defendant who is presumed innocent until proven guilty. So Pistorius did not have to show that he was not augmented, just that the other side had not proved he was.

In his appeal to the Court of Arbitration, Pistorius was represented by Jeffrey Kessler, a Manhattan lawyer well known in the U.S. for negotiating collective bargaining agreements on behalf of N.F.L. and N.B.A. players. Kessler demolished the I.A.A.F.’s case, and it may not have been that difficult to do so. “All of it was pretty much nonsense,” Herr said of the I.A.A.F.’s conclusions. Another member of the team that tested Pistorius in Houston, Peter Weyand, a professor of applied physiology and biomechanics at Southern Methodist University, put it differently. “They brought the wrong scientific case forward,” he told me.

The unanimous verdict of the three arbitrators said that the data assembled from Pistorius at Rice showed that he used “the same oxygen amounts” and “fatigued normally.” It criticized the I.A.A.F. for seeking out possible isolated advantages that Pistorius derived from his prostheses while disregarding disadvantages — for example, his slow starts because he cannot burst from the starting blocks as quickly as his competitors. The correct measure for determining his eligibility, it said, should be whether he has an “overall net advantage” over the whole of the race. On the question of whether the Cheetah blades are springs, the arbitrators wrote, “A natural human leg is itself a spring.” The report was most critical of the I.A.A.F. process itself, which it said went “off the rails” and all but called it a kangaroo court.
If Pistorious makes it to London this summer, you can expect the debate over running in international competitions on prothestics to be taken up in earnest.

Here is a link to a peer-reviewed paper on the science of running on prosthetics, co-authored by two scientists who have worked with and represented Pistorius, and who have subsequently seen their views diverge on the issue. And here is Pistorius running in the IAAF championships last year, he is in the outside lane.


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