Thursday, June 2, 2016

Markus Rehm and the Limits of Science

Back in April I discussed the case of Markus Rehm, a German Paralympian and world record holder in the the long jump (see his world record jump above). Rehm, who jumps off of a prosthetic leg - hence his nickname, the blade jumper - wants to jump at Rio this summer.

Yesterday, an international team of scientists reported their initial results on whether Rehm gets an advantage from the prosthetic. The issue of "advantage" is important in any decision to allow or exclude him from competition in Rio, under IAAF regulations: ( Rule 144.3 at p. 153 in the IAAF Rules)
The scientific team, from Germany, Japan and the USA, was initially organized by a Japanese TV channel (NHK), and in April they performed tests on Rehm along with a long-jumper who jumped off his leg.The AP summarizes the team's results, which were reported yesterday in Cologne:
Wolfgang Potthast of the German Sport University in Cologne said Monday that it was "difficult if not impossible" to determine whether the 27-year-old Rehm gets an advantage or not.

The study conducted by the German Sport University along with the University of Colorado and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tokyo found that athletes with a running-specific prosthesis have an impaired ability in the run up but a better technique for the long jump, leaving open the question of whether a prosthesis helps or hinders the athlete.
Science is often generous to regulators and this case is no different. The research team's results offer something for Rehm, who stated "The study could not identify any advantage through the prosthesis, and I think that for me is a good result." At the same time, Alena Grabowsi (a colleague of mine here at the University of Colorado-Boulder) notes that with respect to the jump itself (as compared to the run up): "the use of the prosthesis is an advantage for the long jump." This last bit could easily be the basis for the IAAF to rule against Rehm's petition to jump at Rio. The IAAF is expected to rule in about 2 weeks.

The more fundamental issue here is that science is not the best tool to use to determine whether a Paralympian should participate in the Olympics. The reason for this is that the notion of "advantage" is not precisely or uniquely defined.

Grabowski explains:
I think the science is very important in these decisions and should continue to provide advice to the sporting regulations. However, I believe that define an advantage or a disadvantage is an impossible task, which explains in part why we were cautious.
As we see in the context of "sex testing," the appeal of science as a means to side-step difficult decisions is appealing. But asking science to do the impossible simply opens the door to hide what are ultimately value judgments behind a fig leaf of objective expertise.

My guess, and that is all that it is, is that the IAAF will deny Rehm's petition and he will not jump at Rio. Further, I expect that the exclusion will be justified in terms of the science of "advantage" despite the fact that this science is either ambiguous or overdetermined. If this scenario plays out we will have missed a chance to have an important debate about inclusion, equality, competition and the meaning of sport. The good news is that in coming years we will have many more such opportunities for such a discussion.

The subject of the technological augmentation of the human athlete appears as a chapter in the Edge, coming out this summer.


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