You may remember the controversy before the Beijing Olympics last year surrounding South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius
. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had initially ruled
that the sprinter, with bilateral congenital below-knee limb absence, could not compete at the games. An independent study commissioned by the IAAF determined
that Pistorius was offered a mechanical advantage by his "cheetah legs," of more than 30%, constituting a "technical aid," in violation of the rules. Professor Peter Brüggemann at the German Sport University in Cologne, told the International Sports Press Association
that Pistorius' legs "return 90 per cent of the impact energy, compared to the 60 per cent of the human foot," and determined that "his aerobic performance was worse, his anaerobic performance was the same... The fact that he still runs the same times as the other runners is due to his prosthetics." The original study has never been released. At the time, I thought that it was strange that the study appeared to consider the lower leg only as a spring, ignoring the possibility that the gastrocnemius (calf muscle) contributes anything positive to the effort. As Pistorius' handlers were quoted
as saying, "If you think having carbon-fiber legs will make you a faster sprinter, have the operation and we’ll see you at the track."
Pistorius challenged the ban, taking his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, with the help of another independent study, commissioned by Pistorius, and was ruled eligible
to compete. The second study was conducted by a team of scientists including Hugh Herr
, MIT professor and himself a bilateral leg amputee. The point became moot, however, when Pistorius failed to qualify
for the games in any event. He went on to compete in the Paralympics, winning three gold medals
This blog post
by Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas offers an interesting parsing of the scientific arguments involved, and is worth a read. Tucker and Dugas attacked
Herr's analysis in 2005, saying "Remarkably, the research later carried out by Pistorius (which has yet to be published or peer-reviewed, and which was done in 'top-secret' with not a single independent witness or representative from the IAAF present) found the opposite--no advantage, and 20-30% was made to disappear." Tucker and Dugas, citing Herr's relationship with "cheetah leg" manufacturer Ossur, suggest a conflict of interest. Full disclosure of this, and independent peer review, would do a lot to addressing this concern. In the context of a then unpublished study, even the appearance of a conflict of interest is a problem.
While Brüggemann's original study remains unpublished, Herr et al's now has been. The LA Times reports
that the second study commissioned by Pistorius has now been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Physiology
. The paper
, co-authored by Peter Weyand, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University, is inconclusive about whether the legs offer Pistorius an advantage. "I can’t answer that question," Weyand told the Times. "Those of us who conducted the test do not agree on that."
Controversy surrounding equipment is nothing new to the games. Americans protested British shoes in the 1908 Olympic Tug-of-War
, and more modern controversies have surrounded Speedo technical suits for swimmers
, and more
. Tucker and Dugas also discussed
the Speedo issue.
I find it interesting that while much of the debate about swimsuits surrounded whether or not the suits offered any buoyancy, there appeared to be no problem with dramatic claims of reduced drag, and no testing done by any sports regulatory authority. Given that there are many items of equipment that might offer similar dramatic gains in performance, why is it that technological equipment improvements like the Speedo suits are not subjected to general empirical testing in the same way that Pistorius and his legs were? It's pretty clear that these suits offer an advantage, so what's the difference?
One thing is for sure, the controversy will continue. Hopefully, the remaining issues will be further examined in the papers that
Weyand has promised. With the publication of
Weyand and Herr's paper, the scientific community can begin a true independent review of all of the issues involved. It will be more complete if Brüggemann's original study is eventually published, and the IAAF and other relevant regulatory authorities can create a more coherent and universal criteria on which these decisions can be based.