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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Olympic buzz: Road to London as Merritt speaks on Pistorius

Olympic buzz: Merritt speaks on Pistorius

One quick thought today, to keep the Olympic momentum going, as we're now only 71 days away from the Olympic Games.  The story is LaShawn Merritt commenting on Oscar Pistorius, which is noteworthy mainly because it's the first time that anyone has voiced a concern over Pistorius' participation and potential advantage.  And yes, it's "only" Merritt, but it's the first salvo in what is likely to be an ongoing debate on one of the biggest stories of this Olympic Year.

It's also a topic I've covered extensively in the last few years, because it's one of the biggest sports science stories in athletics (with Caster Semenya being the other), and so in need of scientific understanding.  Merritt's statements are thus the catalyst to bring up an "old" topic, and if you've read this before, feel free to give it a miss this time!

Before I get into the Merritt comments, might as well post these links for those who might be interested in reading more on the research.  These five links explain it in about as much detail (but in a simplified way) as I think is possible for a complex case.  I have no doubt that I will be referring to these links over and over in the next 71 days 
  1. statement by Peter Weyand and Matthew Bundle explaining the confusing background to the case, and why they knew immediately that he had an advantage, but it didn't come out until 18 months later
  2. second statement by Weyand and Bundle, this time expanding on the science of why Pistorius has a large advantage during sprinting - it concerns the mass of the blades and never seen before sprinting mechanics
  3. My first post on the advantage of Pistorius - setting up the theory and providing the evidence from the first round of testing
  4. Part 2 of the series, this time looking at the CAS evidence that had Pistorius cleared, and how it was deplorable science to manipulate the finding
  5. Part 3 of the series - the Weyand/Bundle analysis, which finds that Pistorius has a large advantage because of lighter limbs, faster swing times and less force
By way of background, links 1 and 2 were actually written in response to my 3-part series (links 3 to 5), because Peter Weyand and Matthew Bundle had read the posts, and wanted to put their own case across.  It was also symptomatic of the media coverage, because Weyand had been interviewed numerous times about Pistorius, but clearly felt unable to get his viewpoint across to journalists who frankly didn't care for scientific integrity, but rather wanted to tell a heart-warming story.

Weyand and Bundle thus wrote those two statements at the end of 2011, to attempt to get the scientific facts and truth out.  Hopefully the lazy media pay attention in 2012.

LaShawn Merritt speaks on Oscar Pistorius

LaShawn Merritt has become a polarizing figure in athletics, because of his ban for doping two years after he tested positive for the steroid hormone dehydroepiandrosterone.  His defence?  He'd taken a penis enlargement drug, and he served a 21-month ban.  He was then involved in a legal case that would eventually see an IOC rule that would have prevented him from competing in the Olympic Games scrapped, and he will defend his Beijing gold in London.  That certainly makes Merritt a controversial figure, and his statements this past week on Pistorius will only add to the controversy.

Briefly, in this interview, Merritt raised concerns that Pistorius' carbon fiber blades might one day allow him to outrun able-bodied competitors.  Merritt recounts a story of a Paralympic double-amputee who reportedly improved by 2 seconds within a few months as a result of a slight increase in leg length (this is a common story, incidentally, which I have heard from other sources for a number of athletes - small changes in prosthetic limbs produce large improvements in performance).  Merritt's concern, then, is that technology is constantly improving, and he has encouraged the authorities to monitor the situation.

Now, the merits of Merrit's (sorry) position can be debated.  Many will say that he's a drug cheat and should be dismissed out of hand (as many of you did on Twitter).  And while I can certainly see that Merritt's views may not be credible, I think that's a) missing the point, and b) a parallel issue - I'd be hesitant to hear Merritt out if he's talking about doping and the dangers of supplement use, but this is a different issue.  It's too easy to shoot the messenger.  I think it's more important to ask whether "what" they are saying may be true, rather than attacking "who" is saying it.

Having said this, I'd argue that Merritt's reasons for speaking now are perhaps slightly off - it should not solely be a case of "let him run for now but if he gets too fast then stop him".  I've always argued that the principle, not the performance or the person, should be the key factor.  It is an interesting question, however, as to how authorities would ensure that advancements in technology don't take the 2009 blades and improve them to the tune of 2 seconds.  Again, prototypes are constantly being introduced, and anyone who believes that the "blades are the same as the ones from 1996" (as Pistorius has claimed in interviews) is delusional about technology and the commercial influence driving its progress.  Indeed, Prof Hugh Herr, one of the scientists instrumental in getting Pistorius cleared (more on the "science" used for this below) is the beneficiary of an enormous amount of money from Ossur, Pistorius' prosthetic blade sponsor, specifically to help develop better prosthetic limbs that will one day outperform human limbs.  So technology does move forward, but this is an interesting side note.

To me, Merritt speaking out is interesting, because it's the first time anyone with profile has spoken up about what is such an emotive topic that many are hiding out of fear of the fall-out, should they dare suggest anything is amiss about Pistorius.

The issue is thus not one of "trusting" Merritt, or believing him, it's really just of interest that the "off-limit" topic has been broached.  I just wish that more scientists and experts would comment publicly, because opinion may be far stronger than what has been reported.  The media coverage of Pistorius has been overwhelmingly emotive, with the science almost always being downplayed - journalists seem to accept as gospel the simple answer provided to their often very simple questions.  Few are asking the difficult questions about the process that cleared Pistorius, and the only "scientists" who are speaking out are Hugh Herr and the rest of the CAS research team that cleared him.  The Weyand-Bundle research is never properly examined, and nor do independent scientists comment on that scientific process and debate.  The end result is a hall of smokescreens and mirrors, and the Pistorius PR machine rolls on, convincing editors and journalists that there is no advantage.

The science: Head vs Heart

The opposite may in fact be true, if only the media would really interrogate what happened at CAS, what the researchers did and get to the bottom of that "scientific research".  It would also help if the scientific community projected its opinions outwards, rather than internally.  Recently, we hosted a visiting scientist at our university.  Their area of expertise is tendons and movement.  They presented video footage of tendons under load, and spoke of how elasticity, fatigue and energy return would impact on performance.  It is amazing to see how similar animal limbs are in appearance and function to the carbon fiber blades worn by Pistorius.  

So an obvious question after this presentation is what they feels about Pistorius?  They refused to answer this, responding more or less as follows "I have strong views on that, but I don't want to state them publicly.  My head says one thing, my heart says another".  In other words, "I know what I believe, but I'm not prepared to face the potentially hostile reaction, so I choose rather to stay silent".  That to me is abdicating a professional responsibility because of a fear of public reaction.  It's showing that truth is less important than perception, and that to me is a cowardly response from science, and I would extend this to say that in general, the science has been "cowardly" on this issue - it has, since the beginning, been "someone else's problem", until eventually, that "someone else" was only ever going to speak in favour of Pistorius, regardless of what the evidence showed.  I would argue that people in positions of intellectual influence have a responsibility to speak out, regardless of the perception and reaction - if it's true, then say it.  That's the driving ethos of this site, but perhaps that is just me.  

As Pistorius embarks on his European season, needing to run the A-qualifying standard once to make the SA team, this debate is bound to spark up again.  It's a fascinating one, and not least of all because of the science vs ethics debate.  I can fully appreciate the conflict, and I even respect the position of those who argue that Pistorius should run despite the advantages because he is an inspiration (he is) who is good for the sport (he may be), and because he's the only one and is not winning.  I disagree with the viewpoint, but I can respect why people might say it.  But what I can't agree with is one that says "there is no advantage", because in three rounds of scientific testing, not a single thing has been found that disproves the theory that he has an advantage.  Whether it is metabolic, energetic, mechanical, or fatigue related, every single piece of evidence confirms the theory and hypotheses, and points to a large advantage.  So the "no advantage" argument is wrong.  

Then there's also the process by which the testing was conducted, poorly managed at first, then challenged, possibly manipulated and then the legal process that saw only half the data presented to CAS before a decision was made.  From A to Z, this was a case in bad science meets PR and law.  And that looks set to continue into August.