Exclusive: Key scientist in Pistorius case insists he is running on level playing field

Tuesday, 16 August 2011
By Mike Rowbottom

Oscar_Pistorius_in_blocks_Christchurch_January_25_2011August 16 - Claims that Oscar Pistorius should not be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes have been strongly refuted by the scientist who played a key part in helping him earn that right at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) three years ago.

Hugh Herr, who presented Pistorius's case in Lausanne along with colleague Rodger Kram and succeeded in reversing the ban which the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had imposed five months earlier, maintains that there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence which shows the South African double amputee has any unfair advantage by running on his prosthetic Cheetah 'blades'.

Herr, himself a double amputee after suffering frostbite in a climbing incident at the age of 17, believes that unless and until any such evidence is produced, Pistorius should have the right to follow his ambition as far as it leads him.

He exclusively told insidethegames: "Perhaps there are some people, if you were to say to them: 'If there were general agreement in the scientific community that these Cheetah blades do not offer any unfair advantage, would you be okay with Oscar Pistorius running in the Olympics assuming he were to properly qualify?', who would still say: 'No. I'm not okay with it.'

"Perhaps there is some level of negative bias that exists in today's society.

"When people look at Oscar Pistorius they see he has an unusual body.

"That's fine when he's not competitive.

"But when he's being competitive, it becomes threatening.

"In the same way that, for some people, the colour of a person's skin is threatening.

"There are people out there who simply have a negative bias.

"My personal view is that we should architect a society where, if a person happens to be born without fully formed legs and if that person happens to be an extraordinary talent, he or she should be allowed to compete in a sports event such as the Olympic Games assuming qualifying time are satisfied.

"It's the dream of almost all top athletes to go to the Olympics.

"We should allow athletes that freedom, but we  should also ensure fairness in sport."

That is the balance which has exercised many opinions in recent days since Pistorius earned selection in the 400 metres for this month's IAAF World Championships in Daegu by running 45.07sec, inside the A standard qualifying time.

In a year when there is no outstanding performer over one lap, the multiple Paralympic champion at 100m, 200m and 400m now has an outside chance of a medal in Daegu and, perhaps, London 2012.

Oscar_Pistorius_with_Hugh_HerrHerr (pictured with Pistorius), who was one of seven experts in biomechanics and physiology from six universities that conducted experiments on Pistorius before the CAS hearing, is head of the biomechatronics research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

There, he works on developing wearable robotic systems that augment human capacity, and has designed the world's first bionic lower leg system that relies on robots to move users down steps.

But he insists that charges made this week by South African sports scientist Dr Ross Tucker that Pistorius may gain speed through technological improvements in the same way that Formula One cars do are unfounded.

He points out that the Cheetah blades have been available to athletes in their current form for 15 years, and that Pistorius has run on the same blades for the last seven years.

He adds that it was made clear during the CAS hearing that the ruling was "only specific to that prosthesis", adding: "If there were any changes, we would have to undergo the same scientific testing all over again."

Herr does not maintain that there is certainty about Pistorius running against able-bodied competitors.

"There are many aspects of this question that we are still to understand.

"Science can never prove anything.

"What science can do is provide overwhelming evidence to support a hypothesis.

"The conclusion of the CAS hearing was that there was insufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that Pistorius had an overall advantage in the 400 metres.

"And published studies that have been peer-reviewed do not suggest such an overall advantage.

"It would be problematic if the IAAF were to ban athletes on the basis of arguments that were not backed up by published, peer-reviewed and well-established science.

"Given our societal laws, an organisation cannot simply ban a human being on the grounds of non-peer reviewed scientific arguments."

Herr also refutes the contention by two of the seven experts involved in preparing the Pistorius case – Peter Weyand and Matthew Bundle – that further research had shown the South African does enjoy a significant advantage because of his prostheses.

"Peter Weyand and Matthew Bundle at some point believed that Oscar enjoyed a mechanical advantage," Herr said.

"The Weyand/Bundle  subsequent contention that Oscar Pistorius gained a 12 seconds advantage was a simple calculation, not a study.

"It has yet to be peer-reviewed, for whatever reason."

In essence, Herr says, Weyand's earlier research work published in 2000 has shown that high forces are important for running fast.

"But given that the running blades cause the ground forces to be relatively low, negatively impacting his sprint speed, the question arises as to  how Pistorius then manages to run fast.  The answer to this question is that he compensates with a high stride frequency.

Weyand maintains, as Pistorius's 'limbs' are lighter than biological ones, that this gives him a mechanical advantage in terms of being able to move his legs faster than an able-bodied runner.

Herr, however, insists Pistorius's leg movement is not outside the norm of elite athletes, and further, that his rapid leg movements are simply a compensatory action for impaired ground forces.

"Oscar has a very high stride frequency.

"But is it outside the stride frequencies of non-amputee sprint athletes?

"No.

"There are data from sprint athletes with biological legs who have an even faster stride frequency."

Herr also rebuts the Weyand/Bundle calculation that Pistorius has a 12-second inherent advantage over able-bodied athletes.

"The Weyand/Bundle prediction is simply implausible," he said.

"I have difficulty accepting the idea that if you were to amputate the legs of  Michael Johnson, the 400m world record holder, and give him two prostheses, he would be running the 400m event with a time approaching  30 seconds – as fast as a galloping horse."

Finally, Herr disagreed with Tucker's analysis of the CAS hearing material which concluded that Pistorius uses significantly less oxygen than able-bodied runners.

"It is not true that Oscar uses less oxygen than a person with two biological legs, although he is very economical," Herr said.

"An independent study, published and peer-reviewed, was done before the CAS hearing which found no significant difference in metabolic energy consumption between groups of amputee and non-amputee athletes of similar weight and performance level.

"All this data suggests Oscar is an economical runner, not because of his prostheses, but because he's a great athlete."

Contact the writer of this story at mike.rowbottom@insidethegames.biz


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