Posted: Thursday November 19, 2009 12:36PM ; Updated: Saturday June 11, 2011 10:49PM
David Epstein

New study, for better or worse, puts Pistorius' trial in limelight (cont.)

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A not-so-civil debate

The researchers contend that the Cheetah blades' allow Pistorius to swing his lower leg faster than able-bodied sprinters.

Five scientists from the original team of seven (those other than Bundle and Weyand) published conclusions earlier this month where they said that no clear advantage was documented in the Pistorius study. The rift in the research group led today's report to be published in a multi-part point-counterpoint format that, at times, devolves into thinly veiled insults by the five -- which includes researchers from the universities of Colorado and Texas, as well as Georgia Tech and MIT -- against the two. In one counterpoint, the five wield (and attribute) a famous John McEnroe quote ("You cannot be serious!") to deprecating effect.

The group of five contends that Bundle and Weyand are unfairly reducing Pistorius' running mechanics, and not considering the fact that some aspects of Pistorius' gait may be anomalous because of adaptations required to run on two carbon fiber legs. "The notion that lightweight prostheses are the only reason for Pistorius' rapid swing times ignores that he has had many years to train and adapt his neuromuscular system to using prostheses," the scientists write in one of the counterpoints.

Bundle and Weyand say that the five researchers, including double amputee and MIT scientist Hugh Herr, never gave serious consideration to their conclusions that Pistorius has an edge. "As soon as we said he's got an advantage," Weyand said, "there was not a willingness to accept that conclusion."

The group that maintains that Pistorius has no advantage concluded in their paper earlier this month that video from Beijing of Walter Dix, an American who took bronze in the 100 and 200, showed that the swing-time of his leg was 0.274 seconds, even faster than that of Pistorius. However, in the point-counterpoint published today, Bundle and Weyand point out that the conclusion was based on NBC footage of the Olympics, not the high-speed, motion-capture video that is typically used for such research. Typical television footage displays 30 frames per second, whereas research quality footage is at least 200 frames per second, giving researchers the ability to precisely document small movements. When measured using research quality footage, Bundle and Weyand found that Dix's swing-phase took 0.318 seconds, returning him to the realm of the typically slothful sprinter, in terms of his swing-time, when compared to Pistorius.

What now for the Blade Runner?

Under normal circumstances, the Court of Arbitration for Sport's ruling would remain valid so long as Pistorius continues to compete on the same prostheses. Whether the IAAF will reconsider a new ban is unknown, and a message left with the body was not returned yesterday.

Pistorius fell 0.3 seconds short of qualifying for the 400 meters at the 2008 Olympics, but would again be in the hunt for a spot if he continues to compete through the 2012 Olympics in London. Despite not qualifying for the Olympics in Beijing, Pistorius won gold in the 100, 200, and 400 meters in the Beijing Paralympics. In those competitions, Pistorius competed almost entirely against single-leg amputees, and one question that will now arise is whether that represents a level playing field.

When Pistorius arrived on the Paralympic scene, some of his competitors immediately complained that his prostheses were too long, making his legs longer than they should be relative to the rest of his body. No conclusion has been reached on that issue, but Weyand said he believes Pistorius' leg-swing advantage persists when he competes against single-amputee runners. "Two limbs attached to the same body can't go at different speeds," he said, "so single-leg amputees are limited by their biological leg."

Where the IAAF goes from here is unclear, but any course of action will undoubtedly foist Pistorius, and the intersection of biology and technology that his feats represent, into the global limelight once more.

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