Comment on Oscar Pistorius’s defeat

Posted on Wednesday, September 5 2012

Bryce Dyer’s research at Bournemouth University is investigating if any unfairness exists in Paralympic sprinting with athletes with below knee amputations and also the dynamic characteristics of such technology. Further details of the research can be found at the bottom of this page.

Emotions are still running high from the shock defeat of Oscar Pistorius in the T44 200m final at the Paralympics. I mentioned in a BBC radio interview last week that ignoring any controversy surrounding Pistorius’s inclusion in the Olympics he may find it hard to win his events at the Paralympics. That statement bore fruit as the world was stunned when Alan Oliveira won the 200m, coming from nowhere on the final bend.

With 100m to go Pistorius had a huge lead and looked certain to defend his title he won with relative ease four years ago. This time it was a different story and Pistorius then made a bigger mistake when hurling accusations on the finish line that Oliveira was using prosthetics that were too long. The governing body was quick to interject stating that the limbs of all the athletes were measured prior to the event and were passed as legal.

It would seem then that Pistorius complaint (retracted the following day) was purely one of sour grapes. When the emotion is removed, the reality is not as obvious as it seems. A quick rough and ready eyeball of the event highlights several factors. Pistorius had a great start, Oliveira a poor one. Pistorius made his advantage in the first 100m and Oliveira sat well out of the medals by that point.

The stride count of the two athletes demonstrates that Pistorius actually took fewer steps than Oliveira over the distance. That alone suggests the limbs were not too long at all. It suggests instead that Oliveira had a faster leg stride rate instead. The prescription of the prosthetic limb – its behaviour and how it responds in a race – has a lot to do with this. The athlete can have a prosthesis designed to respond any way they want and this may be a case of whereby each athlete chose to play to their strengths or to correct their weaknesses.

Pistorius seemed to opt for the fastest start he could get – Oliveira seemed to opt for the better finish or has ultimately found a prosthetic prescription that works for him. Either way, Oliveira did to Pistorius what Pistorius has done to so many competitors over the last eight years – start out sluggishly and then shut down huge margins in the remaining metres of the race. Provided the IPC classifiers did apply their rules correctly, Pistorius has no rights to complain.

In fact, in my opinion the bigger question would be whether the T44 athletes have a bigger case to claim unfairness than Pistorius ever could. They don’t get much choice in being able to change their prosthesis design as they are ‘limited’ by the performance of their biological limb. This is a question we’re currently researching at Bournemouth University.

The research team at Bournemouth University have identified a phenomenon called the ‘Dynamic Elastic Response to Impulse Synchronisation’. We are looking at whether this can help an athlete, (fundamentally made up of their mass and a prosthesis) to have a controlled exchange of energy between their mass and the composite prosthesis (such as the ‘blades’ used by athletes like Oscar Pistorius at the Paralympics). We’re examining whether this effect can be firmly identified and controlled so ultimately so that whether this can result in advantageous conditions to athletes when competing.

What this news story has highlighted was that if people didn’t believe it before – lower limb prosthesis is being used on the offensive in competitive sport. I watched yesterday as bladed prosthesis flew round the velodrome, long jumpers launched from their prosthetic leg (not their biological limb) and finally the sprinters started from their blocks using their prosthesis to drive from. The landscape is changing. Pistorius may have kicked the barn door down four years ago but it’s now a pack of athletes that are charging through, redefining how disability sport is viewed. I personally can’t wait to so the 100m and the 400m later this week!

Bryce Dyer’s research at Bournemouth University is investigating if any unfairness exists in Paralympic sprinting with athletes with below knee amputations and also the dynamic characteristics of such technology. It’s a challenging and emotive topic but one that will inform the sport and also give guidance to the sport in the future. As well as informing future Paralympic Committees, the research will apply to disability in sport in general. Should someone who’s lost both limbs compete against a runner missing just one limb, for example? And how should technology be categorised, when variations in quality of false limbs may create substantial differences among international athletes?

“Some 30 years ago, it was all about enabling disabled people to take part in sport,” says Dyer. “But now the quality of performances and the sums of money involved are so great, there’s much more at stake. We don’t want to restrict technology but we need to find a way to measure it.”

Bryce Dyer was also involved in designing the prosthetic limb for Irish Paralympic Cyclist, Colin Lynch.

Bryce spoke to Huw Edwards live on the BBC News Channel on this subject – you can view the clip on the BBC News website.