Purists

2008-05-09 00:00

Athletics and swimming are the purest of sports. The skills of running, jumping, throwing and swimming utilise level playing fields. The environment and equipment can be standardised for all competitors. Few sports are as simple.

Although there are 120-plus pages of athletics competition rules, each can be categorised under one or a combination of five aspects:

o Health and safety of the athlete

o Health and safety of the other participants (officials, coaches etc.)

o No unfair advantage

o Procedure and administration

o Discipline and conduct

In purely competitive terms the "No unfair advantage" aspect is the most relevant and the most threatened by technology. For example, golf clubs have different attributes, allowing less proficient golfers to select more forgiving clubs that will help to keep the ball on target or hit it further. The choice of clubs varies between golfers, based, among other things, on availability, wealth and ability.

Similarly, despite Lance Armstrong’s insistence that "It’s not about the bike", the difference between my cherished 1984 Alen and an eight-speed SIS carbon-forked Omega saw me able to repeat my 1984 Ironman 180 km cycle time more than 17 years later. It surely wasn’t the reduced training, grey hair or additional years that provided the higher level of performance! Similarly, technology is impacting on the Beijing build-up.

The evolution of the Speedo swimsuit, reportedly undertaken with step-by-step approval of the international swimming federation, Fina, is hailed for improving on about two dozen world records. The use of smooth panels whose location, thickness and size were determined through Nasa flow tests, improves swimmers’ slipstreamed slide through the water.

But is it unfair? Not if it is available to all swimmers and meets Fina specifications.

Apart from the price (rumoured to be around $1 500), which can debatably be restrictive, there is conflict ahead for national teams and individuals who are sponsored by companies other than Speedo. Swimmers are lining up to wear the Speedo suit in Beijing, with some saying they will willingly pay fines to their current sponsors in order to do so. Who would risk four or eight years of planning and training on being limited in your choice of swim equipment?

But will there be no unfair advantage when the first swimmer dives into the Beijing pool in August? Interestingly, the suit’s speedy adoption has brought an inconsistency of results. There is no standard improvement in times as swimmers experience both physiological and psychological gains just from using it. Rapid performance improvement often raises suspicion of drug use.

Oscar Pistorious’s off-track actions to compete against able-bodied athletes at the Olympics similarly endanger the purity of athletics and centre around the unfair advantage rule. While the IAAF lab claims an energy advantage of over 25%, Pistorious’s testing, not surprisingly, proved no gain. But put this aside to consider the logic and practicality.

Every javelin, discus, shot and hammer used in athletics is weighed and measured to specifications before every meeting. Even the high-jump and pole-vault bars meet specifications so that the same nudge, flex or bounce will dislodge them. Athletes compete as they were born, coping with their individual bodily attributes. The field could not be more level.

Should Pistorious or any other double amputee be accepted in the same spirit, the prosthetics will require standardisation for weight, material and flex centre of gravity, all of which is quite easy. But how do you account for leg length, foot size, foot flex angle and other such individualised characteristics? On what basis do you determine the size of feet an athlete would have had as an adult when he or she was amputated as a child, or born without legs? Being able to select an optimum foot size, leverage and flex of lower limb has clear potential and advantage.

Pistorious is unique — an individual, not a clone. Any prosthetic specification would need to be individualised to ensure all prosthetic-wearing athletes have the same mechanical characteristic. This is clearly impractical and it is difficult to comprehend why the principles of the sport should be compromised for such a case.

The Paralympics principles are founded on the recognition that competition between disabled and able-bodied athletes is an uneven playing field. If Pistorious is convinced there is no advantage for him over an able-bodied competitor, then by his own submission he should hand back all his Paralympics medals and subsequent awards because he has had an unfair advantage over his fellow disabled competitors. The principle would be no different to an athlete’s disclosure of drug use.

Ironically, even if the outcome of the court case, due this week, gives Pistorious the right to compete in the Olympics, it will be a very long shot. He must carve 1.01 seconds off both his 200 m and 400 m times to meet the Olympic A qualification standard. Effectively he is almost 10 m adrift of the 200 m, and five metres from the 400 m qualification. Sudden improvements of this magnitude typically see Wada reaching for their testing bottles.

Pistorious deserves an Oscar for his determination and persistence in seeking Olympic competition, but given his current ability, not surprisingly there is speculation that media and sponsorship attention are the real driving forces.

The similarity of deficit in time over both distances emphasises the difference in mechanics between Pistorious’s sprinting and that of an able-bodied athlete. Oscar is slow to gain momentum and rhythm, but then benefits from this attribute when at full speed. We may well find that his best-timed distances will prove to be 800 m and 1500 m, but without the protection of lanes he is unlikely to be able to survive the rigours and nudging of these events.

Pistorious’s prosthetics and the Speedo suit are two technological challenges in the build-up to Beijing. My personal hope is that sport retains its focus on the key priority of "No unfair advantage" in all its definitions.

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