16 June, 2018

The return of the blade runners

It's been almost four years since I last wrote about blade runners.  I was hoping that, after the Pistorius debacle, things would calm down and the errors of the past (letting athletes with prosthetics compete with able-bodied ones) would not be repeated.

I was wrong! 

While perusing the results of the Odlozil Memorial competition in Prague I came across a  great performance at the 400 m. With 44.42 s Blake Leeper was the 11th performer of the year, beating P. Maslak, world indoor champion, by more than a second. The name rang a bell. I looked him up and there he was: next to Pistorius on the podium of the 2012 Paralympics. 


Blake Leeper

Together with brazilian runner A. Oliveira, Leeper was at the origin of a controversy having switched to longer running blades just a few months before the 2012 Paralympics. As Ross Tucker points out in his article "the combination of stride length and stride rate led to a clearly unusual performance with the longer blades".

After serving a one-year ban for a doping offence (cocaine) Leeper is back now, stronger than ever. 

The Prague race was the best proof (as if there was a need thereof) that blade runners should not be allowed to participate along with able bodied athletes. I have made a series of screenshots from the video of the race and they are telling. Leeper, running in lane 6 (with Maslak in 5) starts really slow. 



He is probably last after 100 m but he starts catching up at around 200 m. Watching the video I estimate that he ran the first 200 m in around 22.5 s. 



Then the real race begins for him. At 300 m he is at the head of the race 



and with a devastating sprint, while all other runners are struggling, he wins by an enormous margin, beating a world champion in the process.



How come blade runners can sustain this enormous terminal velocity? The secret is to be found in the combination of the blade efficiency (returning 90 % of the energy compared to 60 % of the ankle joint) and its light weight. So, after the first 20 seconds where they are spending as much energy as able bodied athletes, blade runners spend around 25 % less energy. It's no wonder that they excel in the 400 m (and I am convinced that they could do equally well over 800 m).

I have already written about my respect for the athletes who train and compete despite their physical handicap. To attain the highest level requires not only great efforts but also lots of courage and confidence. I only object to "mixed" races because, given the  advantage conferred by the prosthetics, such races are unfair for the able-bodied runners.

01 June, 2018

On hurdle relays

I have already written posts on relays, in particular the mixed ones which I find very attractive. Curiously enough I have never addressed the question of hurdle relays. This I intend to remedy in the present post.

There is one hurdle relay I am aware of, which is run almost exclusively in the US, the shuttle relay. It is a 4x110 m for men and 4x100 m for women where the successive runners alternate direction (hence the shuttle moniker). There is no baton exchange: the next relay runner starts once the previous one crosses the line. Obviously, 8 lanes can accommodate only up to 4 relay teams. This is the situation in the photo below. 



I do not find this arrangement optimal. To my eyes it is definitely better to sacrifice one team and have two free separation lanes. Thus the risk of a runner going in the opposite direction taking down a hurdle and pushing it in the next lane is zero. It also gives the judges less work to set back upright any hurdle that has been knocked off, preparing it thus for the next runner. Another remark concerning the men's relay (you can watch the movie here) is that in some cases the hurdles are perfectly aligned. However the rules stipulate that distance from the the start line to the first hurdle is 13.72 m and the distance from the last hurdle to the finish line is 14.02 m. So, unless the start line and the finish line are shifted by 30 cm  (which I could not tell just by watching the video) there is something fishy there. On the other hand the photo that follows shows clearly a correct placement of the hurdles.



In the case of women's shuttle relay the two distances are 13 m and 10.5 m respectively hence the arrangement of the hurdles cannot go unnoticed.


 

I could not find an official list of shuttle relay world records. The official US records are 52.94 for men (4x110 m) and 50.50 for women (4x100 m). They are certainly the world's best marks to date.

Writing about the shuttle relays got me thinking (in a pure Juiland spirit) about other possibilities. How about a 4x400 m hurdles? A difficulty appears right away. The staggering between the first and the last lane in a 400 m is 53 m. In the case of 4x400 m where the second runner runs the first bend in his lane the staggering is of 80 m. Having all four runners run in lanes in the 4x400 m hurdles is absurd, since it would require a more than 200 m initial staggering (between first and eighth lane). Even having the second relay runner run an extra bend in a lane would be an unwieldy arrangement. So, what I would favour is a setup like the old 4x400 m one where only the first runner must run in his lane. (A small correction in order to compensate for the fact that the runners in the the outer lanes must converge to the inner lane must also be applied, but this is a minimal one and can be calculated just as in the case of the curved starting line for the 10000 m race). Once the first runner has completed his leg the hurdles are reorganised like in the steeplechase race. Namely there will be hurdles over the three inmost lanes (at the positions of the hurdles for the first lane) making it possible for a runner to overtake the one in front over a hurdle jump. Two remarks are in order here. The first is that hurdlers do not like the inmost lane. Having them run the relay in this lane adds an unwarranted difficulty. A possible solution to this could be to have the hurdles for the last three runners situated in lanes 3,4 and 5, set at the position of the hurdles for lane 4. (In which case the most advantageous position for the relay pass would be lane 4).  The second problem is what happens if the front runner knocks over a hurdle and there is no time for the judge (it goes without saying that there should be one at every hurdle) to put it back upright. Well, there is nothing one can do in this case. The following runners get an advantage of not having to jump over the hurdle and that's it. 


This has nothing to do with the article but it is rare to see 
a photo of the great J. Owens hurdling. Still, we should not 
forget that he did break the 200 m hurdles WR during what
came to be known as the greatest 45 min in athletics

But can we get even crazier and talk about a 4x100 m hurdles relay? The important thing is that a 30 m baton-exchange zone must be preserved at all costs. Given that we must have a  10-15 m  distance between the start and the first hurdle and a comparable distance between the last hurdle and the finish line we arrive at a distance of 280 m to be covered by hurdles. Split into 4 this leaves 70 m between the first and the last hurdle for each runner, which can accommodate a maximum of 8 hurdles. Fine-tuning of the distances should allow for the runners having to negotiate hurdles in the bends and in any case all extra distances can be absorbed in the baton-exchange stretches as well as the finish one. One important question is whether the hurdle height should be the same as for the individual event. I think that given the difficulty of the relay (bends, baton-exchange) we should opt for lower hurdles, for instance 0.91 m for men and 0.76 m for women, i.e. the 400 m hurdle height. (And if one thinks that women get a smaller height reduction than men, when one compares to the 1.07 m and 0.84 m heights for the 110 m and 100 m respectively, the answer is that it's 0.84 m that is too low: women's 100 m hurdles should have been higher). And a question of logistics. A race like the one just described would necessitate 256 hurdles. Compared to the 80 necessary for the ordinary, individual, races, that would represent a quite substantial investment.

What is the probability that such hurdle relays see the light one day? Absolutely zero. But, if one were thinking about ways to make athletics more spectacular and attractive, one should forget about flame/smoke bursts and showroom-style presentations and look for new and exciting events. Hurdle relays would be one way to go.

10 May, 2018

Farewell hyperandrogenism, hello DSD

DSD: Differences in Sexual Development. That's the new IAAF-endorsed terminology. Although it sounds a little bit "politically correct" it was necessary given the succession of events and the somewhat tarnished "hyperandrogenism" term. Everything started with the meteoric rise of C. Semenya to a world title in 2009. It became clear that women who were not 100 % women had an unfair advantage over the rest and this led the IAAF to create a hyperandrogen policy in 2011. To be able to participate in women's events all participants had to comply with the upper limit of testosterone concentration of 10 nmol/L. However that rule was challenged at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), in 2014, by the indian sprinter D. Chand, and the decision of the court was that the hyperandrogenism regulations could not be applied, as of July 2015, more studies being mandatory. A two years' span was deemed necessary for the IAAF to present solid scientific arguments in order to support the well-founded of hyperandrogenism regulations. These studies were completed last year and the new regulations have just appeared. In what follows  will try to summarise them and add some comments. 



D. Chand (right). It all started with her

A famous ancient greek dictum ουδεν κακον αμιγες καλου states (loosely) that something good can arise even from a bad situation. This is the case with the whole hyperandrogenism saga. While the ruling of the CAS allowed some athletes to reap (temporarily) profit from their abnormal situation, this paved the road for a much stricter regulation which, hopefully, will level the playing field for women's competitions. 

The new Regulations will come into effect on the 1st of November 2018. The new notion of restricted events is introduced. It refers to the events from 400 m to the mile (including hurdles, relays and combined events). 

The new text stipulates that

If a female athlete wishing to participate in a Restricted Event at an International Competition has a DSD that results in levels of circulating testosterone greater than 5 nmol/L, and her androgen receptors function properly, such that those elevated levels of circulating testosterone have a material androgenising effect (a Relevant Athlete), she must reduce those levels down below 5 nmol/L for six months (e.g., by use of hormonal contraceptives) before competing in such events, and must maintain them below that level until she no longer wishes to participate in Restricted Events at International Competitions.

The six months period is introduced so as to minimise any lingering advantages. Athletes with DSD who do not wish to bring their testosterone level below the 5 nmol/L threshold can still compete as female to a) non-international competitions (without restriction) and b) to international competitions but not to restricted events. Obviously they can compete freely as male or intersex (if the latter classification exists).

I find the notion of restricted events a tad too conservative to my taste. Although the studies show that advantages conferred on certain DSD athletes are of greatest effect in middle distance track events I would have opted for a broader application of the restrictions. Still lowering the threshold from 10 nmol/L to 5 is great step towards playing-field leveling and thus I will stop nagging. 

The IAAF presentation text goes back to the Court of Arbitration for Sport decision and points out that, while unfavourable for the IAAF, that decision did agree with the basic premises behind the hyperandrogenism regulation. In fact the CAS recognised that men have significant advantages in size, strength and power over women and thus competition between male and female athletes would be unfair and in fact meaningless. On the other hand biological sex is an umbrella term, including distinct aspects of chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal and phenotypic sex and some individuals may have differences of sex development. Among these individuals some, apparently female, may have levels of circulating testosterone well above the normal female range, into and even exceeding the normal male range. So, limitations are necessary in order to level the field for women's competitions. The CAS decision was based more on the fact that the hyperandrogenism regulation did not rely on solid scientific findings. This has now been remedied.

Most females (including elite female athletes3) have low levels of testosterone circulating naturally in their bodies (0.12 to 1.79 nmol/L in blood). For males, after puberty, the normal testosterone range is much higher (7.7 – 29.4 nmol/L). Several studies have shown that high levels of natural testosterone, provided the persons are sensitive to androgens, do increase their muscle mass and strength, as well as their levels of circulating haemoglobin, and so significantly enhance their sporting potential. Indeed, increasing testosterone levels in women from 0.9 nmol/L to just 7.3 nmol/L increases muscle mass by 4% and muscle strength by 12‐26 %; while increasing it to 5, 7, 10 and 19 nmol/L respectively increases circulating haemoglobin by 6.5 %, 7.8 %, 8.9 % and 11 % respectively. The ergogenic advantage in having circulating testosterone levels in the normal male range rather than in the normal female range is greater than 9 %. This is an eminently interesting fiding since male-female performance differences are around 10 %. To put it in a nutshell, if women have a male-level concentration of testosterone they are practically men.



J. Jozwik, 5th at the 2016 Olympics 800 m,declared:
I feel like a silver medalist (a direct gibe at the trio
Semenya, Niyonsaba and Wambui)

These findings led the IAAF to propose the DSD regulation according to which no female may have serum levels of testosterone of 5 nmol/L and above. As I have already pointed out, the important gain from the 2 years' regulation hiatus was that the threshold was brought down from 10 to just 5 nmol/L. It was based on the observation that women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) could have circulating testosterone as high as 4.8 nmol/L but not beyond. So, the only female athletes competing with levels above 5 nmol/L would be intersex/DSD athletes, doped athletes, and athletes with adrenal or ovarian tumours. In fact, below 5 nmol/L, there is limited evidence of any material testosterone dose‐response. But, most important, an increase in circulating testosterone from normal female range up to between 5 and 10 nmol/L delivers a clear performance advantage (according to the studies, a 4.4% increase in muscle mass, a 12‐26% increase in muscle strength, and a 7.8% increase in haemoglobin)

The IAAF regulation goes to great pains to assure everybody that respecting the athlete's dignity is paramount. Nobody is questioning the sex or gender identity of female athletes with DSDs. For the protection of the athletes only the IAAF Medical Manager may initiate an investigation (and the national federation are not allowed to take measures). No "witch-hunt" will take place, based on the masculine appearance of some women. And of course, no surgery will ever be required, in order to regulate the testosterone, but just a hormonal treatment.



With the new regulation in place we will not have the right to 
make comments on the masculine appearance of Kratoshvilova

What I did like was that the IAAF did not evade the tricky question:
All elite athletes have natural genetic and/or biological advantages (e.g., height, lung capacity, etc). The IAAF does not stop them reaping the benefits of those advantages, so why deny DSD athletes the benefit of their natural levels of circulating testosterone?
The official answer to this was that to the best of the present knowledge, there is no other genetic or biological trait encountered in female athletics that confers such a huge performance advantage. While the sport has never considered that competing against an athlete with any other type of genetic or biological advantage was not fair and meaningful (in fact athletics do not introduce any categories other than age-based ones) the DSD case is particular. One could discuss to no end the importance of biological advantages but the main point of the DS regulation, i.e. no other trait confers such a huge advantage, is undisputable.