20 December, 2015

On augmented humans

I hate the politically correct language. I find it at best hypocritical and at times I think that it is the precursor of Newspeak (of 1984 fame). So I do not hesitate to speak about "disabled" persons, the term "differently abled", coined in 1981, sounding to my ears simply as a condescending one. However there are instances where I am questioning this attitude of mine and wonder whether I should start thinking seriously about the differently abled.

I have already written in this blog an article motivated by Markus Rehm's 8.24 m leap in 2014. However in that article I concentrated on Pistorius, the first, and only, amputee authorised to participated in the Olympics along able-bodied athletes.

At the origins of this new post were some discussions I had following the phenomenal leap of M. Rehm at the Doha, 2015, Handisport World Championships. With 8.40 he is now among the best jumpers of all time (at around the 50th position).

Trying to understand, I started reading whatever I could lay my eyes on. I began with N. Linthorne's excellent "Biomechanics of the long jump" (a chapter in "Routledge Handbook of Biomechanics and Human Movement Science"). He devotes a paragraph to the  case of disabled athletes. Here is what he says: 

Most single-leg amputee athletes jump from their intact leg and use the same basic jumping technique as able-bodied athletes (Nolan, Patritti, and Simpson, 2006). The jump distances achieved by able-bodied athletes are usually greater than those achieved by amputee athletes, and below-knee amputees generally jump farther than above-knee amputees.

It is probably true that most amputees use their normal leg since it allows them to use a standard jumping technique. But how about the athletes who, like M. Rehm have mastered the technique of using their prosthetic leg for the jump? Does the prosthesis convey a real advantage? A 2012 study by Nolan, Patritti and Simpson motivated by the fact that an increasing number of long jumpers with lower limb amputations choose to take off from their prosthetic limb addressed this question. They acknowledged the fact that it is not yet known what difference in technique, if any, this choice requires, or which is of more advantageous. Their findings could be summarised as follows:

No differences were seen between the groups of athletes with a unilateral transtibial amputation who take off from their prosthetic limb versus those who take off from their intact limb in terms of jump distance, approach speed or vertical velocity at touch down. While in contact with the take-off board, the two groups gained a similar amount of vertical velocity. However, the group of athletes taking off from their prosthetic limb appeared to conserve horizontal velocity by using the prosthesis as a 'springboard', minimising the large hip and knee range of motion displayed by the group of athletes taking off from their intact limb.

They concluded that while differences in technique were observed, no difference was found for jump distance.

Still I am not quite convinced about this. Following the victory of M. Rehm at the German, 2014, championships, the journalists of Deutsche Welle asked Dr. S. Willwacher, a biomechanics specialist whether prosthetic legs convey an advantage. His answer was a cautious one. He stated that if a differentiated biomechanical analysis found that Rehm's movements were comparable to those of athletes who are not amputees then his participation to competitions for the latter would be justified. He pointed out also that Rehm is a very talented athlete who trains under professional conditions (a view that I fully share). So the jury is still out.

But, wait, things are getting more interesting. The famous french newspaper L'Equipe published an "article", under the banner l'Equipe Explore, where they are "reporting" from the 2064 games where all 100 m finalists are amputees. In the article they talk about the first human to jump over 9 m: M. Rehm! (Well, the first human to jump over 9 m was Carl Lewis in a jump that was invalidated for mysterious reasons. Much as I dislike King Carl one has to be fair).

An article by H. Thompson published in Nature talks about Superhuman Athletes. It's an open access article and thus accessible by everybody. She first tackles the question of doping. (Oh, Hell, here am I once again writing about doping. This is a real curse). She cites A. Miah, a bioethics specialist, whose opinion is that "...science alone cannot resolve the ethical conundrum presented by the doping debate. If the goal is to protect health, then medically supervised doping is likely to be a better route". She then moves to gene therapy where in the future genes could be turned on and off with drugs, increasing muscle strength or modifying the ratio of slow and fast twitch fibres. The use of surgery to strengthen joints is also mentioned and she concludes the article on the point of artificial limbs. H. Herr, a biomechanical engineer at MIT is reported saying that "... one day the field will produce a bionic limb that’s so sophisticated that it will truly emulate biological limb function" adding that "without any such human-like constraints, the Paralympics limb will become the basis of a human–machine sport like race-car driving”.

All this is of course not for the immediate future. Today the main question is whether athletes with prosthetic legs should participate at competitions meant for non amputee athletes. The mistakes committed in the case of Pistorius should not be repeated. I urge you to read the excellent article in The Science of Sport site, on the controversy of the year 2011, where they explain that the decision to allow Pistorius participate at normal competitions was taken on intentionally incomplete evidence.

My position on this point is clear. Disabled athletes are admirable sportsmen and I have a great respect for them. However they have their dedicated competitions and should contend themselves with the distinctions they obtain in these specific events. In fact many handisport champions share this opinion.

Marie-Amélie Le Fur, paralympic champion, has clearly stated that her opinion is that "mixed" competitions should simply be banned. (Marie-Amélie Le Fur is the women's long jump word-record holder in the T44 category with 5.74 m but she is capable of jumping more than 6 m once her technique will have matured).

All this does not prevent me from looking forward to a 9 m jump by M. Rehm. I will be the first to celebrate it.

01 December, 2015

The doping curse

I should start by explaining the use fthe word "curse". It should not be understood as doping being a curse to athletics. My position on the doping problem is clearly less extreme than this as I have explained in a previous post of mine. No, the curse here is upon myself. I have stated repeatedly that I do not like writing about doping, and despite this, doping is the dominant theme among my posts. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, a temporary glitch. Still, here I am, writing once more about doping issues.

Shortly after the leak of the IAAF database with results of thousands of blood tests over the last decade more shocking news saw the day. (I do not imply here that they are related to the previous revelations, although the WDR broadcast clearly is). Now, the facts.

French prosecutors claimed that Papa Massata Diack, son of the IAAF ex-president, has allegedly pocketed substantial amounts of money (more than a million) in order to cover doping violations. This scheme, which, according to the press, his father was probably aware of, sought to blackmail athletes who were suspected of doping. This is not the first time Papa Massata Diack is accused of misappropriation. Already towards the end of his father's term he was accused of having requested a considerable amount of money from Qatar in order to provide support to that country's bid for the organisation of the 2017 World Championships. The allegations were denied and P.M. Diack in a letter to the IAAF council has asked for the inquiry, which was under way, to be terminated. 

However this time the matter is more serious. According to the french national financial prosecutor, E. Houlette, “it was a form of blackmail, saying to an athlete ‘pay or you cannot compete'. It is a system of corruption". The current IAAF president, Sebastian Coe, has called alleged bribery within athletics 'abhorrent' (although some people found that Sir Sebastian was a tad too slow to react to the revelations). Following an investigation by the World Anti Doping Agency the money was alleged to have been paid to cover up positive drug tests in Russia.

The french newspaper 20 Minutes gives a succint summary of the situation in Russia:
Before a control the athletes were informed that a control was pending so that they could take measures.
During the controls the russian police was stepping in in order to make sure the samples were going to the Moscow lab.
After the controls, a special "antidoping" lab in Moscow was analysing the samples in order to detect positives and suggest counter-measures.
Athletes with positive tests were compelled to bribe the director of the lab for the tests to remain uncovered. 
The whole process was monitored by FSB (ex-KGB) agents, some of them disguised as laboratory assistants.

Jean-Pierre Vazel in his blog has published an excellent article under the title: "L’athlétisme Russe suspendu, et alors ? (Russian athletics suspended. So what?)" where he analyses the report of the WADA commission. If you can read french I suggest that you take the time to read it. While analysing the russian crisis he makes some most pertinent remarks. First, suspending the moscovite antidoping laboratory (we are talking here about the official one) is no big deal: every year some laboratories around the world are suspended. In fact the Moscow lab was provisionally suspended already last year and, what really raises questions, was that the Lausanne laboratory, tutor of that of Moscow and for which some irregularities have been noticed (destruction of samples against the recommendations of the WADA) in the past, came out unscathed. Second, the report of the WADA commission focuses on endurance disciplines, neglecting those of speed-force and does not extend its investigations into other sports besides athletics. Moreover  Russia is the sole object of the investigation. However in the WDR broadcast Kenya was clearly pointed out and in fact the president of the national federation was compelled to resign last year. The controls of the use of EPO are now efficient enough (which has now spurred discussions over the use of EPO micro-doses, in principle undetectable) but those on anabolic steroïds are far less so. It is a whole section of athletics, and a different geographic region, which is concerned by these anabolic/hormonal doping problems. I am afraid that the questions raised by J.P. Vazel will remain unanswered (and most probably he is aware of this when he concludes his title with "et alors ?").

World distribution of doping offenders

The suspension of the Russian federation is now pronounced and not appealed. The reinstatement of the federation will only be accepted if the IAAF Inspection Team decides that the verification criteria are fulfilled. Although the list of these criteria is not finalised they will most probably hinge upon the following principles as announced by the IAAF:
1. Immediate corrective and disciplinary measures
2. Establishing an effective and operational anti-doping framework in Russia
3. Structural and regulatory reforms to deter and reduce existing incentives to engage in doping
4. Implementing a robust, transparent and efficient anti-doping testing programme
5. Ensuring Code compliance going forward.

Unless the IAAF Inspection Team files a favourable report the Russian Federation will remain suspended and we may see no russian athletes at the Rio Olympics. To my eyes this looks like a major injustice. Why should individual, clean athletes pay the price for a corrupted system? For me all russian champions without a doping offense in the past and who are tested negative before the games should be allowed to participate at the games, the suspension of their federation notwithstanding. It is a basic question of fair-play, something Sir Sebastian, with his british inheritance, should be particularly sympathetic with.