During Monday’s 200m sprint in the Paralympics, South African favorite Oscar Pistorius lost. The three-time gold medal winner in Beijing and the feel-good story of the 2012 London Olympics blew out of the blocks but was passed in dramatic fashion after the turn. Brazil's Alan Oliveira flew by him in the straightaway. Moments after crossing the finish, Pistorius cried foul. "We are not running a fair race here," he said. He later added, "I can't compete with Alan's stride length."
You can watch the race above. What’s very clear in the video is that Oliveira makes up a ton of ground to overtake Pistorius. Ross Tucker, of the Science of Sport blog, looked at Pistorius’ claim that Oliveira had a longer stride length and put it to the test. He counted the steps of both runners. Pistorius had 92 steps while Oliveira had 98, meaning Oliveira actually took shorter strides than Pistorius. The South African sprinter was wrong, and his comments cast a controversy over the event.
Oliveira played it cool. "For me, he is a really great idol and to hear that from a great idol is difficult," he said.
Later, Pistorius apologized for the timing of his comments, but emphasized that he believed there was an issue with the length of Oliveira’s prosthesis. While the Brazilian admitted to increasing the length of his prosthesis leading up the Games, he said he was still within the International Paralympic Committee’s guidelines. Here’s a bit more from the Washington Post on how those guidelines are determined:
The formula that determines the length of blades allowed calculates the predicted height of an athlete, plus 3.5 percent to account for the on-toes running position. Pistorius’ maximum allowable height is 1.93 meters, yet he opts to stand at 1.84m in blades that were subjected to stringent testing in 2008 to show they provide no advantage when competing alongside able-bodied rivals. Oliveira, whose limit is 1.85 meters, claimed Monday that his blades gave him a race height of 1.81 the previous night.
Pistorius had shorter prosthesis so that he met the standards needed to be able to run in the 2012 Olympics. He could always play with his prosthesis length for the Paralympics, and might possibly clock faster times as a result, but it's too late for that. The finish wasn't the first time Pistorius complained about the length of other racers' prothesis. He had contacted the IPC in the weeks leading up to the Paralympics.
But in the 200m race on Sunday, Tucker said that Oliveira didn't win because he had a stride length that was greater than Pistorius. He won because of his stride rate, the speed with which he swung his legs back and forth. Interestingly enough, scientists argued that it was Oscar Pistorius’ stride rate that gave him an advantage over other sprinters in the 2012 London Olympics. Tucker summarizes this:
And remember, this is the factor that Peter Weyand concluded gave Oscar Pistorius an enormous advantage over able-bodied runners who simply cannot move their limbs at the same rate, because Pistorius was able to achieve leg repositioning times that no able-bodied runner ever could. That advantage is still in play, except now we have another runner who is benefitting from it, and possibly exploiting it even better than Pistorius.
The arguments over prosthesis length and stride rate will continue as the technology improves, and the times will likely go down. Pistorius will have to put all of the arguments aside for now, as he has two gold medals to defend in the 100m and 400m—and a reputation to repair.
"Race day tomorrow, can’t wait to get back on the track! Still very much regretting my reaction on Monday in heat of the moment .. sorry," he said today on Twitter.