In case you’ve been on Mars for the last 24 hours, #Bladegate refers to the T44 category 200m final at the Paralympics last night, where Pistorius was narrowly beaten into second place by the Brazilian athlete Alan Oliveira.
Pistorius was not expecting to be beaten. Once into the home straight he was in splendid isolation with only the wind for company… until the last 10 metres. Oliveira came roaring up the outside to take the gold medal on the line.
Pistorius then complained during his immediate post-race interview that Oliveira’s blades were too long, giving him an unfair advantage. Then all hell broke loose: #Bladegate.
There are so many layers to unpick in this affair that it is fascinating. Firstly though, I think that it is important to note that Pistorius has had to fight his way in the world to get where he is and when someone is in that mindset any emotional reaction is likely to initially present as anger. This has led to the accusation that Pistorius is a ‘bad loser’. I don’t think that’s entirely fair. In the tv interview he clearly spoke from a heart that had just been more than a little bit broken, and our hearts are not always rational. If a ‘good loser’ constitutes someone who can smile while inside they are dying, plus feeling strongly that something is unfair, I would wonder about the honesty and integrity of that.
Still, Pistorius’s remarks were clearly mistimed and made in the heat of the moment; by this morning his head was in back in charge and he made a more measured statement. He still maintained his concern about the fairness of the blades used by his conqueror in the race in his conclusion, saying:
I do believe that there is an issue here and I welcome the opportunity to discuss with the IPC but I accept that raising these concerns immediately as I stepped off the track was wrong. I am a proud Paralympian and believe in the fairness of sport. I am happy to work with the IPC who obviously share these aims.
The International Paralympic Committee, who govern the Paralympic Games have just issued their own statement saying that they will not only meet with Pistorius, but that the immediate aftermath of the Paralympics is as good a time as any to revisit the rule book…
I have read some absolutely fantastic analysis of both sides of the argument. Here Channel 4 News FactCheck examine the evidence and their verdict is that Pistorious shouldn’t complain. Then I looked at *whispers* *hides face* this Daily Mail piece who point out that Oliveira did decide to change his blades to longer ones in the last 3 weeks, and that while these remain legal under the existing rules, last night he ran under 22 seconds (21.45 sec) for the first time competitively, on these new blades that boost his racing height by 5 cm. Coincidence?
The longer blades do cause athletes to have a slower start, Oliveira was left standing when the gun went off last night and was racing well in arrears, but down the straight the longer blades store more elastic energy allowing the athlete to maintain speed whilst using less energy than someone on shorter ones, like Pistorius. This is basically what we saw last night, but we also saw an optical illusion which someone who watches horse racing regularly will recognise – that of an athlete (or horse), out front, coming back to the field. In high class races, where everyone is performing to their optimum ability, this slight slowing in front is entirely imperceptible, you can only see the others appearing to accelerate. In these instances, only fractional times can tell the whole story. There aren’t many fractional times for a 200m sprint, but it is reported that Pistorius ran a much quicker first 100m than the second 100m. For Oliveira, with the slow start, it was the reverse.
This is probably because the longer blades do give you an advantage in the straight, but this offset by running more slowly at the start and whilst runnning the bend. It’s down to the athlete which tactics they want to employ. Oliveira and his team, by switching to the longer blades only three weeks ago, took a gamble. It paid off, just. Pistorius’s gamble was running a very fast half of the race, he then paid for attacking the first 100m by having to slow down a bit in the closing stages. His gamble did not pay off, but again, it was so close. This would have only made it worse from his point of view.
Pistorius raced on the blades he ran on in the Olympics. Under the rule book he too could go for longer blades – his maximum permitted height on racing blades, as things stand, would take him to 193 cm tall. His current blades means he stands 184 cm. He could add an extra 9 cm to his height and this would mean if Oliveira stuck with his current prostheses at 181 cm, Pistorius could gain a 12 cm height advantage over his rival. Of course, it is not standing taller that necessarily gives the advantage, it is the longer blade being used, and that advantage has to be traded off against the slower start.
I can’t help wondering, in the battle of the double-bladed runners like Pistorius, Oliveira and Richard Whitehead, where this leaves those athletes with one of their own legs and one blade. Is the leg the limiting factor to their performance? Still, I can see where Pistorius was coming from. Basically, his rival gained 5cm more of blade runner and considerably improved his performance. This might have happened anyway. I think it is fair enough for him to request that a cause and effect scenario be ruled out.
The current rules also seem to allow for a huge differential in blade lengths – after all Pistorius could legally add up to 9 cm to his racing blades. He might regret not switching to longer blades in the Paralympics now, but as an athlete who has battled so hard to prove that his blades do not give him a mechanical advantage over a non-Paralympic athlete you can see why he stuck with his Olympic-approved ones.
I suppose what will happen now is that we will thankfully continue to be astounded by the performances of all the Paralympians and this controversy will die down. The IPC will then meet behind closed doors and I’d take a short price about them severely reducing the range of centimetres you can add to your blades prior to a competition. I’m not a physicist, but it is probably possible to work out a set of equations for the energy stored in each millimetre of blade, depending on the materials used in its manufacture and the allowances for weight and speed etc. The trouble is that the science on the ‘blade runners’ so far is ‘inconclusive’ and for these athletes, who train to their physical limits and spend years preparing for events like this, that simply won’t do.
I constantly spelled Oscar Pistorius as ‘Pistorious’ in the drafts. I hope I’ve got rid of all the misspelling, apologies if not. I think it is because, in my mind, it should follow the -ious suffix rule e.g. imperious, notorious…