It was a very hot day on Friday. Our seats for the morning athletics session were up in ‘the Gods’, to borrow a term from the theatre. It’s a terrible cliche to describe the stadium as a theatre of dreams, but providing one bears in mind that there are good and bad dreams, I suppose it will do. I have a few shots of inside which I will post with my experience of the morning later. My own dream was to take some good photos, but I left the house early, emotionally overwrought, and forgot it. As I mentioned yesterday, I thought I was stuck with the Blackberry camera, but found my work Nokia, which saved the day – up to a point. Like I said, dreams come in all shapes and sizes – sometimes in the shape of a small phone from Finland.
This was the description Paralympian sprinter Jerome Singleton used to compare the current arrangements for races between single amputees, like himself, and double amputees like Oscar Pistorius and Alan Oliveira, the man who beat Pistorius earlier this week.
Jerome Singleton is not only an elite athlete who competes in the T44 100m final tomorrow night, he is also a NASA scientist, so I tend to think he knows what he is talking about. He is not the only athlete to think that the rules need tightening up.
Whole article can be read here
Several of the runners said Wednesday that while Pistorius’s comments were ill-timed, they supported his point that the IPC needs to re-evaluate and tighten the formula in the interest of fairness.
Singleton, a single leg amputee, even suggested that IPC should perhaps run races for two classes, the T44s like himself, and the T43s like Pistorius, Oliveira and Leeper. Of the 20 athletes that raced the heats, only five were double-leg amputees and three of them qualified for the final.
“The classes need to be split,” said Singleton, who upset Pistorius in the 100 metres at the 2011 world championships. “It’s not apples to apples, it’s like apples to pineapples right now. If they want to keep us together, they need to re-evaluate that formula.”
“We need to have an idea of the exact height for an athlete to run in, and maybe have a variation of like one centimetre, so you know you’re racing the same athlete in all competitions. Single-leg amputees, we don’t have too much maneouvring when it comes to height.”
“As time changes, science changes, so we have to make sure it’s fair to all competitors.”
Single-leg amputee Alister McQueen of Calgary, who ran a disappointing 12.02 and failed to qualify for the final, agreed with Singleton that the formula needs to be changed.
“With the formula they use, they’re just not proportional,” he said. “Every person running here is not breaking any rules, they’re not doing anything wrong. It’s just that the rules leave such a wide vary of what they can do with their prosthetics. If they do tighten it up to where it makes more sense, I don’t think they’ll need to split up the classes.
“It’s one of the most exciting races in the Paralympics and we don’t want to get away from that. We just want to even up the field.”
Leaving the apples and pineapples debate aside, the T44 100m final tomorrow evening is going to be huge. Going into it, the British contender Jonnie Peacock is the faster qualifier; running a time today of 11.08 seconds that equalled the existing Paralympic record. That time is a shade short of his own world record of 10.85, set earlier this summer and this evening he was running into a strong headwind…
Tomorrow’s final has all the right ingredients for an unmissable race. A strong start is going to be key and that may be to Peacock’s advantage. We’ll see.
Unbelievably, I have read there is no mainstream coverage of the event in the USA? Is this really the case? A real missed opportunity if it is and one that should be rectified for the future.
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…
I went to the morning session at Greenwich Park today to see the Equestrian competitors. The competitors were Grade II, the second most severely disabled riders and although they all rode the same dressage test, there any similarities ended.
Each rider was announced into the ring not just by name and horse, but by age and career, with a brief precis of how they had come into Paralympic sports. The ages ranged from something like 17 to 56, the previous and current professions varying from anaesthetist to film stunt rider to surgeon. Most riders had a sporting philosophy which were also shared with us, my favourites being:
Don’t start tomorrow what you can do today
Look at the doughnut, not the hole
The routes into Paralympic sport were many and varied; one of the athletes had previously been an Paralympic swimmer. Some had been born with disability, some athletes had met with accidents, the majority of which were on horses… One woman had contracted a disability after being poisoned by a pesticide.
And then there were the horses and the weather. We had rain, we had sun, we had wind and we had clouds, we had brief spells of warmth and some teeth-chattering cold; not once or even twice but enough to remind us that the only thing we can be certain of in life is that change is always happening somewhere. The horses were a delight. Lining up against the more traditional stamp of warm-blooded dressage-type horse with floating paces and extravagant gaits were smaller pony types described variously as pedigree unknown, not listed or this piebald one below, with the most marvellous feather, announced as a ‘native cob’.
This competitor rode side-saddle, but we had paraplegic riders using two schooling whips as aids, riders who had to have their legs strapped down, and one competitor Angelika Trabert from Germany who was born without legs and with only three fingers on her right hand. She rode a beautiful test on Arriva-Avant to finish 9th. Her life philosophy is, ‘It’s ability, not disability, that counts!’
The diversity of horses and riders is fascinating. Clearly, the horses are selected based not just on ability, but the ability of their rider to form a successful partnership with them. The flashy power of a Grand Prix dressage horse is not for every Paralympian rider to contain and yet without that I still found the quiet spectacle of these riders and horses both mesmerising and deeply affecting. Somebody said on the television the other day that Paralympians did not want people to feel sorry for them. I was shocked; I can honestly say that the thought had never crossed my mind. Why would a sports person performing at the top of their game evoke sympathy in me, or you? Still, there is something extra to watching Paralympian sport. I think, for me, it is something to do with the showcasing of the essential human spirit, the ability to get on with taking the steps needed to achieve goals and realise dreams.
The differences between the horses and the competitors extend to how the crowd is to show their appreciation. Some horses and riders can be applauded in the usual way, some only when the horse has left the immediate test arena and the coach has a hand firmly on the bridle. Some horses prefer to ‘ponied’ into the arena by the ‘friendly horse’ and there were two horses that we could not applaud at all. One of these partnerships was Lauren Barwick with her horse Off to Paris, representing Canada. They entered in silence apart from the music that is played continuously throughout the tests. As the test started a new song began, I don’t even know what it was, but it fitted the mood. The test this pair went on to produce together was thing of beauty. There are no words I can use to describe it adequately, you had to be there. It was not marked the highest by the judges (they came 3rd), but the energy and connection between the rider and her horse was palpable. When it ended, the crowd had to remain silent. I was overwhelmed and could only release the high emotion generated by the horse and rider through shedding a few quick tears, and by hand-waving, as we had been told by the commentator was the alternative way to show support and appreciation. Thousands of us waving in silence.
I have seen competition dressage before, I have ridden the odd test of my own 20 years ago. This is not a paean to dressage per se. What it is, is a witness statement to riders who find new ways to work with their horses to achieve something that looks so simple, but is fiendishly tricky, even with the use of all your limbs. The morning’s highest score belonged to the GB Para Dressage rider Natasha Baker, who has developed a system of voice commands to ride the tests on her horse Cabral. Curiously, although I enjoyed her test immensely and clapped hard and the kids waved the Union Jacks, the partisan nature of supporting Great Britain was muted. With the Paralympics, it is not so much sitting there to support one’s own small dot of a country, it feels much more like you are sitting there to support and will on the human race.
So many times I have felt that the title of my blog ‘On wishes and horses’ might seem vacuous and misleading, appearing to lack any real intent or motivation. The truth is I took it from the rhyme, ‘If wishes were horses then beggars would ride…’ which of course means that wishes are useless. I am keeping the blog title, at it continues to remind me that the type of intent on show today is everything.
To clarify, courtesy of delightmakers.com (whose website is down as I write)
Intent is not a thought, or an object, or a wish. Intent is what can make a man succeed when his thoughts tell him that he is defeated…
In this case I would amend the saying slightly, ‘Intent is what can make any human being or horse succeed when their thoughts might tell them they are defeated’. That is the essence of what I think I saw today, and it was simply one of the most amazing and renewing days of my life.
Updated 3 September: This post has proved popular. For more on the Paralympics, my take on Oscar Pistorius and Bladegate is here
I used to listen to this Radio 4 programme about three times a week when I worked in photographic prop shop (textiles only). For some reason (and I was in my twenties) I preferred this station to any other. I like music, but not all day long, and I can’t stand the public ranting across the airwaves with their opinions.
You and Yours was hardly the highlight of the day. I think I thought it was some kind of consumer show, which I still believe it is, but it is somehow very serious and worthy and a little bit dull. The World at One with Nick Clarke (now sadly deceased) was like an auditory trip in comparison.
Yesterday I caught a bit in the car. In the same reverential tones as always, they reported on leisure activities for the disabled and I was suddenly transported. They talked to someone from Riding for the Disabled and I was reminded strongly of the transformational qualities that horses can play in our lives. I once helped out at a Riding for the Disabled club at Lee Valley in East London and I have never forgotten sharing in the enjoyment the riders so clearly felt on horseback.
The programme talked to an instructor with 35 years experience and the reporter asked her how the profoundly disabled cope with no strength in their limbs. The instructor had an answer that blew the question out of the water. She replied that she had, last June, taken on a new 5 year old pupil who had lost her legs and arms to meningitis. This young girl was now walking, trotting and steering independently. The instructor said that the dynamics of riding are more subtle than we imagine. It does not necessarily require extravagant flapping and kicking, instead we can do so much with our seat and core muscles and that the horses (not all but many) seem to understand and respond positively to a rider with disabilities. In fact, some tricky equine customers are equally transformed by their disabled riders.
I am not saying that the playing field is level in terms of competition; dressage for instance is graded by disability of the riders from 1-5 so those with a milder disability, say 2, will only compete against other riders deemed 2. I am certain though that those riders who come to riding with a disability are as rewarded, if not more so really, than those of us whose interest and relationship with horses is more mundane.