26 05 2008

Olympic sports try to decide what is allowed

By Ann Killion

Mercury News Sports Columnist



“Olympic trial” has taken on a whole new meaning this spring, as legal issues redefine the parameters of competition.


• In San Francisco, the ongoing case against track coach Trevor Graham details the depth of steroid use. Last week, three Olympic gold medalists testified that Graham, charged with lying to federal investigators, helped them cheat their way onto the podium. The embarrassing trial further undermines track’s image heading into Beijing.

• A swimsuit war erupted, with the TYR company filing a federal antitrust lawsuit against Speedo and USA Swimming, claiming both are trying to push American swimmers to Speedo despite contracts with other companies. Speedo’s new LZR suit is creating concerns about unfair competition as swimmers in the suit have set 37 world records since it was unveiled in February.

• An international court ruled this month that sprinter and double-amputee Oscar Pistorius can compete in Beijing. Some believe the 21-year-old South African known as the “Blade Runner” gains an unfair advantage from his carbon-fiber prosthetics. (Pistorius has not yet qualified for the Games.)

At the heart of these legal actions is the issue of enhancing athletic performance. Together, they illustrate the wide range of ways to gain a competitive advantage and reveal the slippery slope that sports’ overseers find themselves on when determining what is legal and what creates an unfair playing field.

Steroid use is the most extreme example of gaining an edge. The Graham trial underscores the pervasive use of drugs and the inability of the Olympic “gold standard” to ensnare cheats. As in the Marion Jones case, record books may be rewritten and medals returned. Meanwhile, the cheaters are certainly onto a new form of doping.

The LZR swimsuit appears to have titled the balance of competition. Some of Speedo’s athletes, such as Natalie Coughlin, argue the suit is getting too much credit: Olympic athletes are peaking, and many already were closing in on world records. Yet the eye-popping results, combined with the LZR’s staggering cost ($550 for a suit whose effectiveness is limited to a handful of wearings), raise questions of fair play.

The Pistorius case is both more limited and complicated. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, in Switzerland, was careful to state that its ruling was specific to Pistorius and “has absolutely no application to any other athlete or other type of prosthetic limb.”

Some see the high-tech prosthetics as one step removed from bionic body parts. Others, championing the underdog, say an athlete who has overcome such an extreme disability should not be banned. Clearly no one will choose to amputate limbs in order to wear Cheetah Flex-Foot prosthetics. Comparing Pistorius’ case to obtaining and injecting illegal steroids is a reach.

“One is a body-altering substance taken explicitly for the purpose of edging out the competition and changing the body in ways that would normally not be physiologically possible,” Cheri Blauwet wrote in an e-mail. “The other is a form of adaptation that enables one to take on the role of athlete and engage in physical activity.”

Blauwet is a wheelchair athlete who has won seven medals at the past two Paralympic Games, in Sydney and Athens. The fifth-year medical student at Stanford has served as a Paralympic ambassador and knows Pistorius. This month, she has been training for Beijing in Switzerland.

She sees the ruling as an opportunity to raise awareness about Paralympic sports. But she also sees the complexities of the case.

“I truly feel that running on two prosthetic legs is a different and distinct sport from able-bodied running,” Blauwet wrote. She cited the possible advantages of energy conservation, spring and ability to replace the prosthetic leg, but added that she would like to see differences scientifically measured before any athletes are banned.

The CAS ruled that track’s world governing body had not sufficiently done that. Last year, the International Association of Athletics Federations tested Pistorius for three days before issuing its ban. But the CAS agreed with Pistorius’ lawyers that the evidence was not compelling.

Pistorius set Paralympic world records before racing against able-bodied athletes. Blauwet hopes the high-profile case will expand opportunities for all double-amputees to the point where there would be a large enough pool to create true competition for Pistorius. She noted that Pistorius currently runs against single-amputees at the Paralympics because of a lack of adequate competition. She would like to see more grass-roots development in places such as Africa, where, she said, war and land mines have created a large number of double-amputees.

Blauwet dreams of the day disability sports are integrated into the Olympic Games. Just as there is a men’s 100-meter race and a women’s 100, she would like to see a separate but equal amputee 100. “We should create an athletic event in which we are free of discrimination and exclusion on the basis of disability,” Blauwet wrote.

Perhaps Blauwet’s separate-but-equal concept could solve other legal issues. A separate LZR-suit butterfly event? A steroid-enhanced 100 meters and a clean 100 meters? Except that, in the modern era, the latter would be the novelty.




One response

27 05 2008
» Olympic sports try to decide what is allowed By Ann Killion …

[…] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptOthers, championing the underdog, say an athlete who has overcome such an extreme disability should not be banned. Clearly no one will choose to amputate limbs in order to wear Cheetah Flex-Foot prosthetics. Comparing Pistorius’ case to … […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: