Tech Doping: How Paralympic Sprinters Game The System

The brewing controversy over prosthetics used by Paralympic sprinters is nearing its breaking point

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Sep 08, 2016 at 5:03 PM ET

Paralympic sprinter David J. Prince enjoyed a successful 2011 season, winning the 200 and 400 meters at the U.S. national trials, scoring a bronze in the 400 at the World Championships, and grabbing gold in the 200 and 400 at the Parapan American Games. And then everything went to hell.

Following that season, Prince, whose right leg was amputated after a motorcycle accident in 2002 when he was 18, started hearing reports and seeing social media posts showing that bilateral rivals (i.e. those with two missing legs) were extending the length of their prosthetics. He recalled seeing a Facebook picture in which fellow American Blake Leeper appeared to be a couple inches taller than someone he previously was shorter than. Additionally, these runners were now turning in blistering personal-best times.

“Growing, all of a sudden,” Prince said of his rivals.

At the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, Prince secured a bronze in the 400, one spot behind Leeper and two spots behind the famed “Blade Runner,” South African Oscar Pistorius, who had competed in the Olympics a month prior. The biggest headline of the Paralympic meet was that Pistorius did not win the 200, taking second behind Alan Oliveira, an upstart Brazilian sprinter. Oliveira, among many others, admitted to increasing the height of his prostheses, in his case by five centimeters.

This set off an epic screed from Pistorius, who railed against the height-boosting of other competitors and the rules put in place by the International Paralympic Committee. He ranted, in part, “These guys are a lot taller and you can’t compete with the stride length. You saw how far he came back. We aren’t racing a fair race. I gave it my best. The IPC have their regulations. The regulations allow that athletes can make themselves unbelievably high.” (Pistorius later apologized.)

With the Rio Paralympics now underway, the issue will again come to the forefront. The IPC has since reviewed the matter and agreed on new height restrictions, but they won’t be implemented until 2017. While the entire Russian Paralympic contingent has been banned for doping, some sprinters are still trying to gain an edge through prosthetic-lengthening.

“The best way you can get a quick little boost is by taking some form of anabolic whatever-the-heck, but what we’re seeing in the amputee classification predominantly is what we’re referring to as tech-doping: technology doping,” Prince said. “Guys that were previously not competitive are now competitive only because they gave themselves extra blade height.”

Of the six medalists in the 200 and 400 at the 2012 Paralympics, Prince’s bronze was the only medal earned by a unilateral sprinter. A similar pattern re-emerged at the 2015 world championships, with five of the six podium spots going to bilateral sprinters.

“I think it’s common knowledge among the unilateral amputees that they’re watching the bilaterals run away from them for reasons that are not athletic—they’re technological,” Peter Weyand, a professor of applied physiology and biomechanics at Southern Methodist University, said.

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The Paralympics have busted into the mainstream in the last decade. So much so that major corporate sponsors of the Olympics often include Paralympians in their ads and top competitors become national heroes the world over.

Asked about the difference between his 2009 national team debut and now, Prince exclaimed, “Oh my God, dude.” Back then, he received $100 monthly in addition to small quarterly training stipends. Depending what standard times he has raced in the last calendar year, he now makes either $500 or $1,000 per month and trains at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., alongside 400-meter Olympic bronze medalist LaShawn Merritt, among others.

Much of the Paralympic Movement’s recent success can be traced back to Oscar Pistorius, the Games’ first global star who famously sought and received clearance to compete in the able-bodied Olympics, as he did in 2012, at which time he was reportedly making more than $1 million per year in endorsements. The feel-good tale came to an end once Pistorius grabbed headlines for an altogether different reason: the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for his crime.

While Pistorius is unlikely to ever return to the sporting world—with good reason—his time in the spotlight demonstrated the power and ability of athletes with disabilities, granting much-needed credibility to the whole enterprise. The Paralympics have seen “exponential growth,” IPC Summer Sports Director Ryan Montgomery said, adding, “We’re only seeing the top part. We’re not seeing the base. And I would like to think the base is growing as well.”

Naturally, all that growth helped create an incentive structure in which athletes are more tempted to push the boundaries to gain an edge in competition. In fact, it was Pistorius who bequeathed to the sport its first height controversy.

Back in 2004, the man who helped fit Pistorius with his first pair of carbon-fiber Cheetah running blades was an Össur prosthetist named Brian Frasure, who just so happened to be a champion sprinter in the midst of a career that would end with victories in 30 major-competition races and eight world records. Frasure aided Pistorius, then 17, only to watch him—later that very year—add two or three inches of height and then blow past Frasure in the 200 meters.

Pistorius won gold in a record time while Frasure, a single amputee, grabbed bronze. Frasure and the silver-medal winner, Marlon Shirley, both accused Pistorius of “racing tall.”

“There’s no denying the huge advantage that they gain by making some modifications to the setup,” Frasure, who is now director of clinical education at BionX Medical Technologies, said, while also adding, “Unfortunately, in my opinion, we’re starting to see the technology overshadow the ability of the athlete.”

The IPC’s Athletics rulebook does require, under proviso 3.3.2(b) on technology, monitoring of “unrealistic enhancement of stride length” and does govern a bilateral amputee’s Maximum Allowable Standing Height (MASH)—but many unilaterals object to the MASH methodology as inadequate. The procedure relies on formulas projecting full-body height based on ulna length (a long forearm bone) and demi-span (half one’s wingspan) or, in circumstances with upper-limb deficiencies, based on sitting height. A 2.5 percent leeway is then added because runners move on their toes rather heels.

Pistorius reportedly ran in 2004 around 6’3” or 6’4”—about 191 centimeters—but is listed in his Paralympic bio at 181 cm (5’11”) with a MASH of 193 cm. In the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, however, he ran at 184 cm, which was the height at which he was tested in Germany for his appeal to the Court for Arbitration in Sport seeking admittance to able-bodied sport. (The CAS ruling locked in Pistorius’ height for able-bodied competition by restricting his eligibility to “the particular model of Cheetah Flex-Foot prosthesis that was the subject of the Cologne tests and shown to the Panel as exhibits during the hearing in Lausanne.”)

The Pistorius example demonstrates the wide range of acceptable running heights enabled by the current rules. Josh Kennison, a double amputee from Maine, stands around 5’10” or 5’11” on both his walking legs and his Össur Cheetahs, yet he said some competitors are an inch or two shorter when on their walking legs but as much as two inches taller on their blades.

“None of the athletes are cheating, but what is happening is that calculation isn’t right,” Kennison said. “I always told myself, I don’t care if it would win me a gold medal in the Paralympics, I’m not making myself taller just to have the happiness of winning anything because, to me, that’s not okay.”

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Defining and discerning the best spread of classifications is essential for fair competition, but problematic when trying to categorize athletes with disabilities into groups. Even two runners with single-leg amputations may have the operation done pn different spots on their body—above or below knee, for instance. Add in the necessary technology that certain athletes need, and it becomes a dizzying array of options.

Each sport has its own technical committee, as well as a broad sports science committee and a classification committee collaborating on the rules. The IPC has begun tracking the prostheses, wheelchairs, etc. that each athlete uses in a universal catalog of equipment.

“I don’t think we can sit here and say that it’s not tricky because some of it is,” Montgomery said. “The advances in technology, as we all know, are coming along quicker than the advances of people, if that makes any sense.”

Amputee sprinters are divided into two main classifications: T43 for double below-knee amputees and T44 for single below-knee amputees. Seven of the fastest eight times in the 200 belong to bilaterals and the top-six times in the 400 also belong to bilaterals, even though there are more unilaterals competing. In the 200, the world rankings include 51 sprinters in the T44 class (unilaterals) and only 16 in T43 (bilaterals); those numbers are closer in the 400, with 14 bilaterals and 20 unilaterals.

There are no definitive answers yet in the absence of peer-reviewed research, so Weyand can only extrapolate based on the “very limited performance data” that’s available.

“If all things are equal and you have a longer blade for the same force and time parameters, you just cover more turf with every step,” Weyand said. “You’re going to be able to apply force longer. If it’s the same force and you apply it longer, you’re going to be able to get more time in the air and a longer step into the next stride. That would be the working mechanism of speed enhancement that we would predict, but again, we don’t have empirical data.”

There are other differences between the groups, of course. Unilateral runners inherently have an asymmetrical gait which, Prince said, can cause undue strain on the sound leg. Bilaterals, meanwhile, tend to be slower out of the starting blocks, although they typically can sustain their top speed for longer—those two factors are why bilaterals predominantly are having success in the 200 and 400, rather than the 100.

That’s not exclusive, however, as Oliveira, the Brazilian with bilateral amputations, set the world record in the 100 at 10.57. What’s visibly amiss about his race is that he appears unable (or at least unwilling) to get into a sprinter’s traditional four-point stance in the starting blocks and then makes up huge ground in the second 50.

Such jarring appearances have prompted complaints, even though Oliveira was fully within the rules at 181 centimeters as his personal limit is 185.4.

“I think we understand that, but we also have the rules and regulations,” Montgomery said. “As long as the athletes are abiding by the rules and regulations that are published, that there is the gospel.”

Most of the Paralympic sprinting biomechanical research uses able-bodied runners as a reference point, such as in the contentious debate as to whether Pistorius should have been allowed to compete in the Olympics as well as the Paralympics. Weyand led a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in November 2009 that argued that Pistorius’ prosthetics shaved “nearly 12 seconds” off his 400-meter time.

“Per the information that we published on Oscar, as a bilateral amputee, the lightness of his prostheses basically allow him to sort of break or circumvent the normal gait-timing parameters that exist,” Weyand said. “Because they’re so light, he can reposition quickly. That requires less time in the air. And what that does is reduce the requirement for force applied to the ground to run at any speed.

“Now, unilateral amputees do not have that option. They essentially seem to be locked into the same force/time patterns that runners with intact limbs use, regardless of what kind of prosthetic they’re using.”

One of the researchers arguing the counterpoint to that study was Alena Grabowski, the director of Colorado’s applied biomechanics laboratory. Her team of researchers recently examined the performances of five bilateral amputees sprinting on blades of different heights.

“We really didn’t find any difference in top speed — within a four centimeter range, anyways, it doesn’t seem that height has a profound effect on top speed,” Grabowski said. “Anecdotally, it seems like, if bilateral amputees can artificially boost their height, they go faster, but we’re not seeing that necessarily in our research yet, although we haven’t explored wide ranges in height.”

Comparing unilateral and bilateral runners, however, has been a heretofore neglected field.

“I don’t think we’ve done the research yet to really understand the differences between the two,” Grabowski said, “and I think that makes it really challenging, so all we can really do is speculate.”

University of Pittsburgh’s director of human engineering research laboratories, Rory Cooper, who was a 1988 Paralympic medal winner in wheelchair racing, said data will be collected in Rio and concurred that “nobody’s really done a definitive study.” He raised the point that more height doesn’t always mean faster speeds. since, at some point, runners would no longer have “enough power in [their] residual limbs to manage that length of stride length, so there’s an optimum” height for sprinters at which any more length becomes a hindrance.

“The fair thing may be to do — rather than to say to the bilateral amputees, ‘We’re going to restrict your prostheses to a certain length,’ which is very difficult to do that in some fair way — is to separate them for those events,” Cooper said.

The T43 and T44 classifications were briefly separated in 2013 but later rejoined. Though the minimum requirement for an event is six athletes from four nations, the IPC worries that certain races wouldn’t be viable without sufficient numbers.

The rules calculating height, i.e. MASH, had been amended in 2011, but parts of the IPC membership voiced concerns about the data pool being used for the revised guideline. The change was put on hold until the issue could be studied further. At the 2015 world championships in Doha, Qatar, a new proposal was accepted, but it won’t be implemented until 2017 — after the 2016 Rio Games.

“The reason for that was, if you change an athlete’s height, you’re changing an awful lot of different training dynamics,” Montgomery said.

Prince estimated the new rule could drop some athletes 8-12 centimeters. That won’t help him this month in Rio when he competes in the 200. Even though he holds the 400-meter world record for T44 sprinters, he didn’t qualify for the Paralympics, having been beaten by four bilaterals. Prince thinks his record may be broken at the meet — by someone finishing in seventh or eighth place on a leaderboard populated by bilateral amputees. That’s why Prince wonders why this whole process hasn’t happened sooner.

“It’s playing catch-up,” Montgomery said, “but we have to do it in a controlled manner that is accurate because you can do things very quickly and have half an answer.”

There may not be a cut-and-dry summation at the end of all this research, either, as a human being is still the primary motor in sprinting.

“It seems that way, but the athlete has to be producing the amount of force on the ground to be able to go that fast,” Grabowski said. “It’s real tricky to separate out what the device is doing versus what the athlete’s doing with that device.”

For now, everyone is left asking, Where does the human end and the technology begin?