Sports: April 2007 Archives

 

April 28, 2007

Climbing rope is expensive, but for some reason prices vary quite dramatically. So, while your basic 60m rope in 10.2-10.5 mm usually runs about $150 for standard or $170-180 for dry treated (mostly useful if you're ice climbing or your rope would otherwise be likely to get significantly wet), 20% discounts (to $120 for non-dry are pretty common). But right now Backcountry.com is running a special on Beal Edlinger 10.2mm 60 meters: $97 for dry treated. I've heard pretty good things about this rope and bought the non-dry version (now out of stock) for $83 yesterday.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Eu-Jin Goh for pointing this deal out to me.

 

April 26, 2007

I've written before about Cynthia Beall's work on oxygen adaptation. This week's Science has a short article with some more information about the biochemistry behind it:
But exactly how do these women manage to carry extra oxygen in their blood? They do not produce more hemoglobin the way Andeans living at high altitude do. One possibility is that the women with high oxygen have an adaptation that Beall is exploring independently in these same Tibetan villagers. She found that some villagers exhale extra nitric oxide in their breath, a sign of additional amounts of the gas in their blood. In those Tibetans, nitric oxide dilates the blood vessels so they can pump more blood and oxygen to organs and tissues, as measured by images of heart and lung blood vessels. The Tibetans can boost their blood volume--and so pump more oxygen to their tissues--without producing more hemoglobin or raising the blood pressure in their lungs. That's the reverse of what happens when mountaineers suffer from oxygen deficiency: The blood pressure in their lungs rises, the blood vessels constrict, and fluid builds up, suffocating the lungs.

The next step, says Beall, is to try to see whether these two lines of research meet. She wants to find the underlying gene behind the women's high-oxygen blood--and see whether it is related to genes that regulate levels of nitric oxide in the blood. She notes, however, that it's quite possible that the Tibetans have evolved more than one way to boost blood oxygen, and that these are independent adaptations. Gladwin suggests that Beall's team also measure nitric oxide and blood pressure in the lungs in pregnant women, who are under the most physiological stress at altitude and presumably would benefit most from this adaptation. "Study the pregnant women," he says, "because that's where you'll see evolution in action."

I wish I knew more about oxygen metabolism at high altitude, but a brief lit search seems to support the nitric oxide connection, in particular that there's some evidence that low nitric oxide levels make you susceptible to high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), as well as that you can use nitric oxide to treat HAPE. Given this, it's not too surprising that Viagra, which also operates via nitric oxide, appears to improves high altitude exercise performance for some people. Interestingly, in both treatment studies, one group of people responded and one did not, reinforcing the genetic variation in nitric oxide response theory.

One of the notable (though not surprising) aspects of high-altitude mountaineering is the semi-controversy over the use of supplemental oxygen, which many conider prudent but some old-school climbers seem to regard it as weak. (This mirrors a general attitude split in climbing circles about whether risk is something that should be minimized to the greatest extent possible or what makes climbing fun.) I'd be interested to see how attitudes towards viagra develop, especially if it becomes clearer that there's a specific physiological basis for nitric oxide treatment, rather than just a matter of some people being tougher than others.

 

April 15, 2007

A year ago, I wrote about the case of Tatyana McFadden, a wheelchair-bound athlete who wanted to race with/against runners in track:
In some sense, McFadden considers her most recent lawsuit a victory in itself: She finally has reached the last impediment, she said. She wants the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association to count her wheelchair racing results in region and state meets toward the overall team competition. The MPSSAA contends that it already has exceeded its obligations by adding eight nonscoring wheelchair events to this year's track championships.

...

Instead, it made Bowler a hero to most able-bodied runners. At Mdrunning.net, a popular Internet site that features a chat forum and message boards, Bowler's letter -- especially when combined with McFadden's decision to file another lawsuit -- created a frenzy. The board's proprietor, local distance-running guru Brad Jaeger, argued that awarding McFadden points at the state meet would "absolutely ruin the whole sport." Teams usually win the state championship by scoring about 70 points in the state meet, Jaeger reasoned. So if Maryland awarded McFadden the usual 10 points for first place -- right now, she's only asking for one point -- that would drastically alter the meet. And should McFadden compete in the maximum four events? Atholton virtually would be ensured a state title.

Ultimately, there are three somewhat orthogonal issues here:

  1. Whether McFadden races alone or at the same time as non-wheelchair athletes.
  2. Whether her performance is compared to (for purposes of placing) non-wheelchair athletes.
  3. Whether her performance counts against the team score.
Last year McFadden claimed she just wanted to race alongside others (the first issue) but now wants to score points.
The McFaddens had simply hoped the judge would allow Tatyana to compete at the same time as runners. In most of her previous high school races, McFadden competed -- often alone -- in events designated for wheelchair athletes. She would score one team point for each event.

"The judge said many, many times the scoring system was not part of the case," Tatyana said. "I don't care about points."

First, recall that wheelchair performances are dramatically superior to non-wheelchair performances. The gap between wheelchair and non-wheelchair performances significantly exceeds the ordinary male/female gap. I'm not sure whether this is actually unsafe in the sense that it poses a threat to non-wheelchair athletes, but I'm fairly confident it could me made reasonably safe by segragating McFadden into her own lane until the point where she would be far ahead. Actually, it's the fact that she's so much faster that makes this possible, since she will quickly be far away from the other runners.

However, this gap also means that having her compete against ordinary runners, either individually or in aggregate (counting towards team scoring) is incredibly distortionate. Either her team will always dominate (remember she will win 3-4 events) or every other team will have to field wheelchair athletes (presumably by co-opting non-disabled athletes, as I suggested previously.)

So, what's the rationale for allowing this? Fundamentally, it's being suggested that it's unfair that the disabled not be allowed to compete on the same team as others. Certainly we've come to think of fairness as a basic social norm and so this argument is superficially compelling—if at all possible McFadden should be allowed to compete. But that doesn't actually give you a complete answer because it doesn't explain why she should compete in track. If you look at the wheelchair racer that McFadden is using, it's basically a hand-powered tricycle. The assumption that people seem to have is that this should be viewed as an unusual form of running, but it's actually just as reasonable if not more so to view it as an unusual form of cycling. Of course, if wheelchairs were treated as bicycles, McFadden would be at a significant performance disadvantage. Treating McFadden that way would be no more fair than treating her as just another runner. he problem here is that wheelchair racing is a fundamentally distinct sport from both cycling and running and that unfortunately for McFadden, it doesn't have much of a constituency.

As for team scoring, at some level, the set of events which is included in Track and Field is arbitrary (what does the shot put have to do with the two mile relay?). But it's not clear to me at least that any basic fairness norm implies that a certain sport (especially one which is highly unpopular) should be included in that set.