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Home > Focus > A discussion with Marta Milani about sport

A discussion with Marta Milani about sport

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 20 July 2011

South African athlete Oscar Pistorius was Initially barred from competing in the last Olympic games in Beijing, won his appeal allowing him to compete but was then unable to meet the qualifying times, but has had 4 years to prepare for qualification for the London games and in April of this year acheived the B qualifying time at a meeting in Pretoria [2]. His time was just 0.06 seconds away from the A time and automatic qualification for both the World Championships and the London Olympics, a time and feat he achieved this week [3].

His participation in athletics has caused a lot of discussion over recent years, the debate revolving around the possibility that having 'carbon feet' as he calls them might give the athlete an advantage over competitors with human feet and legs. During his appeal against his ban however The Court Of Arbitration For Sport appointed scientists who tested his equipment, its energy returning and saving capacity and other factors such as height and spring advantages etc and decided that he was competing on a level playing field and he could now compete at both the Paralympics and the Olympic games.

Marta Milani [4] is also aiming to qualify for the 2012 Olympic games in London and is very close to achieving her goal, she has also run the B time on several occasions this year. Her specialty is also 400 mtrs and she has competed at meetings alongside Pistorius. I met her on 5th July with the aim of gaining an insight into how athletes use technology, how its use affects their performances and how she and others feel about the ethical and personal issues involved.

I proposed 5 topics for conversation: an athlete's relationship with her body, the nature of sport itself, an acceptable use of technology, Pistorius's inclusion or exclusion, what should be taken into account when decisions of this type are taken and in the light of technological advances how can modern athletes and their achievements be compared to those in the past?

The following is a brief resume of the conversation (here the video).

During our discussion of the body Milani speaks about interpreting signals that the body sends during training and the race, a language that is not easy to understand at the beginning but a comprehension that grows with maturity. A language that in some way communicates the body's needs. I should note that during interviews Pistorius uses the same language to describe his body, but that he includes his prosthetic legs in the description. He talks about the way his feet touch the track, the angle that he needs to maintain during the race, the difficulties that his body has to overcome and the sensations and messages sent, in a similar descriptive form to that used here by Marta.

Sport for Marta is a reflection of life itself, you must battle for what you want, never surrender and work hard, and sometimes when objectives are not met you have to understand why and what can be improved, just as in life itself. She goes on to describe the physical and emotional experience of racing and also the lifestyle that this choice of career brings with it, something she describes as a different regime of life. She goes on to talk about changes in lifestyle and philosophy undertaken as she became a professional athlete, the responsibility to others in the team and the responsibility of representing her squad (Army) and the country.

While speaking about the use of technology Marta starts with the observation that for a runner the shoes are the only really important article used. She explains that different distances require different shoes, procured through sponsorship deals but really standard for any athlete. 'The shoe does not really make a difference, it is the motor that matters' she states. One personal observation to make here is that athletics does not seem to have such a technical approach in comparison to big money sports. Footballers have their high technology boots made to measure and adapted to help them kick better, but even at international level runners buy their shoes 'off the shelf' as it were.

This raises the question however of the introduction of specialist running shoes in the 1850's and later spikes for grip. Although now the norm in athletics, they do improve the athlete's performance by giving them more stability and push on the track. Marta explains that people no longer run barefoot because they would be disadvantaged, and this must be an example of the now accepted and everyday use of technological innovation used to improve times.

Another topic touched upon is that of the use of enhancing drugs. Use here though is illicit, and criticized by athletes such as Marta, but there has also been debate on this matter. Where is the line that an athlete should not cross? What is the difference between advancement through technological means, through food supplements and through banned substances? See this article [5] discussing the ethical difference (if any) between using performance enhancing drugs and technology and this history of the running shoe [6].

Talking about doping she raises the issue of the satisfaction of winning fairly, and the need to communicate with young people about drug use in sport. This argument comes up later in the conversation presenting an interesting twist to ideas of regulation and governance. Some world records set in the period before drug testing have proven impossible to beat. What could be done about this problem, should these records be invalidated? Here Marta states that in her opinion they should, but how can the International Association of Athletics Federations do this without proof that a particular athlete took substances that would now be banned. We could even say that today athletes do not compete on equal terms to those from 30 years ago, but in any case testing technology and choice to apply it has brought consequences in terms of record breaking.

Speaking about Pistorius Marta says that she is pleased for him that he has managed to arrive at the Olympic qualifying time. She at no point mentions advantage but rather that he has disadvantages in training and that his achievement is a result of great personal quality. She trusts the authorities that have conducted the tests and accepts their findings saying that advantages are not evident. He is someone that should be admired for his achievements.

Responding to a question about what the other athletes think when competing against him she thinks that people question if his participation is fair. You cannot claim that that there are not differences and this creates confusion, maybe he has advantages at the end of the race, and they want to know if he is competing on the same terms as they are. Scientific tests show that he doesn't have any great advantage and she feels that in terms of society and from humanistic point of view his inclusion is a very positive thing.

One thing that stands out when speaking about the Pistorius case is her conviction that the findings of the Court of Arbitration For Sport and subsequent ruling are correct and just, and that they are the people that should decide on this matter. The responsibility lies wholly with them, and they decide on the basis of scientific studies and not humanism.

When referring back to athletes in the past Marta states that time comparisons are very difficult to make. Over the years athletics has undergone an evolution. Changes in technology and lifestyle have helped, and one major change has been the advent of professional athletes. A professional athlete can live for their sport, they do not have to work and then go to training as was the situation in the past. There have been many studies conducted into improving training regimes while advancement in track quality and blocks have also brought improvements. She believes that these improvements will continue, using the phrase 'improvement of the species' to describe the constant bettering of performance until one day natural non enhanced athletes will break the records set before the introduction of drug testing.

Marta also addresses the problem that money and image bring to sport, suggesting that in certain circles (cycling for example) winning brings both glory, money and sponsorship. This factor leads to the involvement of third parties that are only interested in winning for financial rewards, that this leads to the creation of a sort of club of people whose roll is to protect and promote the athlete. Power relations come to the fore here, with the club aiming to protect the athlete from drug tests at the wrong time, to manipulate the system so that they are tested when they are clean and to procure sponsorship and generate money.

The conversation raised several interesting points and issues in terms of responsibility and governance that I feel are worthy of debate. How can we define the human body, its limit and its borders? What difference exist between technical but not illicit improvement (I am also thinking about the full body suit in swimming here, something that was permitted and then revoked also causes ethical problems and the same happens with medical substances) and illicit? How can we define and adjudicate the role of money and sponsorship in sport? Where does responsibility actually lie when athletes test positively for banned substances, either taken accidentally or willingly? How can decisions such as that regarding Pistorius be taken? What are the parameters?

For a light hearted look at the problem of prosthetics in sport see this video [7], Anglo Saxon humour at its best.

The meeting was conducted in Italian and a video recording is available here and in Vimeo [8].

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/other_sports/disability_sport/9434999.stm
  3. 3] http://www.rnw.nl/africa/bulletin/amputee-sprinter-pistorius-a-step-closer-olympics
  4. 4] http://www.martamilani.com/
  5. 5] http://sportsanddrugs.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=001235
  6. 6] http://www.runtheplanet.com/resources/historical/athleticshoes.asp
  7. 7] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BjOiPkueto
  8. 8] http://vimeo.com/26683451
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Marta Milani


Articles by:  Jonathan Hankins
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