Oscar Pistorious, Olympic cheating, mobile phone processors and the PC upgrade problem

When I first read that an athlete was using “blades” I thought they meant servers.  Blade servers are rack mountable computers.   For anyone involved in computing infrastructure part it is part of the everyday lingo.   You try to find the best combination of CPU power, SSD storage if you can and other nerdy things that will end up making a difference when you crunch or serve data.   So maybe this guy was analyzing his technique with the help of multiple servers like I have seen them do in swimming or other competitive sports at the highest levels.

Turns out he is using prosthetic limbs.   Which possibly give him an unfair advantage.   His lower leg is more than 2kg lighter than his competitors.  Others focus on aspects where he is slower due to these blades.   My question is really quite simple:

What if the company making Oscar Pistorious’ blades give him a new model which shaves a second of his time?

Suddenly he would be scoring olympic gold and possibly breaking records.   The same body, with just a small tweak in the prosthetics, would be able to produce much different results.   What if he and others decided to start at the high jump?   Suddenly we would all be discussing the technology in their blades rather than the athletes.   What if he started to run 1500m instead of 400 and he always started really slow but then steamed ahead in the second part of the race as his competitors (without blades) got tired in the lower part of their legs but his blades continued as always?

Progress in sports results follows a pretty linear path.   (With the exception of certain sports in Mexico due to the altitude.)  As the human body reaches its limits this tails off.   In technology we have Moore’s law but in fact, the perceived benefit to the user of a PC is tailing off.   For more than a decade Intel has been worrying about this, Microsoft has been trying to think of CPU intensive tasks we would really find useful enough to justify constant upgrades.   Mobile phones is where the action is, where you see adverts for “dual core” or “quad core” processors and actually care.   These pocket wonders playback HD video with ease, do voice recognition (with not so much ease) and multitask pretty effectively.   Some of us rely on them to actually get work done, so speed is crucial.   We are willing to pay for it.   When netbooks appeared, people groaned about the puny Atom processors.   Zoom forward, repackage the same thing as a tablet and nobody cares!  It is the job of the user interface to hide the technology.

It is clearly not a good long term strategy for the Olympics to allow athletes like Pistorious in the Olympic Games.   Unlike mobile devices which cross over boundaries, competitive sport is a show, a spectacle, an idea.   If my next mobile phone opens up documents twice as fast I will be happy.  If it responds as fast as a real secretary to my voice commands I will be ecstatic.   But if Pistorious’ next blades get him halving some Olympic record the whole planet will be annoyed.


Note:  Just a few weeks after I wrote this post, Oscar Pistorius affirmed my conclusions in the worse possible way.   After losing the 200m race in the Paralympics he complained that his opponent “cheated” by using different blades than he did!  If you see the race, the way the Brazilian caught up with him was indeed rather ridiculous;  which simply highlights the problem I was writing about.


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