Center for Sports Law & Policy Co-Director Doriane Coleman speaks with renowned physiologist Mike Joyner
Mike Joyner is a global rock star in the field of human physiology. As the Frank R. and Shari Caywood Professor of Anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic, his laboratory has been funded continuously by the National Institutes of Health since 1993. These days, he's focused on convalescent plasma, blood flow during exercise, blood pressure and blood glucose regulation, breathing in heart failure, the physiology of elite athletes, and cognitive impairment and heart disease.
Mike and I have collaborated on two papers, one published in JAMA and the other in the Duke Journal for Gender Law and Policy, and we continue to be in touch on issues at the intersection of science, sport, and sports policy. Our conversations are always wide-ranging, topical, and just very cool. As you'll see from this Q&A, our latest touches on COVID antibodies; COVID and the Olympics; reducing racial barriers to access to municipal pools; Nike's new super shoes; sex differences in competitive swimming performance; Katie Ledecky's relationship to Secretariat; and his Olympic predictions.
DLC: What have you been working on this past year?
MJJ: Doriane, as you know, a main focus of my lab has been on exercise related topics including elite athletic performance. When the pandemic started, I got involved in something totally new for me, and through an unexpected series of events became the principal investigator of the national effort to use convalescent plasma to treat patients with COVID-19. We ended up enrolling over 100,000 patients in the study and found evidence that convalescent plasma could reduce mortality if it was given before people were in the ICU, and the plasma had lots of antibodies. These findings were reported in August of 2020 and have been replicated in more formal clinical trials over the last year. One interesting thing, is that the NBA got involved in supporting our research and their cancellation of games in mid-March 2020 really got the first lockdown going and probably saved a lot of lives.
Robert Johnson (RoJo) of Letsrun.com recently called concerns about the current rate of COVID in Japan "fear porn" on the basis that the COVID rate there is 50% lower than it is in the States. He concludes that the Olympics should go on as scheduled. What do you think of his analysis?
RoJo’s colorful phraseology is perhaps a bit out there, but the question is always what can be mitigated and how well it can be mitigated. First, young healthy people are at low risk for catastrophic outcomes from COVID. Second, the vaccines work and it should be possible to vaccinate the athletes and officials. Third, with mask wearing and limited attendance it should be possible to do this safely. What the NBA accomplished in 2020 and what the NFL did pre-vaccine was most impressive and things should only be better in Japan due to these sorts of experiences and the high social cohesion in Japan.
What's the connection between your work on COVID and your work in exercise and sports science?
Well, when you think about human performance there are a lot of moving parts and systems thinking is required. That is also true of my clinical role as an anesthesiologist. So, when you run a big program thinking on a systems scale is critical. I also think my experience as an athlete at the U of Arizona many years ago helped. My Hall of Fame coach Dave Murray was excellent at not micro-managing and focusing on the big picture and big goals, and in the middle of a pandemic I thought of his example many times.
You're really interested in advances in running shoe technology and specifically in the new Nike Alphaflys and Vaporflys. From your perspective, what are the design issues regulators should focus on in determining whether new performance shoes (a) merely assist/support or (b) actually enhance – like doping – performance?
We recently published a “real world evidence” paper on the new shoes. They give people at the elite level an advantage of about 1% or a bit more. The shoes don’t “enhance” things; they just reduce the energy lost in the midsole of the shoe as it deforms with foot strike and recoils with push off. That’s a “Reader’s Digest” explanation – apologies to any engineers or biomechanics types.
The shoes are also interesting because if you look at cycling, swimming, and speed skating, much – maybe all – of the improvements in performance over the last 20-30 years have been about equipment. Same with golf clubs. I am not sure about speed skating, but in cycling things have been regulated in terms of wheel size and perhaps the best example is the banning of tech suits in swimming. There have also been efforts to tune tracks so that their recoil properties are optimized. This started many years ago at Harvard, and at some level the shoe technology is essentially taking what has been done at the track level and putting it in the shoe.
So the question for sports policymakers is what they want to regulate in terms of things that relate mostly to the recoil properties of the midsoles of shoes. Then there is the question of access and a level playing field if one company is ahead of the others. This was highlighted in 1972 with the Bob Seagren pole vault controversy, and in 1968 with John Carlos and the Puma brush spike. So none of this is new.
You recently shared that you've put together a coalition of folks to get your local pools opened this summer and to start working on reducing barriers for participation for all. Tell me about this initiative.
There are two outdoor pools in Rochester, Minnesota, where I live. Both were closed last summer, and the plan was to only open one this summer. A group of people including the local competitive swim club got together and worked with the city to get both pools open and have free admission this summer. The response has been terrific and there is a free learn to swim program as well. To me, swimming is an essential skill up there with literacy. As I learned more about this, it has also become clear that there are barriers to participation in sports and recreation everywhere. There is way too much “pay to play” and not enough open gym and rec programs for all. I was lucky to grow up in the 60s and 70s when communities were investing a lot in kids and teenagers and barriers were minimal and I think we need to go back to a 2.0 version of this.
What are the remaining COVID-related obstacles to getting this off the ground and to meeting your participation goals?
The goals have been met; I just think the key thing is getting people re-socialized about behaving in groups after more than a year of lockdown.
You emphasized "participation for all" and "reducing barriers to participation" in your original message to me about the project. What are these barriers and do they include the legacy of historic discrimination against Black people in swimming pool access?
There has typically been a lack of access to pools for people of color. Some of this was, frankly, of the Jim Crow type with “legal” barriers, and some of it has been about where pools are located and so forth. People of color have drowning rates that are much higher than whites and this is simply not acceptable. It's another reason we need swimming embedded in basic physical literacy and physical education. Everyone needs to learn to swim. It’s been great to see Simone Manuel take this on since she won Gold in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
You've done some interesting work with your colleagues at the Mayo Clinic on sex differences in competitive swimming performances. Is there an easy way to summarize why swimming is a particularly interesting sport to study for this purpose and your research findings?
It's straightforward. The times for girls and boys are identical or maybe even a bit faster for girls until puberty and then the boys start going faster. This is correlated with when testosterone starts to climb in boys starting at age 11 or 12. Swimming is an interesting natural experiment on sex differences because training is intense from a young age, there is extensive record keeping, the environment is controlled, and the barriers to participation for girls have been minimal for a lot longer than most sports. The other point is that the kids in swimming typically come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and have access to good medical care and otherwise enriched environments, so there are fewer things that might confound the interpretation of the sex differences data, which can be found here.
You once sent me a fabulous email saying, simply, "Katie Ledecky is maybe the greatest endurance athlete of all time in any sport except for Secretariat." Explain.
Ledecky has these huge margins of victory, in part because she's really, really good under water, sort of like [Edwin] Moses taking 13 steps [between hurdles]. She gets 1/2 meters or more on most turns and that explains a ton of her relative success, especially at the 800 and 1500. But what strikes me when I watch her is the tempo, drive, and total but relaxed effort, just like Secretariat. It is just remarkable. Watch the video of the 1973 Belmont Stakes with the great call by the announcer Chic Anderson.
Do you have a prediction for Ledecky for the Olympics, scheduled to be in Tokyo on August 24?
She's just qualified for Team USA in the 200, 400, 800, and 1500 freestyle events. Barring illness or injury, she will be the prohibitive favorite in the 800 and 1500, but there are some people out there including a young woman named Ariarne Titmus from Australia who could challenge her in the 400. If Ledecky sweeps, it will seal her status as perhaps the greatest endurance athlete of all time.