14 January, 2018

Women athletics in ancient Greece

The common lore is that women were prohibited from attending the Olympics. And, of course, everybody has heard of Kallipateira who, disguised as a man, a trainer, did attend in order to follow her son's successful contest in boxing. When she rushed to congratulate her son her garment got tangled and she was found out. She defended herself saying that she of all women should be allowed to attend the games having had a father, three brothers, a son and a nephew who had among themselves won eight times. Her life was spared but in the aftermath the trainers had to attend the games in the nude. Speaking of women not attending the Games, the only exception was that of the priestess of Demeter, who traditionally attended the Games at a place of honour. Some authors claim that hetairai (prostitutes) were allowed to attend the Games but I think that they were only allowed to the city of Ellis and not to the stadium itself.

Kallipateia congratulating her son Peisírrhodos

Does the fact that women were excluded from the Games mean that they were not allowed to participate in sport events in Ancient Greece? What is true is that the structure of the ancient greek society did not allow much freedom to women. They were not recognised as citizens and it was considered that their place was the household. With the exception of Sparta, women were not really encouraged to participate in athletics. Still Plato (an excellent wrestler himself) was a fervent defender of sports for women. He writes "I will unhesitatingly affirm that neither riding nor gymnastics, which are proper for men, are improper for women". And in his Laws he stipulates that, "In the case of females, we shall ordain races of a furlong, a quarter-mile, a half-mile, and a three-quarters for girls under the age of puberty, who shall be stripped, and shall race on the course itself; and girls over thirteen shall continue to take part until married, up to the age of twenty at most, or at least eighteen; but these, when they come forward and compete in these races, must be clad in decent apparel”.

Still, women did have their own competitions. Most famous among the latter were the Heraean Games, a kind of Olympic Games for women. They were established  by the queen Hippodameia in the 6th century BC, a mere two centuries after the Olympics for men. Just like the Olympics for men that Heraean Games consisted of foot races (at least at the beginning). The women competed in the Olympic Stadium divided in three age groups, the youngest starting first. The distance was shorter than that for the men, around 160 metres. While men competed nude, the participants to the Heraean Games wore a light chiton that reached to a little above the knee, with the right shoulder bare as far as the breast. Was this (and the fact that they competed with their hair hanging down) a kind of gender verification? Like men, the winners of the women's races were crowned with an olive wreath and could inscribe their names on the stele of Hera's temple. Unfortunately these names are not saved and the only recorded victor is the mythical Chloris who was supposed to be Zeus' granddaughter.

An athlete (supposedly Atalanta) wearing the chiton

This article on ancient sportswomen cannot be complete without mentioning two famous women. The first is the mythical princess Atalanta. She had taken an oath of virginity to Artemis and thus, when pressed by her father to marry, she agreed to accept only a suitor who could outrun her in a footrace. The ones who lost payed with their life. Many young men died until Hippomenes asked the help of Aphrodite. She gave him three golden apples. (Aphrodite has a thing for golden apples. Remember the judgement of Paris which was at the origin of the Trojan war and, indirectly, to the creation of Rome. Well, this is an other story). So, whenever Atalanta got ahead of Hippomenes the latter would throw a golden apple at her feet and Atalanta would slow down in order to retrieve it. Long story short: Hippomenes won and did marry Atalanta. However they did not live happily ever after since they managed somehow to offend the gods who turned them into lions.

One of the many representations of the Atalanta and Hippomenes race

The other famous ancient sportswoman was Kynisca of Sparta. Women in Sparta enjoyed a special status and while they were not considered full citizens they could own property and, as young girls, they were encouraged to participate at the same physical activities as boys. Upon her father's, king Archidamus, death Kynisca inherited his wealth which included racing horses. She entered her horses at the tethrippon race in the 396 BC Olympics and won. The statutes of the Olympics stipulated that the winner of the race was the owner of the horses and not the racer (who, most of the time, was a lowly slave). 

A greek post-stamp of a charriot race

So Kynisca became the first woman to win an Olympic event. (In fact she did this twice since she won again four years later). While she was not crowned with the olive wreath in the olympic stadium like the male winners (was the ceremony carried out in Hera's temple, nobody knows), she could place her statue at the sanctuary of Zeus with an inscription claiming that among all greek women she was the only one to have won the olympic crown.
The Kynisca inscription

In case you are wondering why all of a sudden I interested myself in women sports in ancient Greece, the explanation is simple. While planning for my next Semenya article I decided to learn more about sex verification in athletics, and, as a warm-up, to give a brief account on how sex verification has evolved over the years. Then I asked myself what was happening in ancient Greece, since I knew about the Heraean Games, and this post was born.

01 January, 2018

Age factors

One important question that all master athletes ask themselves is how fast will their performances decline with age. Because decline they do. Once a athlete is past his prime (which is situated around an age of 25-30) performances start waning. The rate varies enormously from one individual to another but the tendency is there. A look at the men's long jump world records is telling. From a 8.95 m world record, held by a 28 years old, we arrive at 1.78 m for a 100 year old athlete. (Women's records follow the same tendency, declining, in the case of long jump, from a 7.52 m by a 26 year old athlete to 1.28 m for a 92 year old one).

What is most interesting is that the rate of decline is constant. When one considers the whole population of master athletes it looks as if every year between 40 and 80 is bringing an 8 cm loss in performance. (By the way, this appears to be equally true for men and women). The straight line of the graphic is indeed passing through the world record points for the 40-80 age bracket and is very close to the curve of best fit already for ages of around 30 and all the way up to 90. Of course, when it comes to individuals the corresponding evolution curve may have different rates but we expect it, barring accidents along the way or premature death, to have a universal behaviour starting from zero at birth and reaching zero again at some hypothetical maximal life span that should be around 120 years.

Given that the decline in performance as a function of age is perfectly regular, one can try to adjust the performance, correcting for age. This is exactly what the World Masters Athletics association is doing with the famous age factors. How does the empirical age factor compare with one that would be based on the straight-line decline model? In the figure below I give such a comparison. The basic formula is
$$F={b\over a-A}$$
where F is the age factor, A the age in years and a,b two parameters to be determined by the best fit. In the case of men's long jump the result of the fit of the empirical data by the formula above is excellent and leads to the values b=95 and a=126. 

Similar results hold for all athletics disciplines. A more detailed analysis can be found in my publication "Scoring athletic performances for age groups", New Studies in Athletics 24 (2009) page 63.

Age factors can be proposed also for young athletes, below 20 years of age but I am not going to address this question here. However an almost linear progression appears to be true also for junior athletes. In the case of men's long jump the world record goes from slightly over 3 m at age 5 to over 8.5 m at age 19. This is a slightly less than 40 cm progression per year. Thus young athletes appear to speed up roughly five times faster than old athletes slow down.

24 December, 2017

Stop Gatlin

I have, on several occasions, expressed my feelings on Gatlin. He's a double doping offender and he should have been banned for life back in 2006. The fact that he is still running is a slap in the face of all honourable athletes. The most recent development in the Gatlin doping saga is the affair of his coach Dennis Mitchell (a well-known doping offender himself). 

How did it all start? The Daily Telegraph sent a reporter who posed as a movie producer to Gatlin’s Florida training camp. There he met Mitchell as well as the agent, R. Wagner (who, unless I am mistaken, is the husband of doping offender Kelli White). The reporter explained that he was making a film about running and that his protagonist necessitated some performance-enhancing drugs in order to improve his speed. According to the reporter, Mitchell and Wagner “offered to supply and administer to the actor testosterone and human-growth hormone” for a total fee of 250000 $. Moreover Wagner insinuated that all athletes are taking forbidden substances.

It goes without saying that when the news broke out both Mitchell and Wagner tried to minimise their role in this embroilment, saying that they were playing along with the supposed producer to “get the job". I cannot understand what is meant by "get the job". They were going to supply and administer forbidden substances. How can it get worse? According to the US law, it is illegal to possess and distribute anabolic steroids without a prescription and a felony to posses or deal human growth hormone.

Mitchell went on declaring that he "never suggested in any way that any of his current athletes used any banned substances, or that he was familiar with training any of his current athletes with those substances". 

Gatlin's agent, ex-world record holder R. Nehemiah, stated that his client was not present when forbidden substances were discussed by Mitchell and company. Gatlin himself declared "I am not using and have not used performance-enhancing drugs. I was shocked and surprised to learn that my coach would have anything to do with even the appearance of these current accusations. I fired him as soon as I found out about this. All legal options are on the table as I will not allow others to lie about me like this". Well, it's Gatlin who is lying to our face here, when he says he has "not used performance-enhancing drugs". He has! At least twice. He should have been banned for life years ago but managed to get away with a tap on the hand and he is since then haunting the sprint landscape.

According to the Telegraph, Mitchell claimed that athletes are able to get away with doping because the drugs they use cannot be detected by tests. He went on to explain that there are all kind of designer synthetic drugs which the tests cannot find.

I say, enough is enough. It is time for Gatlin to pack-up and leave. Do we have to keep reminding him, like the spectators did during the Rio, 2016, Olympics, that he is undesirable? Dopers may deserve a second chance but Gatlin has burned up his, more than ten years back.