08 July, 2018

The three musketeers of the 400 m hurdles

The 2018, Paris, Diamond League was the first occasion where the three best low-hurdlers got to compete against each other. The verdict was without appeal. Not only A. Samba did dominate the race but, with 46.98 s, he became the second athlete ever to run under 47 seconds at a mere 0.2 s of K. Young's world record of 46.78 s. Commonwealth Games winner K. McMaster had to contend himself with second place and a 47.53 s national record. World Champion K. Warholm, running in his usual "suicidal" (too fast first 200 m) tactique was third after having clipped the 8th hurdle, but he still registered his second-best time with 48.06 s. 

The three winners of the Paris Diamond League

And then we have the fourth one, that extraterrestrial Antiguan, R. Benjamin, who won the NCAA championships with an astonishing, to say the least, 47.02 in June. What allows every optimism concerning the possibility of a new world record is the fact that all these athletes are very, very young. Samba is the oldest of the lot, born in 1995, Warholm comes next with 1996, while the two Caribbean athletes (McMaster comes from the British Virgin Islands) are born in 1997. Benjamin and Warholm run with 13 strides between hurdles throughout the race (could this explains why Warholm, running out of steam in Paris, stumbled over the 8th hurdle?). McMaster and Samba start the race with 13 strides and then move to 14, both being able to hurdle with either leg. Having watched the two run in adjacent lanes it is clear that Samba is the best technician. Given his superb performance in Paris, he is the one with the biggest chance for a world record.

Samba stumbling at the 9th hurdle in London World's

At this point a mea culpa is in order. Those who follow my blog would have noticed that at each championship I make a special mention about the athletes who did impress me and I am going to follow in the future. That's what happened with Warholm. I first noticed him in the 2016 European's and have been following him thereafter. During the 2017 World's (where world leader McMaster was disqualified in the series) I was impressed by an unknown Mauritania-born Qatari athlete. Samba won his semi-final in 48.75 s and, in the final, he was in second position when he clipped the 9th hurdle losing his balance and all hope for a medal. His semi-final time would have placed him fourth but it is clear that he would have done better in the final. Curiously, when writing my report on the Championships, I focused solely on Warholm and forgot about Samba. Well, what is done is done, but from now on I will closely follow Samba with the highest of expectations. 

01 July, 2018

The Semenya scandal

I have been planning to write this post on Semenya for quite some time. While preparing for it I decided to learn more about sex verification in athletics and I wrote a whole post on this subject. I have been also following the question of hyperandrogenism, regularly reporting on the evolving situation. I was confident that after the recent IAAF regulation on "differences in sexual development" the matter would be settled. But then C. Semenya introduced an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (which in 2015 had overruled the previous IAAF regulation). And I decided that enough was enough. I could not continue postponing the article on Semenya. 

Semenya winning in Rio

Let us start at the beginning. Semenya made her first appearance in the international arena in 2009. Improving her personal best over 800 m from 2:04.23 to 1:55.43 she went from an almost unknown runner (to be fair, she had won the World Junior Championships in 2008) to world champion in just three races. That's when the controversy started, the women who competed against Semenya claiming that she was a man. (In fact the controversy started even before the final and for a moment there was a possibility of Semenya being disqualified on the grounds of she not being "entirely female"). She went on to win the 2011 World's and she finished second in the 2012, London, Olympics. behind Savinova. Colin Jackson, commenting for the british television was of the opinion that Semenya "threw the race". Having watched the final several times I am of the same opinion exactly. Semenya had decided, in view of what was brewing in the IAAF concerning hyperandrogenic athletes, to be low-key. (A sample re-test resulted in Savinova's disqualification for doping offence and Semenya found herself gold medalist). There followed the dark (for Semenya) years. She missed the 2013 World's and at the 2015 ones she finished last in her semi-final. 

What was the reason for the debacle? The IAAF hyperandrogenic regulation came into effect obliging Semenya (and others) to follow a hormone treatment so as to keep their blood testosterone level below 10 nmol/L (We don't know the exact value of Semenya's testosterone concentration, since it was never made public, but we know that she is part of a group of 5 athletes with concentrations ranging between 15 and 30 nmol/L, i.e. 5 to 10 times higher than that of a normal woman). As a result of the hormone treatment, Semenya's performances registered a spectacular drop. She could manage a 2:02.66 in 2014 and a 1:59.59 in 2015. From top-of-the-world she became an "also ran".

But in July of 2015 the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided that there was a lack of evidence that testosterone increased female athletic performance and notified the IAAF that it had two years to provide the evidence. In the meantime the hyperandrogenous athletes did not have to follow a hormone treatment anymore and thus Semenya could leave her testosterone unchecked. She went on to win the 800 m in the 2016, Rio, Olympics  and she did even better in the 2017, London, World's where she won the 800m and placed third in the 1500 m. 

At the head of IAAF Sir Sebastian Coe stated that "No hyperandrogenic athlete has cheated". I vehemently disagree with him. Semenya does cheat. (And the same applies to the remaining hyperandrogenic athletes). Had Semenya continued taking hormones in order to keep a low level of testosterone I would have admitted the "no cheating" argument. But once she knew that she had an unfair advantage and profited from the legal imbroglio in order to keep this advantage, she is cheating. And things are getting worse now that Semenya is trying to annul the IAAF regulation concerning disorders of sex development. It is clear that she wishes to keep her unfair advantage over women runners. Ross Tucker (a sports physiologist whose writings are a permanent inspiration for me) has estimated this advantage to be of the order of 5 to 7 seconds. Losing it would mean that she'll become an over 2 min runner, i.e. essentially a nobody on the international scene.
So Semenya has nothing to lose or rather she has everything to lose, hence her desperate move.

Masculine body language (but video is better)

I have always been astounded by the masculinity of Semenya. The fact that she has a man's muscles is not the most important one. It's her voice and her body language who are 100 % masculine. Hell, she is even married to a woman. Taken separately from everything else this last point wouldn't mean anything, but when you see Semenya, when you hear her, when you see her dressed like a man, when you know that she has internal testes producing testosterone at rates encountered in men, then you start doubting as to the real sex of Semenya. She maintains that she is a woman but as E. Vilain, a geneticist, said in an interview, "if we push this argument, anyone declaring a female gender can compete as a woman" the predictable result of this being that there will be no women winners in competition.

Semenya and her wife

Contrary to what Semenya is claiming I am not sure that she is quite clear as to her gender. But gender refers to how an individual perceives him or herself and is essentially a social construct. Sex, on the other hand, is biological and it is on the basis of this that athletes can be allowed to compete as women. In the case of Semenya her gender is not what matters. The question is that since Semenya is not "entirely female" her participation in women's races makes them unfair for the other participants. And Semenya's initiating a legal battle that would allow her to overturn a rule that is meant to level the field is something I perceive as dishonest.

So what would have been a honest attitude from Semenya? Well, what is done is done. She gets to keep her victories and gold medals. She could profit from some meeting or event the African Championships this year in order to break the world record over 800 m. There is no point in staying in low-key any more: she can break Kratoshvilova's record any time. Then in October she could announce her retirement from competition (an example that could be followed by Wambui and Niyonsaba). Had she decided to do this I would have been the first to applaud her. But she didn't. So I can only hope that the CAS confirms the IAAF regulation which will push Semenya and the remaining hyperandrogenous "women" out of competition. For good.

PS After I had finished writing this post and while waiting for a few days before publishing it I  became aware of a pernicious argument people are using in defence of Semenya: attacking her means that you are racist. This is a "below the belt" blow. My position is perfectly clear: I would have written the same article whatever the skin colour of Semenya. Her being black does not change a thing. It's her hormones I am caring about and not her complexion. 

16 June, 2018

The return of the blade runners

It's been almost four years since I last wrote about blade runners.  I was hoping that, after the Pistorius debacle, things would calm down and the errors of the past (letting athletes with prosthetics compete with able-bodied ones) would not be repeated.

I was wrong! 

While perusing the results of the Odlozil Memorial competition in Prague I came across a  great performance at the 400 m. With 44.42 s Blake Leeper was the 11th performer of the year, beating P. Maslak, world indoor champion, by more than a second. The name rang a bell. I looked him up and there he was: next to Pistorius on the podium of the 2012 Paralympics. 

Blake Leeper

Together with brazilian runner A. Oliveira, Leeper was at the origin of a controversy having switched to longer running blades just a few months before the 2012 Paralympics. As Ross Tucker points out in his article "the combination of stride length and stride rate led to a clearly unusual performance with the longer blades".

After serving a one-year ban for a doping offence (cocaine) Leeper is back now, stronger than ever. 

The Prague race was the best proof (as if there was a need thereof) that blade runners should not be allowed to participate along with able bodied athletes. I have made a series of screenshots from the video of the race and they are telling. Leeper, running in lane 6 (with Maslak in 5) starts really slow. 

He is probably last after 100 m but he starts catching up at around 200 m. Watching the video I estimate that he ran the first 200 m in around 22.5 s. 

Then the real race begins for him. At 300 m he is at the head of the race 

and with a devastating sprint, while all other runners are struggling, he wins by an enormous margin, beating a world champion in the process.

How come blade runners can sustain this enormous terminal velocity? The secret is to be found in the combination of the blade efficiency (returning 90 % of the energy compared to 60 % of the ankle joint) and its light weight. So, after the first 20 seconds where they are spending as much energy as able bodied athletes, blade runners spend around 25 % less energy. It's no wonder that they excel in the 400 m (and I am convinced that they could do equally well over 800 m).

I have already written about my respect for the athletes who train and compete despite their physical handicap. To attain the highest level requires not only great efforts but also lots of courage and confidence. I only object to "mixed" races because, given the  advantage conferred by the prosthetics, such races are unfair for the able-bodied runners.