30 December, 2013

The javelin controversy

The title of this post is again plagiarised. I have always planned to write an article on the “spanish style” which revolutionised javelin throw in the 50s, and, while researching, I found an article with this title, by T. Isaacs, in the 1992 volume of Athletics: I liked it to the point of filching its title. 

Let me state from the outset that I find the “classical” style of javelin throw extremely pleasant aesthetically. Moreover the fact that, with the 1986 rules, the javelin ends its trajectory by planting itself is a definite improvement over the gliding trajectories. Still, when it comes to the longest throw one should look about all the available ways to send the implement as far away as possible, and in fact there was a period when javelin competitions were held both in the “classical” style and in what was called “free style”. 

some free style techniques

In the classical style the javelin must be grasped at the centre of the shaft. In the free style the javelin could be thrown in any way: two fingered at the tail, like fly-casting or shot by a thrust from behind through a left-hand bridge rather like a billiards cue or, even, grasped at the tail and slung discus fashion. The last Olympic competition of free style javelin throw was in 1908, with E. Lemming winning also the title in both styles (with throws of 54 m in both). 

The first revolution in javelin throw came with the work of Dick Held (brother of the world recordman Bud Held) who introduced first the hollow-wood javelins and then the aluminium ones. Being hollow, the javelin had a larger surface area and better aerodynamic properties. It would glide much further than the traditional finnish and swedish javelins but it had the tendency to land flat. (The Held javelin was later banned by the IAAF, but Dick Held was a main consultant in the 1986 redesign of the competition javelin).

However the true revolution of javelin throw came in 1956 when a 49 year old spaniard, Félix Erausquín, invented what came to be called the “spanish style”. Erausquín was a specialist of shot put and discus throw (with several national titles and records) but also of the “barra vasca” which consists in throwing a heavy rod using a rotational technique. Erausquín adapted the style of the barra to javelin throw with a greased hand and managed a throw of 83.40 m at a few centimetres of the world record. 

Félix Erausquín exhibiting his style

Several spanish athletes followed suit and the records mushroomed. At this point much mythology exists and it is practically impossible to know exactly which are the real performances and which are the imagined ones. One finds references of Jose Luis Celaya throwing 91 meters and of Miguel de la Quadra Salcedo at 92.81 m. (There are references of the latter throwing 112 m but this is probably just a myth. I tend to think the same concerning a 100 m throw by the italian discus ex-world recordman and 1948 olympic champion A. Consolini). The one throw that is well documented is that of the, at the time future, olympic champion and world recordman, norwegian, E. Danielsen, who threw the javelin at 93.70 m. 

Egil Danielsen in Melbourne

In his 1957 book “To the top of the spear”, Danielsen speculates that the world's best javelin or discus throwers could reach lengths of at least 120 meters using the spanish technique. Danielsen’s mark was surpassed by the Finn hammer thrower P. Saarikoski who sent the javelin at 99.52 m (98.70 m according to other sources).

Penti Saarikoski using the rotational technique

Could the spaniards have won the 1956 Olympic javelin title? Yes and no. Had they kept the style secret till Melbourne they would certainly have taken the javelin world by surprise.  However at the beginning of October, a month and a half before the Games, Salcedo used the new style during a competition in Paris. This opened the way for experimentation with the new technique to non-spanish athletes but also alerted the instances of the international federation who by the end of the month had modified the rules so as to ban the rotational technique. However, even if they had kept the secret, the athletes from Spain would not have had the occasion to throw at Melbourne since Franco’s government had, at the last moment, decided to boycott the Games.

With the rotational style banned, Erausquín went back to the drawing board and modified his technique, suppressing the rotations. With this adaptation de la Quadra was able to throw 82.80 m. There exists a mention of Erausquín himself throwing 94.50 m in 1957, but this may be another mythical result. The final nail in the coffin of the spanish style was hammered by the further change of the rules which stipulated that the javelin must be held at the grip and thrown over the shoulder or the upper part of the throwing arm. 

I can understand that long throws and in particularly widely dispersed ones may be the cause of accidents. As a matter of fact even now, with the classical technique and modified javelins, there are accidents, even serious ones. However should we limit ourselves to short throws on the basis of security arguments alone? While I could understand this as far as competition is concerned, I can only regret the fact that we have not kept the spanish style alive as the one making possible the longest javelin throw by a human being. Wouldn’t it be just great to have a world record at 125 m for men and women breaking the 100 m barrier?  

17 December, 2013

The Dale Harder system

This is our second instalment of our foray into performance scoring. I would like to start with the work of Dale Harder

because it is the one that got me thinking in the right direction. In his book "Sports comparisons: you can compare apples to oranges"

Harder is laying the foundations for a universal, fair and efficient system which allows, in principle, the comparison of performances not only within a single discipline but between all possible sports. 
His starting points are stated as a collection rules of which I shall present only the first three (moreover, in my own words).

1. Sport is quantitative: a performance can, and must, be measured.
2. The basis of the comparison is the number of athletes achieving a mark: the fewer they are, the harder this mark is to achieve.
3. The comparison should be physics-based: a score must be attributed on the basis of the work performed.

I shall not go into the remaining ones. 
In fact, I would urge all readers of this blog to contact Mr. Harder (start at his website, strengthospeedia, and follow the links from there) and urge him to proceed to a new edition of the "Apples to Oranges" book. It is out of print for some time now and it would be a great loss if it were not made available to the new generation.
Of course, even the rules above must be refined. (It goes without saying that Harder is doing this in his book). For instance the number of athletes achieving a mark must be normalised by the overall number of participants in this sport. Concerning the physics-based scoring, I have argued in a previous post of mine that what matters is the energetic cost of a performance. This is most probably what Harder means by "work performed" but I prefer to use a physiological rather than a purely physical term at this point.

Harder's system is quantitative (as expected). He starts by attributing 1000 points to the perfect performance, which could be realised by a single person (out of the whole world's population) under ideal conditions. Then 900 points correspond to performances realised by the top-ten performers. Subsequently, for every 100 points the population concerned increases by a factor of 10 down to 100 points which correspond to the performance realised by the average human being. Harder is attributing 0 points to the lowest score that can be registered in a competition involving athletes aged 5 to 95. (On this last point, concerning the attribution of 0 points, I have some divergent opinion, but more on this in some future post). The factor of 10 increase of population for every 100 points is a clear indication of an exponential dependence of points on population. Starting from this remark I shall present, in future posts, my approach to scoring. However I must make clear from the outset that mine is a modelling approach, mathematically formulated, lacking all the statistical work needed if one is to present a working scoring system. Harder's monumental work contains a very detailed statistical analysis. Blending my approach to Harder's results would really give a most efficient scoring scheme. Well, no one knows. Perhaps one day ... 

30 November, 2013

On combined events

Combined events are par excellence most fascinating to both participants and spectators.
They are associated to the idea (the myth?) of the complete athlete. 

The, historically, first combined event was the Pentathlon of the ancient Olympics. It comprised long jump, discus and javelin throws, a stadium race as well as wrestling. A previous blog entry deals with classification procedure in the ancient Pentathlon.

By the way here is the proper naming of combined events (no mixing of greek and latin please):


Combined events were introduced as soon as sports started making their come-back. For a short historical account you can read the article by Gaston Meyer 

in the superb Encyclopedie du Sport of Jean Dauven (1961).

Combined events exist in various sports. Some are absurd, like Modern Pentathlon: why on earth introduce a combined event with the same drawback as wrestling in the ancient one (I am talking about fencing) and which moreover is not used for a tie break? Some are naive, like Triathlon: why have a continuous running time forcing technical decisions that have nothing to do with athletic value. 

But the king of all combined events is the Decathlon.
It's creation is totally arbitrary. Gaston Meyer explains that had we wished to test the overall value of a sportsman we should have created a tetrathlon (which he, erroneously, calls quadriathlon : 100m, high jump, shot put, 1000m. It would have been a drab choice indeed! Decathlon has magic. You have to compete in one to feel it (or experience one on the stadium). Since the introduction of women's pole vault I am waiting for the women's decathlon to pick up speed but in vain. 

Decathlon is at the origin of one of the things that have always fascinated me: scoring tables, a subject we are going to encounter frequently in this blog. 

17 November, 2013

On flops and bends

High jump is certainly the athletics discipline that has gone through the most style changes: scissors, eastern cut-off, western roll, straddle, you name it. (An interesting article on the evolution of high jump techniques can be found at pinoyathletics). 
Below is a photo of the greek champion (gold and bronze medal winner at the 1912 Olympics at standing long jump and high jump respectively, silver at both disciplines in the 1908 Olympics), Constantinos Tsiklitiras.

But the one style that came to dominate completely the discipline is what is called today the Fosbury flop. It is named after the 1968 Olympics gold medalist Dick Fosbury. 

(In fact, Fosbury himself was calling his style "back layout" but the "flop" was more catchy and thus it caught on). I do like styles and techniques named after great athletes and naming the flop after Fosbury is unarguably well-deserved. (I always regret the disappearance of the "O'Brien" and "Baryshnikov" terms in shot put in favour of the more technical "glide" and "spin", although in the case of Baryshnikov, one can could argue that "spin" is much easier to pronounce). 

Did Fosbury invent the style that has his name? The answer is an unambiguous  "yes". After all no coach in their right mind would take the risk of such an unorthodox technique: it is always the athletes that come up with crazy ideas. What is clear in the case of Fosbury is that the time was right for such a revolutionary technique. The old sandpits for high jump has disappeared in favour of sawdust pits and they in turn were being phased our by foam rubber ones. If you jump in a sandpit your only choice is to land on your feet, as these photos from a present-day competition in Kenya can attest. 

(You can find a link to the impressive video at  anorak's site  which has a superb collection of photos of high jumpers over the past century). With sawdust pits you can start taking risks. In this video  you can see Fosbury jumping in such a wood-chip pit without hurting himself. However Fosbury was not the first to jump in the back layout style. A grainy photo from a high-school 1963 competition in Montana shows a young guy named Bruce Quande jumping in the flop style. 

However Quande did not pursue high jumping after high school and thus his dabble with a new style was forgotten till the photo resurfaced, almost 50 years later. 

The one athlete who independently invented the Fosbury style was the Canadian Debbie Brill.  

There is a video of her in 1966, at the age of 13!, where one can see her jumping with the technique she had invented and which is known as the Brill bend. She went on to jump an indoor world record of 1.99 m with her technique and won the 1979 World Cup (which was the IAAF attempt at a world championship level competition before bona fide World Championships were introduced in 1983). She could have won a medal at the 1980 Olympics had Canada not declared boycott on the Moscow games.

So, who did invent the Fosbury flop? By 1963, when Quande was jumping in his style, Fosbury had already began experimenting on his own adapting the scissors style. Brill lived in the countryside and had no knowledge whatsoever of what was happening in athletics: she just jumped as was natural to her. So, both Fosbury and Brill should be credited with the invention and the "flop" is also a "bend".

13 November, 2013

Some thoughts concerning performance scoring

I was reading (again) the article of V. Trkal on the development of scoring tables for combined events and I felt the urge to post a short note with my criticism.
J. Thorpe, probably the best decathlete ever

V. Trkal is the coordinator of the working group which proposed the tables currently in use. His work is remarkable in the sense that the principles set for the development of the tables are really well-thought. I cannot resist the temptation to give them here:

1. The tables should only be used for combined events.
2. The results in different disciplines that are evaluated with approximately the same point value should be comparable as far as the quality and difficulty of achieving these results are concerned.
3. The tables in all disciplines should be:
a. a modification of current tables
b. linear in all disciplines
c. very slightly progressive in all disciplines (it was proposal 3c that was finally adopted)
4. The tables must be usable with combined events for beginners and juniors as well as top-class athletes.
5. There will be separate tables for men and women.
6. The tables must be based on decathlon statistics, taking into account the statistics of specialist athletes in the individual disciplines.
7. The tables should be usable now and in the future.
8. The sum of points scored by world-class athletes should remain approximately the same.
9. As far as possible, the tables should eliminate the possibility that an athlete specialising in one discipline is able to acquire sufficient points in that discipline to overcome a low scores in weaker disciplines and beat more versatile, all-round athletes.

V. Trkal's criticism of the previous tables, developed by Jorbeck, is based on the fact that the latter used as criterion the velocity v not only for the running events but also for the jumps and throws. Trkal's idea is that athletic performance is physical work (a correct assumption) and thus the kinetic energy, proportional to the square of the velocity, should be used for scoring (an assumption with which I disagree).

My point of view, presented in an article published in New Studies in Athletics, is that what matters is the energetic cost of the performance. As such the assumption of Trkal of a quadratic dependence on velocity is justified in the case of jumps and throws but not so for running. Indeed the energetic cost of the latter is essentially linear in velocity with a quadratic part multiplied by a very small coefficient, appreciable only at high velocities. Thus in the case of running what should be used for scoring is the velocity rather than its square.

Could this remark of mine make any appreciable difference concerning the combined events scoring tables? I do not know. Developing scoring tables has a large empirical component and thus a judicious use of data may prove more important than a simple scientific clarification.

03 November, 2013

On throwing circles and another crazy proposal

Since I started interesting myself in athletics I was shocked by the size of the hammer throwing circle. Why on earth constrain the athletes to a 2.13 m circle wile the discus throwers have a 2.5 m one? Reading Juilland’s book made me think again about this question. 

Clearly the 2.13 m and 2.5 m choices are a compromise between imperial and metric measures, a leftover from the past as quite a few things in athletics. When those sizes were first standardised they were probably considered more than sufficient given the techniques used at the time. They are ridiculously restrictive now. 

Shot put was the throwing discipline that knew not one but too stylistic revolutions. First came O’Brien 

in the 50s with what is known today as the glide technique. (It was called O’Brien style at the time). He was the first to break the 18 m and the 19 m barrier.

Then we had Aleksandr Baryshnikov

who invented what is called today the spin technique. He did break the world record being the first man over 22 m. (Amazing as it may sound it is very difficult to find photos of Baryshnikov on the web).

But experiments with new techniques are hampered by the tightness of the throwing circles.

So here is my proposal. Forget 2.13 m and 2.5 m circles. Introduce a new, unique size one of 3 m. Let the throwers use their imagination and invent new techniques. And, since we do change the rules in so fundamental a way, scratch all ancient world records ad start afresh. 

While we are at it, why not decide to go all metric? Introduce 8 kg shots and hammers for men. The latter would arrange organisers since it might reduce the length of the throws by a few meters. For the shot put it would be interesting to see people trying to break to 20 m barrier once more. In the case of women, who have only implements of metric weights, things would not change fundamentally. A 3 m circle could perhaps help a great shot thrower, like V. Adams, to go fetch the world record. Women’s discus is alas a disaster: no woman has thrown beyond 70 m in the last decade, the best performance being the 69.38 of Sadova in 2003. (In fact the 50 best performances are from the 80s). The more I think about this the more I become convinced that a tabula rasa is the only way to go. But let us profit in order to make some sensible changes along the way. 

24 October, 2013

On stagnant records and a crazy proposal

Do you remember the 80s? Year in, year out, one could expect a dozen men's world records and even more of them for women. Things became more tame in the 90s (except for some chinese women fireworks) and the the 00s brought everything almost to a standstill. In the last ten years we have had as many new records as in a single year a quarter century before. Here is a list of the various events and the year where the standing record was established.

Event Men Women
100 m 2009 1988
200 m 2009 1988
400 m 1999 1985
800 m 2012 1983
1500 m 1998 1993
5000 m 2004 2008
10000 m 2005 1993
Half Marathon 2010 2003
Marathon 2013 2003
3000 m st 2004 2008
110 m hd 2012 1988
400 m hd 1992 2003
4x100 m 2012 2012
4x400 m 1993 1988
High jump 1993 1987
Pole vault 1994 2009
Long jump 1991 1988
Triple jump 1995 1995
Shot put 1990 1987
Discus throw 1986 1988
Hammer throw 1986 2011
Javelin throw 1996 2008
Decathlon 2012 1988

(I do not mention the walk events: one day I will write an entry on the matter). While the situation is not so bad for men, thanks to such talented athletes as Bolt, Rudisha, Bekele, Merritt and the decathletes it becomes catastrophic for women. If one discards the new and relatively new events the only recent world record is that of the 4x100 m! What is happening here? The answer is simple: anti-doping. At a certain point the international instances decided that they would seriously test for doping in and out of competition. That was the end of the avalanche of women's records. (I know that I am being unfair: the record explosion in the 80s was not only due to doping but also to the new synthetic surfaces and improved equipment, let alone the more scientific methods of preparation, but doping is the thing that changed since). 

So here is a crazy proposal of mine. Let us proceed to a tabula rasa. Discard all records prior to some recent date, say 2010. Let us start afresh.

Rollins and Pearson, to my eyes the best high-hurdlers ever

(I know that what I propose is unthinkable for the IAAF, but who cares, this is a blog not anything official). Here is the list of the records if we did what I suggest.

Event Men Women
100 m U. Bolt 9.63 C. Jeter & S.A. Fraser 10.70
200 m Y. Blake 19.26 A. Felix 21.69
400 m L. Merritt 43.74 A. Krivoshapka 49.16
800 m D. Rudisha 1:40.91 M. Savinova 1:55.87
1500 m A. Kiprop 3:27.72 M. Selsouli 3:56.15
5000 m D. Gebremeskel 12:46.81 V. Cheruiyot 14:20.87
10000 m K. Bekele 26:43.16 M. Defar 30:08.06
Half Marathon Z. Tadese 58.23 P. Jeptoo 1:05:45
Marathon W. Kipsang 2:03:23 L. Shobukhova 2:18:20
3000 m st B. Kipruto 7:53.64 Y. Zaripova 9:05.02
110 m hd A. Merritt 12.80 B. Rollins 12.28
400 m hd B. Jackson 47.32 L. Demus 52.47
4x100 m Jamaica 36.84 USA 40.82
4x400 m Bahamas 2:56.72 USA 3:16.87
High Jump B. Bondarenko 2.41 A. Chicherova 2.07
Pole Vault R. Lavillenie 6.02 J. Suhr 4.91
Long Jump A. Menkov 8.56 B. Reese 7.25
Triple Jump T. Tamgho 18.04 O. Rypakova 15.25
Shot Put C. Cantwell 22.41 V. Adams 21.24
Discus Throw P. Malachowski 71.84 S. Perkovic 69.11
Hammer Throw K. Pars 82.40 B. Heidler 79.42
Javelin Throw A. Thorkildsen 90.61 M. Abakumova 71.99
Decathlon A. Eaton 9039 J. Ennis 6955

There are plenty of new names, some of them unexpected.  The big surprise comes when one compares the "since 2010 records" with the standing world records. Blake instead of Bolt on 200 m, no sign of Dibaba, no mention of Isinbayeva. Just for the fun of it. When I was looking for the best, post-2010, women discus performance I had to triple-check: S. Perkovic is number 286 in the all-time list!

19 October, 2013

On implement weights or how even brilliant men can be mistaken

A. Juilland, in the book that gave the name to this blog, is discussing the choice of weights for the various implements used in throws. He argues that, since the idea behind the choice of the weights for women's implements was dictated by the desire to have roughly the same throw lengths at world record level, the current choice of weights is not optimal. While for shot put and discus throw the choice is more or less right, the matter is more complicated for hammer and javelin. Of course, hammer throw was a very young discipline at the time of Juilland's article and since that time the feminine world record is no more that far behind the masculine one.

However things are quite different for javelin. Juilland argues that women must use a lighter implement, of roughly 500 g. Moreover his estimates are based on the old javelin, still in use for women at that time, and a world record of 80 m. With the current world record of 72 m a lighter javelin, of roughly 450 g, would have been proposed by Juilland, had he been still among us today.

The photo is that of my preferred javelin thrower Mariya Abakumova.

Unfortunately the grand master of athletic provocation is wrong in his estimates. I have written an article on the influence of implement weight on the length of the throw which will appear shortly in New Studies in Athletics. (I do not link to it here. If anybody is interested in having a copy, I will gladly provide it. It suffices to send me an email at the address: basigram at gmail dot com). One does not have to go through the physics of the article in order to understand the basic point: even when we try to throw a very small weight, there is a limit to the velocity we can impart to it, limit due to the speed at which we can move our arm. This is something far from negligible. In fact as shown in my article the length of the throw is inversely proportional to the sum of the mass m of the implement and something that we could qualify as the effective mass of the arm. In my analysis of shot put I found that for male throwers this effective mass term f had a value around 6-7 kg. One expects this value to be somewhat smaller for javelin throw, because of the different gesture, and even smaller for women. So let us assume a value of 4 kg and see where this leads us. 
We start with an expression for the length 

L = a m + f

For the current world record of roughly 72 m and a javelin of 600 g we find a value of a=330 kg m. Thus, even with a featherweight javelin, women would have trouble going over 80 m. So, let us be optimistic and divide f by 2. In this case a=188 kg m and an almost-zero-weight javelin would reach 94 m. However with a more realistic 450 g javelin (the one the calculations of Juilland would suggest) the record distance would be a mere 77 m. Even with f=1 the record would still be below 80 m. We are very far from a parity of men-women records in javelin throw and moreover it does not look as if the gap will ever close (unless one accepts to go back to old-style aerodynamics for women's javelin, something quite improbable).

13 October, 2013

My first foray into decathlon scoring tables

Those who have followed the previous entries of the blog are aware that my interest in athletics goes back to 1954 when I was 8 years old. By 1956 athletics were in the centre of my interests and when the time came for the Melbourne Olympiad I was ready to follow the events in detail. My pocket money was invested into buying the sports newspaper every day and I spent all my free hours dissecting all available information. The 1956 Olympiad reserved a happy surprise to the greek public: Giorgos Roubanis placed third in the pole vault winning an olympic medal in track and field, ending a 40+ year drought.

G. Roubanis competing in Melbourne

Decathlon had already attracted my interest and, for reasons that I cannot explain even now, I found the mechanism of scoring both intriguing and captivating. My joy was immense when in the newspaper I found that they were giving not only the performance by event but also the corresponding score. I set down to work and invented a method which much later I came to realise was a combination of interpolation and extrapolation. Here is an example of the data I had to work with:

Shot Put
Athlete distance points
Campbell 14.76 m 850
Kuznetsov 14.49 m 820
Johnson 14.48 m 819
Kutenko 14.46 m 817
Lassenius 13.45 m 715
Palu 13.39 m 709
Leane 13.26 m 696
Meier 12.99 m 671
Lauer 12.86 m 659
Richards 12.52 m 628
Bruce 12.30 m 609
Cann 12.18 m 598
Yang 11.56 m 544
Farabi 11.31 m 524
Herssens 11.12 m 509

I started by computing the successive differences in throw length ∆L and in points ∆P. Next I computed the values of L which would correspond to 800, 700, 600 and 500 points (interpolation). I found roughly 14.30 m, 13.30 m, 12.20 m and 11.00 m. Computing the differences I found that they increased regularly by 1 m, 1.1 m and 1.20 m. Thus I made the bold assumption that this tendency would continue all the way to 0 (extrapolation), since I was really interested in what was the minimal performance that would score a point. I found that the values of L for 400, 300, 200, 100 and 1 points should be 9.70 m, 8.30 m, 6.80 m, 5.20 m and 3.50 m. 

I repeated the same calculations for the long jump and the discus throw. I found that P=1 corresponded roughly to L=3.5 m for the long jump and L=13 m for the discus throw. My conclusion, upon seen these values, was that I had made some serious mistake. In my mind it was impossible that the decathlon scoring tables would attribute points to such ridiculously low performances. Well, if anything were wrong with my approach this was my conclusion and not the calculations. When I could lay my hands on a copy of the scoring tables (those were the 1962 tables and not the 1950 ones, valid at the Melbourne Olympiad) I discovered that my estimates were essentially right. (Not only this, but as the tables evolve, the minimal performance is being pushed backwards. With the current, 1984, tables the following performances suffice for P=1: shot put 1.53 m, long jump 2.25 m and discus throw 4.10 m). 

In the current distribution of IAAF scoring tables a brief history of decathlon scoring is presented and I could have access to the P=0 performance for the 1950/52 tables. (I prefer to think in terms of the P=1 performance, since P=0, would correspond to anything worse that this minimal scoring performance). To my great satisfaction I found that P=0 corresponded to: shot put 3.51 m, long jump 3.34 m and discus throw 11.25 m. Thus the interpolations/extrapolations of a 10-years-old scoring fan were not off the mark after all.

09 October, 2013

On the ancient pentathlon

Frank Zarnowski, the decathlon specialist, published recently a book on the Pentathlon of antiquity. It is a thorough study of this, typically greek, sport. Zarnowski even argues that the only two really new sports introduced by the Greeks were the pentathlon and the pankration.

The book makes also a point of how it does not suffice to be an eminent professor of archeology in order to talk sensibly about things of the past. One cannot draw conclusions, given the scant material available on the ancient pentathlon, without some knowledge of athletics. If anyone is interested in the details, the book of Zarnowski is really worth reading.

Everybody agrees on the content of the ancient pentathlon; the data are unambiguous on this. The five events are discus throw, long jump, javelin throw, stadium race (192 m in Olympia) and wrestling. What people do not agree on is the order. Still there seems to be a consensus that wrestling is the last event and the stadium race the one before. Zarnowski supports this idea and argues, quite convincingly, that the order of the first three should be: discus, jump and javelin. To my eyes this is the most natural order (and the only acceptable variant would be to permute discus and javelin).

Where things get really interesting is when it comes to determining the winner. Zarnowski gives an exhaustive list of the absurdities that have been proposed over the years and then presents his own theory. While I find the latter quite plausible I would like in this post to present an alternative, and to my eyes simpler, theory. 

At the issue of the three events (to which everybody participates) there exist three possibilities. Either somebody has won all three events, in which case he is the winner of the pentathlon, or one athlete has won two events and some other one event, or, finally, three athletes have won one event each. In the second case the two winners proceed to the stadium race. If the one with two victories wins again he is the champion. Not having to proceed to the wrestling, were the athletes will end up covered with dust, a victory after three or four events is one known as a victory ακονιτί (not covered with dust). If the race results in a situation where the two athletes have two victories each they proceed naturally to the wrestling which gives the final winner.

The difficulty is when after the three events we have three athletes with one victory each. Clearly they must compete in a stadium race but here is where Zarnowski and myself diverge. Zarnowski proposes that the second and third of this race run again and the winner of this classification race meets the initial winner for the wrestling competition.
Whoever wins the wrestling is the pentathlon winner. I find this solution unnecessarily complicated. I do not object to the fact that in the end the two athletes may have two victories each (one in the first three events and a victory in the stadium race and in wrestling respectively) and, despite this, the title of pentathlon champion goes to one of them, namely the winner of wrestling. After all the last event is there in order to designate the pentathlon champion. I just find the second race superfluous. The judges who are able to give the winner of a race, can very well, in a race with just three contestants, identify the one who arrives last. Thus my theory is that the stadium race is  there in this case in order to eliminate one athlete and let the remaining two proceed to the final event. The difference of my theory with the one of Zarnowski is minute but still one race less is something that appeals in my spirit of parsimony.


I sent an email to F. Zarmowski telling him about this idea of mine. He replied immediately and here is his answer

Dear Basil,
  Yes, I find this entirely plausible and just as likely as my suggestion.....in a sense A finishes 1st, B 2nd and C 3rd in the race and it is as if B and C were running an individual event and B would gain his "second victory." I think this is just as likely a solution as mine, maybe even more likely. When I first considered it I dismissed it b/c of the Greeks focus on "winning", but you have made a very good point and I should have given it more thought. Thanks for making me aware of it.
Frank Zarnowski

This confirms what I already knew, namely that F. Zarnowski does really know what he is talking about. However thanks to this correspondence I learned that he is also a very nice person.

06 October, 2013

The man who made me love athletics

It seems fit, before embarking upon the more technical entries that will follow, to take a moment and reminisce days of the past and my first contact with athletics.

I was born in Piraeus, Greece in 1946 and during my very young age I did not show much interest for sports. I was more of a book fan type. Then in 1955 (or was it 54?) something happened. A cousin of mine, who lived in Corfu, was professor of physical education and also coach of the local athletic club. He came to Athens with a junior athlete of his who was to win the 400 and 800 m in the greek junior championships. On that occasion my cousin took me to the stadium (the superb Panathinaikon stadium, that had hosted the first, 1896, Olympic games). In those two days I discovered athletics. It was, as the saying goes, love at first sight.

Athletics became a passion of mine. I started practicing myself and I also became interested in the more "theoretical" aspects of the sport. (A parenthesis is necessary at this point. I knew from the outset that I did not have any particular talent for track and field events and that I could do much better in swimming. However, in the 50s in Greece, swimming-pools, especially indoor ones, were almost non-existent and my swimming career had to wait. Fortunately in the late 70s, I discovered fin-swimming and could, not only satisfy my dream of becoming a swimmer, but also managed to win titles of greek and french champion several times over). 

My love for athletics would probably not exist hadn't there been for my cousin who initiated me to the king of all sports. I wish thus to dedicate this entry to his memory, a modest tribute to this noble person.
Yannis Sofos was born in Corinth in 1917. He was a physical education professor and had been a distinguished athlete: an excellent discus thrower but also a very good sprinter while being interested also in team sports and in particular football. The photo that follows shows him at a young age in the attitude of a javelin thrower as represented in ancient greek pottery.

As a member of the Physical Education Academy he had participated at the "Olympiad for folkloric dances" in Berlin, in 1937, where he won the gold medal. He was a fervent supporter of the Olympic idea, always defending the values of olympism in his talks and texts.

Y. Sofos in the 60s

His son, Dr. Apostolos Sofos, has collected the, alas too few, existing manuscripts of his father on the Olympic ideal, and was kind enough to make them available to me together with the photos. (They are in greek, so I do not link to them here. If anybody is interested, he can manifest himself in the comments). 

Although I did profit from the advice of Y. Sofos at the beginning of my athletic career, I cannot say that I was really coached by him. When he was living in Corfu this would have been naturally impossible and when, in the 60s, he moved with his family to Athens, I had started losing interest in athletics as a competitor. Still, I have always had a great contact with him, a deep appreciation and respect for his personality and I immensely regret his premature passing away in 1974. This entry is a small tribute to this exceptional person who, by the coincidences that shape our lives, became a cousin of mine (marrying the daughter of my elder aunt) and made me not only discover athletics but also the benefit of physical activity and the excitement of competition. My life has been richer thanks to Yannis: I will always remember him.

Why "Rethinking Athletics"?

First of all, let me state clearly that the title is a plagiarism. When preparing an article for "New Studies in Athletics" I run across a reference to A. Juilland's book "Rethinking Track and Field".

I looked for the book and managed not only to find it but also to discover a treasure trove of old sports books in Paris, Mémoire du Sport, where one can find rare, out of print, books on sports and in particular on athletics.

The leitmotiv of the book of Juilland is that we must change the way we are doing athletics if we wish to make the discipline again attractive to spectators. While my ideas are less revolutionary that those of Juilland, I, too, feel that it's high time some things changed. All the more so since the current technology makes these changes possible. Thus, and as a tribute to the genius of Juilland, I decided to plagiarise his title. 

I have been, over the past years, contributing articles to "New Studies in Athletics". However there are many instances where the subject does not justify a full article and where a few paragraphs can cover it in a satisfactory way. The idea of an athletics blog came after I had an enriching experience in blogging on another passion of mine: pinballs. Thus "Rethinking Athletics" was born. Next comes the most difficult part: keep the blog alive and make it attractive.