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.