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.