21 December, 2014

Is the IOC trying to amputate athletics?

I have chanced upon a recent entry in a greek site on athletics with a report from a meeting in Monaco where the future of Olympic Games was discussed. (Just in case you are speaking greek here is the link to this excellent site: stivoz). According to that article Dick Pound had suggested that synchronised swimming and triple jump be eliminated from the olympic program. (If the name does not ring a bell, Mr. Pound is a former IOC vice president and ex-president of WADA. He was a swimmer, finalist at the Rome, 1960, Olympics and gold medalist at the 1962 Commonwealth Games. According to Wikipedia he has found himself at the centre of several controversies).

Sebastian Coe, IAAF vice-president, has reacted immediately saying that Mr. Pound should limit himself to suggestions concerning his discipline and let the athletics people take care of their sport, adding that triple jump is a most popular field event. He also commented on the recurring suggestion that racewalking be excluded from the Games saying that this discipline is part of the history of Athletics and most popular in a substantial part of the world. Now, I have written in the most explicit way what I think about racewalking. I would not shed tears if racewalking were to disappear. However I have great trouble understanding how triple jump came to be a candidate for elimination. 

Caterina Ibargüen of Colombia, the current world champion, 
will not have a chance to win an Olympic gold medal
 if triple jump is eliminated

But wait, it gets worse. In a follow-up to the first article it was reported that five, yes, five (5), events were under consideration for elimination from the olympic program. The five events are: 20000 m men’s racewalking, 10000 m, 200 m, shot put and triple jump. I must say that I do not understand the logic of such proposals. I could go as far as tolerating the elimination of the 10000 m since the event is quite similar to the 5000 m (although olympic 5 and 10 km doubles are greeted as quite exceptional events, of historical value). But 200 m? The par excellence olympic race? Have the IOC people forgotten that the 200 m is the most ancient olympic event? And if the argument is that the winner of 200 m is quite often the same as the one of 100 m (but how about the Olympiads where   this is not the case) what is their argument concerning shot put and triple jump? In fact, the latter is considered to be the least endangered event given its popularity. Most probably Mr. Pound just pounced upon the first field event that crossed his mind. 

But this leaves us with shot put. If this event were eliminated a large fraction of throwers would just quit. Most shot putters are specialists of just this discipline and the ones who do throw also the discus do not manage to excel in this second event. After all the physio-anatomical requirements of the two disciplines are quite different. Do we wish to sacrifice a field event that has been honoured by the presence of such giants as Ralph Rose, Parry O’Brien,  Werner Günthör or Valerie Adams? An event where we have seen not one but two style revolutions?

Just to make things more ridiculous it was argued that since the decathlon and heptathlon contain both the shot put and the later also 200 m, the two events will have a presence in the Games. Sure! Seeing girl heptathletes throw the shot at barely beyond 10 m is “almost” the same as seeing 20 m throws. And, yes, I know that Austra Skujyte, the women’s decathlon world record holder, has a shot put record of 17.86 m and is regularly competing in this discipline. And, yes, I know that Dafne Schippers is not only a 200 m specialist but also a top heptathlete while the famous Jackie Joyner-Kersee is not the only the best heptathlete ever but an excellent 200 m runner as well. But these examples do not change the argument that each event needs its specialists and sacrificing top-class athletes on deceptive arguments of tele-visibility is to my eyes a sacrilege.

14 December, 2014

The 1906 Olympics

I was looking for athletics related sites (by the way does anybody use the expression “surfing the web” anymore?) and fell upon a site by Marc Boucher:


Marc Boucher is an olympic historian and has been active in the olympic milieu for a very long time. His site is excellent, full of details on the past (modern) Olympiads. There is of course mention of the Olympiads which were not held because of the two World Wars: that of 1916, scheduled in Berlin, and those of 1940, scheduled initially in Tokyo and, after Japan waived the organisation, in Helsinki, and of 1944, scheduled in London.

The one thing I did not know is that in 1916 and 1944 commemorative events did take place. In 1916 two such events were staged in Stockholm and Amsterdam. In 1944 two commemorative events were held in Poland in Dobigniew and Borne Sulinowo to which Boucher refers to by their german names of Woldenberg and Gross-Born. (Borne Sulinowo is most famous for the fact that it did not exist officially from 1945 till 1992 being a secret military base. It did not even appear on maps).

My memory was also refreshed concerning the case of Denver: having been selected for the 1976 Winter Games the city ended up compelled to withdraw form the organisation after a state-wide vote decided (by a strong majority) that there would be no public financial help to the Games. (Perhaps it is this old sad story that made the US Olympic Committee turn down Denver’s bid to host the 2018 Winter Games).

Following up to those stories I ended up finding out that the 1904 Games were initially planned for Chicago but P. de Coubertin succumbed to the pressure of the organisers of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and awarded the Games to St. Louis.

However what irked me with Boucher’s presentation was the total absence of the 1906 Olympics. I know, these Games are not officially recognised by the IOC today. In fact it was thanks to the recommendations of Avery Brundage (whose contribution to international sport is to my eyes negative and disruptive) that the 1906 Games lost their olympic status in 1949. These games are referred to now as Intercalated Games. This is really a great injustice.

After the problems that occurred in Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904, with the future of the olympic movement quite uncertain, these successful Athens Games of 1906 helped resurrect the flagging Olympic Movement. Unlike the 1900 and 1904 games, they were neither stretched out over months nor overshadowed by an international exhibition. 

The Panathinaikon Stadion in 1906. It hosted also the 1896 Olympic Games.

These Games also were the first games to have all athletes registrations go through the national Olympic Committees. They were the first to have the opening of the Games as a separate event. They were also the first with an olympic village. They introduced the closing ceremony and the raising of national flags for the victors. All these are now accepted as tradition but they were first introduced in the 1906 Athens Olympics. The 1906 Games had the most international media attention. Even P. de Coubertin, who did not attend the 1906 Athens Games and was at first opposed to the idea of intercalated Games, changed opinion when he saw the success of the organisation.

So, why on earth does M. Boucher ignore the 1906 Games? Too much IOC orthodoxy can be sometimes harmful to objectivity.

01 December, 2014

Relays, hurdles and steeplechase

This is a follow-up to my post on metric vs imperial. I have presented there my ideas on new implement weights together with the increase of throwing circles dimensions. But the most radical changes proposed were those on running distances. Instead of the mixed metric and imperial-inspired distances I proposed a reshuffling of the intermediate distances replacing the 400, 800, 1500 m races by 500, 1000 and 2000 m. This would of course necessitate tracks of 500 m circumference (and new stadia to be built but this is another story). 

These changes would entail modifications on the relay races. Keeping the logic of the present ones we should have a 5x100 and a 4x500 as championships distances. For longer, record only, relays we could have 4 or 5 times 1000 and 2000 m relays. The 5x1000 and 5x2000 m would allow a direct comparison of the records with those of the individual 5000 and 10000 m races. The only problem with the new distances is that a 5x200 m sounds a bit awkward in a 500 m track. But then a 4x200 m is so rarely run now-a-days that we need not worry too much about this.

Obstacle courses are more interesting. I have already written about my idea of a 100 m with just 8 hurdles for men. In the  same logic I would propose as a championships distance a 500 m with 12 hurdles. Only the almost never run 200 m would have 10 hurdles. But what about heights? 

Before entering the metric vs. imperial argumentation let us examine briefly the case of the 100 m for women. I was planning to write a full post on this point but then I found that P.-J. Vazel had, in his blog, presented a detailed analysis of the situation. Let me summarise the situation. The height of women’s 100 m hurdles is a mere 84 cm. Compared to the men’s 110 m hurdles height of 107 cm we have a ratio of 0.79. (The same ratio for the 400 m is 0.83). Now, the ratio of mean statures of women and men is 0.92 and, more significantly, the ratio of world high jump records is 0.85. Obviously the 84 cm hurdles are ridiculously low. Increasing their height to 91 cm (the height of men’s 400 m hurdles) would be the most sensible choice. This would necessitate an increase of the distance between hurdles by some 30 cm (from 8.5 m to 8.8 m).  Taking 2.7 m out of the part between the last hurdle and the finish line sounds absurd (it is already a mere 10.5 m). So the only possibility I find reasonable is to reduce the number of hurdles from 10 to 9. (Remember, we are already down to 8 for men). This would make for very interesting sprints after the last obstacle is cleared. S. Pearson, olympic and world champion, has already pronounced herself in favour of higher hurdles. P.-J. Vazel ends his article mentioning another possibility: instead of increasing the height of women’s hurdles we could lower those of men. We’ll see below what are the possibilities.

The current standards for hurdles heights stand at 1.067 m and 0.914 m for men’s 110 and 400 m respectively. For women the respective heights are 0.838 and 0.762 m. Obviously all these measures are imperial in origin (91.4 cm being a yard and the differences of heights with respect to this being an integer multiple of inches). Transforming these heights to metric is not very difficult. We could have just 1.05 m, 0.90 m and 0.75 m (0.90 m being also the height of women’s 100 m). Another possibility would be to keep women’s 100 m hurdles’ height at 85 cm and lower that of men’s to just 1.00 m. This would make men’s races super-fast with a world record (over 100 m with 8 hurdles) probably below 11 s.

G. Papavasileiou, the flying steeplechaser

Finally let us not forget the steeplechase. Currently both men and women run a 3 km race. This is the only proposal of mine where I will suggest an increase of the number of races, with a 2 km and a 5 km also. When I mentioned the possibility of a 5 km steeple race to G. Papavasileiou, a renowned greek, balkan  and mediterranean champion in the 50s (an article on this great steeplechaser is under preparation) he had a very positive reaction. For him a 5 km steeple race would be even more interesting than the 3 km one. Such a race, in a 500 m track, would necessitate 10 water jumps and some 40 hurdle jumps, a very demanding race indeed. Finally, there is another hidden imperial measure, that of the water jump, fixed at 3.66 m i.e. 4 yards. Given the present tendency to make the water pit shallower (50 cm instead of 70 cm previously enforced at the maximal depth) we could easily opt for a 3.5 m water jump. That said a 4 m one would be equally acceptable.

If that were not clear from this article and the preceding one, I am a big fan of the metric system. The best proof of its efficiency is the fact that the British, who were at the origin of the imperial unit system, have now gone almost exclusively metric. It is high time the IAAF abandon the “soft metrication” policy, which consists into presenting (disguising?) imperial-based measurements in metric units. As to when will the USA follow suit, I do not think that the people who read these lines will live long enough to see such a revolutionary change. 

11 November, 2014

Metric vs. Imperial

Athletics is a discipline with a mixed heritage. For decades the influence of imperial, i.e. anglo-saxon, units have dictated the choice of distances and weights to the point that when countries using the metric system started becoming influent in athletics, it was impossible to erase all the imperial misdeeds. Why on earth should we have a 7.257 kg shot and hammer and use a 2.13 m circle in order to throw them? Why is the circumference of the stadia normalised to 400 m? And all this while throwing a 2 kg discus from a 2.5 m circle and run races of 5 and 10 km.

Of course, we can understand the logic behind the 800 m and 400 m, they are half a mile and a quarter of the same distance. The diameter of the 2.13 m circle is just 7 feet and the 7.257 kgs are just one stone. Still, all this does not sound quite right to me. I have already written my ideas on throwing circles and suggested that we forget the ridiculously small one where we force the present-day champions of shot put to evolve despite their gigantic proportions. To me a 3 m circle for shot, discus and hammer is the only solution.  Then there is the question of the weight of the implements. Why not opt for a 8 kg shot and hammer for men? (Women can keep the 4 kg one, just as in the case of discus where we have 1 kg and 2 kg for women and men respectively). These changes would allow us to make a tabula rasa of old throwing records and start afresh, just as was done in the case of javelin throw.

But the hardest part is running. Since I am not afraid of crazy proposals I will not hesitate to present one that, were it to be adopted (rest assured, it will never be) would revolutionise the discipline. Let us start with a basic consideration. What is the most important race, the one that must absolutely be preserved? To my eyes this is the 200 m, being the distance over which a human being can maintain maximal speed. The fact that  it corresponds to the stadium of the ancient Olympics lends more credibility to the argument. Based on the the premise that the distance of 200 m should be kept as such, my proposal for official distances is one akin to the choice for the euro currency denomination. The official distances would be

100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000 and 20000 m

I stop here because the next logical step would bring us to 50 km. However the Marathon has become over the past century a mythical race and should be preserved at all costs. In fact what I would propose is a distance of 40 km, the one of the first, 1896, olympic one. That would bring the men’s world record below 2 hours and that of women’s below 2 hr 10 min. Still, if people more fanatical than myself would insist on a 50 km marathon-class race, this is something that could be accommodated.

Tegla Loroupe, half-Marathon world champion
and 20 km (road) world record holder

Counting the races of a possible championships programme, excluding the 20 km one, we find that the “metric” list has exactly the same number of races as the current one. It goes without saying that for all this to make sense the stadium circumference should be increased to 500 m. (If that came to be, building contractors would erect statues in my honour).

04 November, 2014

A great blog but ...

My post on the (too) late recognition (it is not even clear whether it is a "homologation") of Bob Hayes record was based on the blog of Pierre-Jean Vazel,  Plus vite, plus haut, plus fort

It is a great blog. It does not deal exclusively with athletics but, believe me, it is top notch.

However there is a snag: the blog is in french. So, unless you speak the language of Molière you are of your luck. (If you are desperate you could try Google translation, but only in case of absolute despair). 

19 October, 2014

Never say never: the Gatlin affair

I had promised myself, when I wrote the entry on Gatlin, that never again was I going to write on doping-related matters. However at times you cannot help it.

On October 3rd the IAAF posted the list of the candidates for the World Athlete of the Year Award. The men’s list in alphabetical order, as of today in the IAAF website, is the following

Nigel Amos (BOT)
Mutaz Essa Barshim (QAT)
Jairus Kipchoge Birech (KEN)
Bogdan Bondarenko (UKR)
Yohann Diniz (FRA)
Justin Gatlin (USA)
Dennis Kipruto Kimetto (KEN)
Renaud Lavillenie (FRA)
LaShawn Merritt (USA)

with the footnote

Robert Harting (GER) was nominated by the expert panel for the shortlist but has requested to be removed from the vote.

What did happen? The day after his nomination, Harting, Olympic, World and European champion in discus throwing, announced that he did not want to be associated with the sprinter, banned twice in his career for taking performance-enhancing drugs.

"I ask the IAAF to remove me from the list. I find the nomination great. Yet I stand for nomination with a former doping offender, and that is the reason for my waiver."

Harting was not the only one to feel uncomfortable about Gatlin’s nomination. Two days after Harting’s announcement S. Coe, IAAF vice-president, said that he also had 'big problems' with the nomination. 

In his own words:

“The only thing I would say is that he is entitled to be competing. I'm not particularly comfortable about it. I think you'd be pretty surprised if I did sit here and was sanguine about that.

I personally have big problems with that. I have long since believed that, particularly anabolic steroids, performance-enhancing, muscle-developing drugs, have a long-term effect.

… I think anybody in the last 20 years that I've known in that world, particularly in sports physiology and biochemistry would tell you that's certainly the case. The effect is certainly not transient and we've seen that in the performance of athletes for some time.”

Scientists do agree with this. According to professor of physiology at the University of Oslo, K. Gunderson:

“It is likely that effects could be lifelong or at least lasting decades in humans. Our data indicates the exclusion time of two years is far too short. Even four years is too short.”

As I wrote in my previous blog post, Gatlin had profited from an unheard-of clemency whereupon his second doping offence did not entail a life ban but just an eight-year one, subsequently reduced to four years.

Harting was not the only champion to take offence at Gatlin’s nomination. 

British 400 metres hurdles world and european champion Dai Greene also remarked: “Gatlin is over the hill as far as sprinting is concerned - he should never be running these times for the 100 m and 200 m. But he's still doing it, and you have to look at his past, and ask how it is still affecting him now, because the average person wouldn't be able to do that.

Referring to Gatlin’s 9.77 s and and 19.71 s run in the same competition on 05/09/14 in Brussels he added:
“Those are incredible performances. Not many people have run that fast separately, ever. To do it on a damp Friday night? I couldn't believe those times. It shows one of two things: either he's still taking performance-enhancing drugs to get the best out of him at his advanced age, or the ones he did take are still doing a fantastic job.”

Of course one can wonder how Sir Sebastian, being the most influential person in the IAAF (the fact that he will be succeeding the current president at the head of IAAF is nobody’s secret) did not react earlier at Gatlin’s nomination. Be it as it may the matter is now settled: Gatlin does not have a chance at receiving the Athlete of the Year award. The three finalists were nominated on October 17th and they are: Barshim, Kimetto and Lavillenie.

All is well the ends well? Maybe. But Gatlin is, alas, still running. 

17 October, 2014

Justice for Bob Hayes (at long last)

Those who follow this blog should have noticed by now that I am a big fan of Bob Hayes. You can easily imagine my joy when I happened upon a recent blog post by P-J. Vazel who, based on well-informed sources, was announcing that a major injustice done to B. Hayes will at last be (partly) repaired. (Unfortunately B. Hayes passed away in 2002 and thus it is too late for him to savour this recognition. In fact, this is not the only time something like this happened: he was posthumously inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, 7 years after his demise).

In my “Where is Bob Hayes” post I explain, albeit succinctly, the situation. At the time of the 1964, Tokyo, Olympics the world record of 100 m stood at 10.0 s, with  A. Harry, H. Jerome and H. Esteves sharing that record. The times were obtained by three manually operated chronometers, rounded to a tenth of a second, the middle of three times being selected as the official time. (Harry’s race was also recorded electronically at 10.25 s). Purely electronically registered records were homologated only starting from 1977. However, in Tokyo, it was decided that the times were to be registered electronically and converted to pseudo-manual times by rounding them to the closest tenth of a second! 

The official time of B. Hayes was 10.06 s (He had ran a wind-assisted 9.91 s in the semi-finals). It was rounded to 10.0 s and was considered as a tie of the standing record. On the other hand the three official timekeepers had registered 9.8, 9.9 and 9.9 s. So according to the rules valid at that time B. Hayes’ official time should have been 9.9 s. He would have been equalled only in 1968 by J.Hines (9.8, 9.9 and 10.0 s and an electronic time of 10.03 s), albeit registered at the more than 2 km altitude of Echo Summit. At sea level the electronic time of B. Hayes was equalled by Hasely Crawford in the Montreal, 1976, Olympics and beaten only 20 years later (C. Lewis: 9.99 s in the Los Angeles, 1984, Olympics).

In his blog P-J. Vazel questions the condition of B. Hayes’ lane 1 of the track, which, according to most columnists, was seriously damaged due to the event of race-walk, which was held prior to the 100m with its first kilometre run in the stadium. I beg to differ with M. Vazel. The tracks of that time, be they from crushed brick like the one of Tokyo, were far from resistant and I am convinced that Hayes had a substantial handicap racing in lane 1.

There is also a question of the interpretation of the photo-finish. Various people analysing the same image see times ranging from 9.98 s to 10.01 s (to which a correction, due to the hardware furnished by Seiko, of 0.05 s had to be added). No loud-speakers next to the starting blocks were used and so there is a handicap of 0.01 s that should have been subtracted from the time of Hayes.(I comment on the “presumed” advantage of B. Hayes due to his position closer to the starter’s gun in my post “On the absurdity of milliseconds”). I am convinced that the time of Bob Hayes is equivalent to a modern 9.85 s. Had he continued till the Mexico, 1968, Olympics, and barring injuries, he would have well been able to realise this, or even a better, time. 

So, from next year the official time of B. Hayes will be given 10.0 s and 9.9 s! Why on earth do things by half? Just so that people who have equalled the 10.0 s record after Hayes not feel frustrated? But they know perfectly well that Hayes was in a class of his own. It would be only justice, even with a 50 years’ delay, to render unto Hayes the record that is his. 

11 October, 2014

The discreet charm of the 400 m hurdles

I was planning this entry for the blog since the beginning of the year when Ashton Eaton announced that he would devote this year to the 400 m hurdles to the detriment of decathlon (with the exception of the indoor heptathlon world championships where he missed breaking his own world record for a fistful of points). In fact another renowned athlete, Costas Douvalidis, greek record holder of the 110 m hurdles, announced that he was planning to compete on both hurdles’ distances this year.

At about the same moment I stumbled upon the blog of J. Mulkeen who, inspired by Eaton’s announcement, made a detailed analysis of the “unlikely couple” (his words) of decathlon and 400 m hurdles. At the top of the best decathletes, who have competed in the 400 m hurdles, we find the mythical Daley Thompson, world champion, double olympic champion and world record holder with 8847 points, who has run a not bad at all 52.60 s. Next we have the bronze medalist of the 1992 Olympics, Dave Johnson, a 8705 points decathlete, who run a 50.99 s 400 m hurdles. Maurice Smith, world’s vice-champion of 2007, with a 8644 points personal, is third with a 54.35 s 400 m. The great Bill Toomey, 1968 olympic champion and world record holder with 8310 points, appears also in the list with a quite respectable 51.70 s performance. The best hurdler among decathletes is Sébastien Maillard who was forced to abandon the decathlon because of repeated injuries. His best performance of 7562 points does not reflect his potential. He pursued a hurdler’s career and registered a best of 49.10 s, winning the 2007 Mediterranean Games with 49.80 s. At the top of the best hurdler’s list we have mainly athletes who were not decathlon specialists. The only one who figures in the top 10 of both lists is the czech Jan Podebradsky with 8314 points and a 49.62 s over the 400 m.

All this has changed with the arrival of Eaton, world and olympic champion and world record holder with 9039 points. He won the Diamond League 400 m hurdles race in Oslo (becoming the first ever decathlete to win an individual Diamond League event). At the Glasgow July 2014 Grand Prix he  registered his best performance of the year with 48.69 s which puts him at the absolute top of decathletes/hurdlers. The site oregonlive.com (Eaton was born and lives in the state of Oregon) reporting on his Glasgow masterstroke exclaims: ”what can't this guy do?”. I agree with them. Eaton is one of the best athletes of all time.

How about Douvalidis? He was also supposed to dedicate part of his efforts to the 400 m. Unfortunately an injury hampered the beginning of his season and he decided to concentrate himself to his speciality, the 110 m, where, by the way he has the same personal record as Eaton (13.34 compared to 13.35 s for the latter). Let’s hope that he manages to squeeze in at least one season of 400 m hurdles before he calls it quits.

I do not know what is it that makes the 400 m hurdles so attractive an event. Perhaps it is the fact that it is so hard, “the mankiller” as put epigrammatically by the great Kriss Akabusi.

06 October, 2014

The blog is one year old

One year ago I decided to start writing on athletics and, having the experience of another blog (on pinballs), I opted immediately for the blog format. I have been publishing, for a few years now, scientific articles on track and field appearing in New Studies in Athletics. While those articles correspond to more extensive studies, which warrant a full paper, there are ideas which could be developed in a few paragraphs and thus be more suitable for a blog entry. Moreover the blog, inspired by the revolutionary ideas of A. Juilland, allows me to formulate “crazy” proposals, which, at least to my eyes, could make possible a net progress in athletics but which would never be taken seriously by the over-conservative athletics milieu. 

Today the blog is one year old:

Close to 4000 page views and some 38 entries later the blog has matured and grown during this year. Comparing my two blogs I find “Rethinking” much more difficult to maintain. Writing on pinballs is easier since one can limit oneself to commenting on the new games which make regularly their appearance. The present blog does not deal with current affairs (or only exceptionally) but, rather, tries to focus on more fundamental questions. It is my intention to try to keep the blog alive the longest possible but I am perfectly aware that I may someday run out of steam. However, right now, I feel that I have many more things to write about. So, stay with me and let us look forward to another year full of athletics.

04 October, 2014

An interesting blog but...

Hunting as always for interesting athletics blogs I found  

Il blog di Alberto Stretti

It contains interesting analyses of mostly running. 

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it but there is something I cannot stand: ads.

The blog is full of them. I counted no fewer than three on the first page. You can see one in the screenshot above. For me ads is a no-no when it comes to non-commercial stuff (unless Sgr. Stretti is making a living out of his blog, in which case I am ready to offer my apologies).

Anyhow I am giving you the link and, if you can stand the ads, you can pay a visit to the blog. The content is most interesting.

14 September, 2014

A most interesting blog (another one)

I am always googling around for athletics related blogs  and this time I struck gold. 
The blog 

Once upon a time in the vest

is one dedicated to the 50s and 60s. Reading the introductory paragraph of the blog

one encounters the sentence "you can relive your youth and the sacrifices you made for the sport". 
For baby-boomers like myself this is something I can relate 100 % to. 
For younger peole who are interested in the recent history of athletics I can only say that they will not regret the time spent in following that blog.

01 September, 2014

Pole vault: a sprinkle of physics

How high can an athlete jump with a pole? Let us make the simplest possible calculation and consider a vaulter approaching the pit at a speed of v. If his kinetic energy is converted into potential energy with 100 % efficiency we find that the jump height is $$h={v^2\over 2g}$$ Assuming a reasonable velocity of 10 m/s leads to a jump height of slightly over 5 m. But wait, this cannot be true. Today’s records exceed and by far the 5 m barrier. A look at the evolution of the world record over the years is quite instructive.

The 5 m barrier appeared realistic as long as the athletes were using a bamboo (or, later, steel) pole. But all this changed with the introduction of fiberglass poles. The world record stands now at over 6 m for men and even the women’s record exceeds 5 m. How is this possible. The standard answer is that the extra energy comes from the upper-body athlete’s muscles which bend the pole storing energy in it, energy which is later returned to the vaulter when the pole straightens. While there is some truth in this argument the situation is far more complicated. 

First, we must not neglect the fact that the centre of mass of the athlete is already elevated with respect to the soil by the order of a metre. Factoring this in would lift the barrier at 6 m in agreement with the current world record. 

But has anyone seen a 100 % efficiency necessary for the 5 (or 6) m jump? Linthorne discusses this matter in detail. According to his findings two important factors entrer into play. First, a flexible pole reduces the energy dissipated in the vaulter's body when the pole is planted into the takeoff box. Second, a flexible pole lowers the optimum takeoff angle, and so the athlete loses less energy in jumping off the ground. While a rigid pole would lead to an optimum takeoff angle of around 30°, for a flexible pole the optimum would be less than 20° and an approximate 25 % energy gain. 

Ekevad and Lundberg have made more detailed calculations trying to determine the optimal length and stiffness of the pole. In a first study they consider a passive vaulter (represented by a point mass at the top of the pole)

and find that an optimal pole length of 5.5 m (slightly longer that the 5.2 poles used by elite vaulters). The interesting result is that they obtain a 87 % efficiency in the conversion of kinetic energy to potential. However in another work of theirs they allow for  what they call ‘smart’ vaulters, meaning that they model the vaulter as a number of connected segments which can execute a given sequence of movements, and they find that the potential energy can attain 1.27 times the value of the initial kinetic energy of the athlete and the pole. This means that the contribution of the muscle work to the increase of the potential energy is quite significant. I would take this calculation with a grain of salt, since there exist neglected effects and simplifications which may modify the precise value. But if we may draw one conclusion from these calculations this is that we haven’t reached yet the limit of human capabilities in pole vaulting 

as the recent improvement upon a world record standing for 20 years has shown.

24 August, 2014

Pole vault: a women’s sport

Back in the days when women were not pole-vaulting (officially) I was dreaming of the day this missing discipline would be introduced, making it possible for women to compete in the decathlon. Alas, things did not go this way. Women have been participating in pole vault competitions for 20 years now but, as I am deploring in a previous article of mine, the feminine decathlon is a stillborn discipline.

When I started planning for a pole vault article I thought that, for women, there has never been a “before” and an “after”: the era of feminine pole vaulting started with fiberglass poles. This made me curious and I started researching: was it true that women never tried vaulting with, say, bamboo poles? It turned out that nothing was further from the truth. Indeed there were some serious indications that women did indeed vault. Even if this photo 

from the late 1800s were fake there is this magazine cover from the 20s

showing a young lady vaulting with a bamboo pole in perfect style.

Thanks to the contributors to the site PoleVaultPower.com I was able to find the women's world record progression. It is unofficial, of course, but who cares about such details. So the oldest recorded performance of a female pole vaulter was 1.72 m by R. Spencer in 1911. No details are known about the implement which could have been wood or bamboo. By 1935 the record was 2.53 m by Z. Romanova, most probably with a bamboo pole. In 1952 D. Bragg (the sister of Don Bragg who would later become an olympic champion) broke this record (one can surmise, with a metal pole) with 2.59 m. The first to jump over 3 m was J. Edwards who, from 1981 to 1983, took the record from 2.61 m to 3.59 m. By that time the fiberglass poles had dominated the pole vault scene. 

The first official world record was homologated in 1992. At that time several chinese athletes had improved the record from 3.72 m to 4.02 and the first official record, due to C. Zhang was 4.05 m. The supremacy of the chinese vaulters was soon to end and the world record became a european-american affair, with an australian interlude due to E. George. The first female vaulter over 5 m is the great Y. Isinbayeva who improved the record 17 times.

When I started following women’s pole vault I was not very happy with their style. I was not convinced by D. Bártová’s technique and I did not have the occasion to watch E. George (who has an excellent style) in action. Remember, YouTube was still years away. The first great, to my eyes, female pole vaulter, the one who jumped just like her male colleagues, was A. Balakhonova, European champion and record holder with 4.55 m.

Anzhela Balakhonova

But that was back just before the turn of the century. The new generation of female pole vaulters was arriving with S. Dragila, S. Feofanova and Y. Isinbayeva who, with their strength and grace, 

Liz Parnov in a most probably failed attempt (but I like the acrobatic style)

changed the face of this spectacular discipline making it a women’s sport.

11 August, 2014

Pole vault: before & after

The before and after in the title refer obviously to the fiberglass revolution that changed completely the nature of pole vaulting. Pole vaulting with wood, bamboo or metal poles is a different sport than the one with fiberglass poles. One can wonder how IAAF with their ultra-conservative attitude did allow for this revolution. It is my feeling that they did not see it coming. Fiberglass poles had been around for more than a decade before becoming world-record stuff. But let us see how all this came to be.

Pole vaulting has been a human activity for centuries before becoming a competition sport. One reads accounts about (pole) bull jumping in Minoan Creta, (horizontal) canal jumping in the Netherlands, but it was in Germany where pole vaulting became part of the gymnastics curriculum at the end of 18th century with best performances around 2.5 metres. By the middle of the 19th century the record stood at around 3.20 m. However at that time the athletes were not really “vaulters” but rather “climbers”. The pole was shod at the lower end with an iron tripod: the athlete planted it in front of the bar started climbing and, when the pole started falling forward, he drew up his knees passing the bar in a sitting  position.

I admit that I had trouble understanding the “climb” technique until I saw a video of canal jumping competition where this technique is used, albeit for horizontal jumps, till today. The best performance with the climbing technique, before being banned, was over 3.5 m. 

The first poles were wooden ones, made from ash, hickory, spruce or cedar. they were shod with a single spike at the lower end to prevent slipping. They were much longer than the height of the bar and quite heavy, which required a grip with the two hands well apart. (It is probably the length of these wooden poles which would inspire a ridiculous rule if there is one. Obviously if the pole reaches higher than the bar it may drop it if it is incorrectly released. But why on earth if the pole does not reach all the way up should the jump be invalidated if the pole passes under the bar? Fortunately this stupid rule has now disappeared).

At the very end of the 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th, three major changes projected pole vault to the modern era. 
The first was the introduction of the plant hole. Replacing the spike it allowed a firmer positioning of the pole in front of the bar. As expected, this did not go smoothly at the beginning. In the 1908, London, Olympics the american vaulters had to fight tooth and nail in order to be allowed to dig a plant hole (moreover it had to be positioned off-centre so as not to create problems to people jumping with a spiked pole). The plant hole was replaced in 1924 by the plant box with standard dimensions.
The second improvement was a technical one. It was introduced by. R. Clapp who established a world record of 3.62 m with it. He was the first athlete to use the lower hand slide, bring it close to the upper hand and pulling with both hands, an undeniable advantage. This technical innovation became the standard style surviving until the advent of fiberglass poles. 
The third progress was in the choice of pole material. While westerners were jumping with wooden poles, japanese athletes have been using bamboo poles for decades. The first athlete to break a world record with a bamboo pole was the french F. Gonder with 3.69. He went on to win the 1906, Athens, intercalated Olympic games and has even jumped 4 m unofficially, despite his unorthodox (to say the least) technique.

From the beginning of the 20th century onwards bamboo poles dominated the pole vault scene. They had definite advantages over wooden poles since the latter could not bend and could not transfer horizontal motion into upward motion efficiently. Bamboo poles had some bend and, moreover, being lighter, they allowed for a faster approach.

The IAAF started homologating world pole vault records in 1912 with a 4.02 m record by M. Wright culminating at the fabulous 4.77 m record of C. Warmerdam (probably the greatest pole vaulter before S. Bubka), which would survive for 15 years.

In 1948 another type of pole made its appearance: the swedish steel pole. Its advantages over bamboo were obvious: it did not break, was lighter and had practically the same spring as bamboo. An american brass and aluminium alloy pole was introduced practically at the same time. The metal poles met with great success but the records of Warmerdam were so extraordinary that only a modest progress was registered with these new poles (in fact a mere 3 cm as far as the world record is concerned).

While steel poles were becoming all the rage the real revolution started but went practically unnoticed. A California firm started producing fiberglass pole vaults. While they met with considerable success at the beginning the athletes soon became disillusioned since these first poles were rapidly fatiguing and breaking. However, once people had the idea of a fiberglass pole the progress in quality was rapid. The name of H. Jenks is that one usually encounters as that of the “father” fiberglass poles. In any case, he is the first person in North America to patent a fiberglass vaulting pole. People refer to his friendship with B. Mathias as the reason for the latter to use a fiberglass pole in the Olympic decathlon. 

While I doubt this fact, as far as the 1948 Olympics are concerned (too early!) it is almost sure that he used a fiberglass pole in 1952. The only  other two olympians to use such a pole up to 1960 were my compatriot G. Roubanis, bronze medal in the 1956, Melbourne, Olympics and European record holder,

and the puertorican R. Cruz, 5th in the 1960, Rome, Olympics. (In fact Roubanis himself says that he does not remember whether he used a metal or fiberglass pole in Melbourne. He had been experimenting with fiberglass poles and he had them with him in Melbourne though).

The point it that all these athletes were using their fiberglass pole as if it were a standard, metal, one. Then, in 1961, everything changed. The poles had evolved, tailored to the athlete’s weight and, what is even more important, they could bend without breaking. (H. Jenks was instrumental in this). The first athlete credited with employing a wide handhold and bending his pole was A. Dooley. Immediately he found imitators and the first fiberglass world record was soon established by his teammate G. Davies with 4.83 m. (In fact the second one was also established by a team-mate of Dooley’s, since the latter went to train with Uelses who, in 1962, broke Davies’ record with 4.89 m). The revolution had started and it was too late for IAAF to forbid the use of the new poles. 

Cornelius Warmerdam tried a fiberglass pole and, jumping 4 m with it, predicted that people should be able to jump 5 m. It turned out that this was a very timid prediction. 

The present article wouldn’t have been possible without the precious help of Becca Gillespy. While researching for this article I stumbled upon a reference to the book “Illustrated History of the Pole Vault”, a book almost impossible to find. 

I searched for it and I found a reference to it in the store of the Pole Vault Power site. I sent an email immediately to Becca who managed to find a copy (the last one apparently) of the book for me. A million thanks Becca.

04 August, 2014

An interesting blog on the science of sport

I am always complaining on the absence of interesting blogs on athletics. Still, from time to time, mostly by chance, I find a blog that is really to my taste. This time it’s the blog 

Science in Sport

by two young PhDs from South Africa: Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas. 

Their blog is very interesting but I am afraid that it is in a semi-abandoned state. However, one of the bloggers is very active on Twitter, so there is still hope for the blog.

I should also point out that the two bloggers have published a book, in collaboration with  Matt Fitzgerald: The Runner's Body: How the Latest Exercise Science Can Help You Run Stronger, Longer, and Faster.

You can find it on Amazon at a very reasonable price.

01 August, 2014

On blade runners

I would have preferred a title like “Should blade runners be allowed to participate in competitions for two-legged athletes?” and let Betteridge’s law answer it (which states that “any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no”) but it is unfortunately too long. 

What motivated the present post is the recent outstanding performance of Markus Rehm who won the german championships with 8.24 m. 

Rehm has lost his right leg below the knee in an accident and he uses a prosthetic leg like the ones Oscar Pistorius is using. I was planning for some time now to write my ideas on Pistorius and the other “blade runners” and Rehm’s record gave me the motivation. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for 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. However the question is that if we do not know for sure whether an athlete gets an advantage from the prosthetics that he wears, allowing him to compete with able-bodied athletes may turn out to be unfair to the latter.

Pistorius has double below-knee amputations, and competes in the T44 category (for single amputees, although, being a double amputee, he is entitled to participate in the T43 class). He has several gold medals from the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Paralympics, and world records with 21.30 at 200 m and 45.07 at 400 m. He runs with J-shaped carbon-fibre prosthetics. Pistorius’ prostheses weigh less than half as much as the limbs of an able-bodied male runner. 

Before reaching a conclusion on whether blade runners (and by this term I refer to all athletes in the T44 and T43 categories) should be allowed to compete with able-bodied athletes I would like to present some arguments. 

First, what do the rules say?

On 26 March 2007, the IAAF amended its competition rules to include a ban on the use of "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device". (Pistorius challenged this decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport and managed to obtain the permission to compete).

What do scientific studies say?

The first study was conducted by G.P. Brügemann (Univ. Köln) who concluded that the majority of work is done in the blade (without muscular work), that the blade returns 90 % of the energy compared to 60 % for the ankle joint and that this kind of locomotion entails lower metabolic costs. 

Looking at this data I wonder why hadn’t Pistorius ever tried to run a 800 m. Given the shape of the energetic cost of his effort he should have been even better over 800 m.
The presentation of Brügemann ends with two citations. First by H. Herr (MIT) who states that “People have always thought the human body is ideal. It is not”. Second by B. Nigg (Univ. Calgary) “I would like to challenge the biomechanics community to develop prostheses that will produce world records in many track and field disciplines. It should not be too difficult”. I feel that we are almost there.

The methodology of Brügemann was challenged in a study by Weyland and collaborators at Rice University. While they noted that Pistorius can reposition his legs considerably faster than other able-bodied sprinters because the blades are so lightweight, giving him an overall speed advantage, they concluded that, “running on modern, lower-limb sprinting prostheses appears to be physiologically similar but mechanically different from running with intact limbs.” That is to say that metabolic costs and endurance are similar to runners with intact limbs. Running at lower speeds does not seem to give Pistorius as much of an advantage (such as the speeds that would be used in longer races instead of sprints). Still I would have liked to see what an athlete like Pistorius could do over 800 m.

The discussion is going on concerning the existence or not of an overall advantage for blade runners. Arguments pointing out that, running with blades, the athletes must pop straight out of the blocks and face a greater air resistance or that they must work harder against centrifugal forces, are perfectly acceptable however unless precise, rigorous studies are carried through they remain qualitative.

What do able-bodied athletes say?

Following the stunning performance of Rehm, fellow competitor Sebastian Bayer said that Rehm's prosthetic limb could provide a catapult-like effect to his jump."The prosthetic seems 15 centimetres longer than the other leg" said Bayer. Rehm countered by stating that the prosthetic is three, four centimetres longer than his other leg, but the disparity keeps him from hobbling during the run-up to his jump. So, the length of the prosthetic limb appears to be an issue, which brings us to the next paragraph.

What do blade-runners themselves say?

Following the surprising victory of Brazil's A. Oliveira at the 200 m of the London, 2012, Paralympics, Pistorius, who was second in that race reacted by saying: “We aren't racing a fair race. I've never seen a guy come back from eight metres behind on the 100 m mark to overtake me on the finish line”. Pistorius was convinced that the running blades used by Oliveira and the bronze medalist Blake Leeper were too long, and called for the International Paralympic Committee to investigate. As expected, the next day Pistorius apologised for the timing of his comments saying that he would never want to detract from another athletes' moment of triumph.
It goes without saying that the IPC has rules regarding the length of the blades which is determined by a formula based on the height and dynamics of the athlete.

Just for completeness sake I must point out that the problem of Pistorius is that he cannot alter the length of his blades if he wants to continue to compete in able-bodied competitions. To do a crossover like that, he can only run on blades that have been cleared for use by the IAAF. Longer blades, of the kind Oliveira used, are only legal in Paralympic events. If Pistorius switched, he would not be able to run in non-disabled competitions. Besides which, he would undermine his own argument that his success is about the body above the knee, rather than the technology below it. Of course, all this will most probably become moot given the recent legal troubles of Pistorius.

So, what is the conclusion?

I think that blade runners (and jumpers) should contend themselves with their own circuit of competitions. They have Paralympic Games organised in parallel with the Olympic Games. They are getting more and more recognition and praise by the public and the media. I am looking forward to blade-runner records surpassing those of able-bodied athletes and I would definitely welcome them. After all wheelchair records have been leaving running records in the dust. But trying to have prosthetics-carrying athletes competing along able-bodied ones will only lead to suspicion and perhaps to the temptation of cheating. So, the answer to the question raised in the first paragraph is a resounding “no”.

14 July, 2014

On shot put and a remark of Willoughby

I am currently reading the book of  D. Willoughby “The Super-Athletes” published in 1970. The book has a long section of athletics which attracted my interest. While reading it, I fell upon a remark of Willoughby which made me react and I decided to publish my observations in the blog. 

Willoughby presents a table of performances in shot put obtained with implements of non-standard weights ranging from 3.6 to 25.4 kg. 

The performances are pretty old, registered over a period of 15 years from 1905 to 1919. Moreover they are not obtained by a single athlete but from several ones, which makes the comparison somewhat iffy. Still, the tendency is there and Willoughby manifests his astonishment as to the fact that there is no theoretical explanation for his observation that the length of the throw is related to the square root of the implement weight. The reason for this is very simple: the relation observed by Willoughby is a mere coincidence. There is no physical argument in favour of such a square root dependence.

Before proceeding further I would like to make a remark concerning Willoughby’s analysis, a remark which has a larger scope. It has to do with use of the square root. You cannot take the square root of say 16 kg. You can compute the square root only of a pure number. Of course, if you say that the length of the throw is (inversely) proportional to the square root of the mass of the implement, you let the proportionality factor take care of the dimensions. However this is not as simple as it sounds. Since one should work with pure numbers, one must divide the implement’s mass by some other quantity that has the dimensions of mass (and the same applies to the length). The problem is now what is the meaning of this quantity. This is something that can be answered only in the framework of a more or less elaborate model. Which brings us to the main point of this post.

The reason for the absence of a theoretical explanation of the square root is that the mathematical models of shot put do not predict such a dependence. I have published recently an article in New Studies in Athletics dealing precisely with the relation between an implement’s weight and the length of a throw in shot put. The model is based on  the separation of the throw into two phases. The first is the acceleration phase or “developing momentum in the run-up area” according to J. Silvester and the second is the throw itself i.e. “transmitting energy from the body to the implement”. An analysis with some simplifying hypotheses leads to a dependence of the length of the throw L to the implement’s mass m in the form
L = a + b m

However as I explain in the same paper this model is too crude to provide an accurate description of the throwing process over a wide range of implements’ masses. A more elaborate model was thus proposed taking into account the slow-down of the athlete due to an excessively heavy implement and the inertia of the athlete’s body parts (essentially the arm) during the throw phase. In fact the latter turned out to be the main effect, leading to the following relation between L and m

L = d m + c

Again no square root appears in the model. In order to appreciate the quality of the model we present a fit of Willoughby’s data with the two formulae given above. First we convert the data to the metric system (since working with imperial units is making me jittery).

Mass(kg) Length (m)
3.63 20.60
5.44 17.55
7.25 15.62
8.16 14.09
9.53 12.87
10.89 11.97
12.50 11.26
15.00 10.63
16.66 9.72
19.05 8.63
25.40 7.91

Using these data we can now present a graphic with the best fit for both expressions.

For the first expression we obtain the dashed curve and parameters a=6.71 m and b=55.1 m kg. The second expression gives a much better fit with d=234 m kg and c=7.93 kg. I find that the data of Willoughby are in perfect agreement with my model. It would suffice to renormalise the parameters obtained so as to make the performance for a 7.25 shot agree with the current world record in order to establish upper limits for throws with lighter of heavier implements.