31 January, 2014

Gatlin is, alas, still running

One should not misinterpret this, admittedly provocative, title as a mark of animosity against Justin Gatlin. I do appreciate all athletes, even the ones who use performance-enhancing substances, because I know by first hand experience the enormous amount of work necessary in order to attain a certain level in any sport. Doping is something that some athletes resort to in order to surpass themselves. This is a proof of human weakness and, while it is something punishable under the current rules, it does not justify the ostracism of the athlete. 

So why am I targeting Gatlin in this article of mine? In 2001, Gatlin was banned from international competition for two years after testing positive for amphetamines. Gatlin appealed on the grounds that the positive test had been due to medication that he had been taking since his childhood, when he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. The appeal resulted in a reinstatement after just one year. It was agreed that Gatlin had a genuine medical explanation for his positive test, but the Council stressed that Gatlin had committed a doping offence and issued a warning that any repetition of his positive result would result in a life ban. Gatlin went on to win the gold medal over 100 m in the 2004, Athens, Olympics followed by victories over both 100 m and 200 m in the 2005, Helsinki, World Championships. Then in 2006 he gave another positive doping test. It is believed that the substance that Gatlin tested positive for was "testosterone or its precursor”, something confirmed by the analysis of the B sample. Gatlin denied having knowingly taken anything prohibited and his coach, Trevor Graham, claimed that his athlete has been "sabotaged". (It is interesting to notice here that the WADA chairman, Dick Pound, pointed out that Graham himself was being investigated by the Grand Jury because a surprising number of his athletes have been found guilty of doping offences). 

Given that this was a second offence one would normally expect a life ban for Gatlin. However Gatlin got into an agreement with the US Doping Agency and obtained an eight-year ban, avoiding a lifetime sanction in exchange for his cooperation with the doping authorities, and because of the "exceptional circumstances" surrounding his first positive drug test. Most surprisingly in 2008, Gatlin’s ban was reduced to four years allowing him to compete from 2010. He went on to win another gold in the 2013, Istanbul, Indoor World Championships as well as medals in the 2012, London, Olympics and 2013, Moscow Worlds.

There are scores of athletes who have received a file ban at a second doping offence. Perusing the 2013 IAAF Athlete Doping List I encountered 25 lifetime bans. In the case of Thanou a minor doping offence resulted to a lifetime ban from the Olympics. Why are there so big differences in the way the athletes are treated? Shouldn’t they all be equal in the face of the anti-doping regulation? Apparently not.

I hope this is the last time I post something related to doping (although I am itching to write something about the 1988, Seoul, Olympics 100 m final where six out of the eight finalists had been or would be involved in doping incidents, including the “great” Carl Lewis). Writing about doping is not something I enjoy and the only reason I did write the previous post and this follow-up was because I was convinced that an injustice had been done and I just had to voice my feelings.

25 January, 2014

The Kenteris-Thanou scandal

August 12, 2004 reserved a great shock to the greek population. Two of the greatest greek hopes for a medal in athletics, Kostas Kenteris and Ekaterini Thanou, failed to attend a drug test. They claimed to have been away from the olympic village and got involved in a motorcycle accident while returning to the village after hearing the news in the media. (An official Greek investigation would later find that the alleged accident had been staged. However seven years after the incident an appeals court acquitted the two athletes).

Prior to 1999 Kostas Kenteris had had only moderate success in his preferred distance of 400 m, with only a gold medal at the 1993 Mediterranean Games. However, after he converted to a 200 m runner, his progress has been impressive with gold medals at the 2000 Olympics, the 2001 World and the 2002 European Championships. He missed out on the 2003 Worlds due to injury but in 2004 he was ready to defend his olympic title.

Katerina Thanou had won gold medals on 60 m at the 1999 World, the 1996 and 2000 European Indoor and, over 100 m, the 2002 European Championships. She was second on 100 m at the 2000 Olympics and the 2001 World championships, with bronze medals at the 1998 European and the 1999 World Championships.

The fact that two great champions failed to present themselves at a anti-doping test caused an enormous upheaval (including a last-minute modification of the inaugural ceremony, since Kenteris was scheduled as the torch-bearer to light the flame in the Olympic Stadium). In order to avoid the escalation of the scandal, Kenteris and Thanou announced their withdrawal from the Games on August 18, after a hearing before the Disciplinary Commission of the IOC. In June 2006 they were sanctioned with a two-year suspension for having failed to present themselves at three tests. They were eligible to compete from 2007 onwards. Kenteris chose to put an end to his career but Thanou decided to pursue, participating at the 2007 European Indoor championships where she finished 6th over 60 m. She was selected by the greek federation for participation in the 2008 Olympics but, less than a week before the athletics competitions were to start in Beijing, Thanou was barred from participating being "guilty of improper conduct and bringing the Games into disrepute".

At that point I must voice my strong objection to what I consider as double jeopardy. Thanou had been sanctioned and had completed her suspension period and, what is more important, not for a doping violation. Of the latter there have been more than one during the Athens Olympics. The one case that makes me feel that Thanou has been really treated unfairly is that of R. Fazekas, the winner of discus throw. He was stripped of his gold medal for failing to produce an adequate urine sample. In fact there were concerns as to the way the athlete had been observed during the sample collection procedure. The doctors have stated that there are suspicions and allegations concerning certain technical methods and devices which would be used by certain athletes in order to avoid delivery of their own urine. While such suspicions and allegations were not proven, the attitude of the athlete raised a number of questions which were not answered. He received a two-year ban from international competitions but he was allowed to participate to the 2008 Olympics, where he finished 8th. Why Fazekas, for whom there were suspicions of cheating, and not Thanou? (Just in order to have a more complete picture of the situation: in 2012 just prior to the London Olympics, Fazekas, coached by A. Annus, a hammer thrower who also was stripped of his gold medal won at the 2004 Athens Games for doping, was tested positive and received an 8-year suspension. Curiously, as I just found out, his ban was finally reduced to a 6-year one).

But, wait, the situation is getting juicier. In 2007 Marion Jones admitted having used steroids prior to the 2000 Olympics. She was stripped of her medals and was issued a two-years' suspension. Thanou, who finished second behind Jones in the 100 m at Sydney, was in line to be awarded the gold medal, however the IOC decided to punish Thanou once more (is this a triple jeopardy?) and while Jones' gold medal was withdrawn Thanou remained a silver medallist (together with Tayna Lawrence, former bronze medallist who was upgraded to silver). My only consolation is that M. Ottey got to add another medal to her impressive collection.

Were Kenteris and Thanou guilty of doping? I cannot tell for sure, but given that their coach, Ch. Tzekos, had been involved in doping-related incidents, the probability is non-zero. Also, their way of dealing with the 2004 incident was rather clumsy and caused a bitter disappointment among their admirers. Still, it remains that, in the case of Thanou, the treatment she received from the IOC was unfair, to say the least.

Perhaps I should slip in here some thoughts concerning the anti-doping campaign of WADA. It is my opinion that they are fighting an already lost campaign. Since the return of professionalism to sports, there is no way to arrive at a 100 % drug-free situation. People will continue to use performance-enhancing substances, not only in order to satisfy their ego but also to increase their profits. Given the ongoing progress in physiology and pharmacology, the doping detection techniques will always be one step behind the new doping methods (something like the security measures in airports, tailored to the previous terrorist incident). One way to do away with this problem would be to allow athletes who have reached majority free access to any doping substance. (But then, in many cases, national laws would have to be amended, to say nothing of the ethical and moral questions). Be it as it may, doping should be strictly prohibited for junior athletes. Serious controls should be implemented, up to discontinuing all international competitions for young athletes (so as to squash any motivation for doping). Unless such extreme measures are introduced it is advisable, in the case of athletics, to make a tabula rasa of records and start afresh. Otherwise we will have to wait for decades before the women's discus world record is broken again.

18 January, 2014

How the decathlon got its events

I hadn't given much thought to this question. In fact, I believed that the decathlon was just an expanded pentathlon. The modern version of the latter was fixed at the 1912 Olympics. (Here I am referring to the pentathlon in athletics and not to what is known as "modern" pentathlon. I will devote some future post to the modern pentathlon which has nothing "modern" and is just a combined event suitable for 19th century army officers). In fact the pentathlon was revived at the 1906 Athens intercalated Olympics in its ancient version consisting in a standing long jump, greek style discus throw, javelin throw, stadium run, and greco-roman wrestling. The formula was promptly abandoned (all the more so since there were suspicions of an arrangement between the two Swedes in the wrestling match resulting in the victory of Mellander, Lemming having already secured the gold medal in javelin throw). In the 1912 Stockholm Olympics wresting was replaced by a 1500 m run and the classification was based on places. The pentathlon was short lived since it was included in the program of just two more olympiads, 1920 and 1924, only to disappear definitely after this. 

The decathlon made its appearance in the 1904 Olympics (but Zarnowski believes that the decathlon was not an official event of the Olympics). The events were: 100 yard dash, 16 pound shot put, high jump, 880 yard walk, 16 pound hammer throw, pole vault, 120 yard hurdles, 56 pound weight throw, long jump and one mile run. It was contested over a single day. (There was also a triathlon in the program of 1904 consisting in long jump, shot put and 100 yard dash. That was the only occasion such an event appeared in the olympic program). The 1908 did not comprise any combined event. Then in 1912 the decathlon made its appearance in the two-day form it is contested for over a century now. In fact, in 1912, and only that once, the decathlon was contested over three days. The events were: 100 m, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 m for the first day and 110 m hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and 1500 m for the second. Clearly there is a substantial overlap between the 1904 events and the 1912 ones. I found the answer as to the origin of these events in the book of the great combine events specialist Frank Zarnowski, "All-around Men, heroes of a forgotten sport"

If you are interested in the prehistory of modern athletics this is a book you should absolutely read. One learns, among others that the amateurism was a short-lived phenomenon. Track and field has been a domain where professionals have excelled in the 19th century. It was one of those professionals, Donald Dinnie, who first proposed a man-to-man contest (accompanied by a substantial prize) comprising the following events: putting the heavy stone, throwing the heavy hammer, tossing the caber, wrestling, leaping, putting the light stone, throwing the light hammer, throwing the 56 pound weight and running (an enneathlon!). The influence of Highland-Caledonian culture is obvious in the choice of events. Gradually these competitions became more frequent and by 1890 the program of events and the order were standardised. It was precisely the very same as the one of the 1904 St. Louis Games. The all-around competitions started having success in Europe as well but over metric distances and by replacing the race walk by a 400 m or a triple jump. Entering into the 20th century the swedish federation included the decathlon in its annual competition programme. It was a competition very close to the decathlon as we know it, using scoring tables. The events were: high jump, 100 m, shot put, long jump, 110 m hurdles, discus, triple jump, javelin, pole vault and 1500 m. Finally at the 1912 OLympics the decathlon was standardised to the current one. 

So the decathlon events came form the all-around ones, which are of Highland and Caledonian origin. A European touch contributed into giving to the decathlon its present form. And in case you are wondering who has been the great all-around champion at the beginning of the century, well, he is none other than Jim Thorpe, the famous gold medalist of the Stockholm Olympics. He is the first and last person to hold world records in both the all-around and the decathlon. The international success of the decathlon was the death-knell for the all-around. The latter managed to survive in the US untill 1922 when it disappeared from the championships program. It made later a brief come back and finally, in 1977, it went definitely the way of the dodo.

07 January, 2014

Wind effects

I would like to start this post with a 1980 quote by Bert Nelson, editor of Track and Field News: "The philosophy behind the official approval of sprint records is absurdly primitive. Permitting a record with a tailwind of 2 m/s was an arbitrary decision. Why should 2.01 m/s be illegal and 2.0 m/s be legal?" he argued. 

Given the current legal limit, famous performances could have been invalidated had we had better measurements of wind speed. The forum of Track and Field News hosts extensive discussions on the validity of wind speed measurements at Mexico during the 8.90 m Beamon jump. 

The consensus is that the reported 2.0 m/s wind speed is not accurate and that the real speed was substantially higher. A video of the jump shows a small flag situated next to the reception area undulating under a wind which looks stronger than the measly 7.2 km/h.
The fantastic 10.49 s world record of Florence Griffith-Joyner 

was supposedly registered under a 0.0 m/s wind during a competition where winds of 5 m/s were prevailing. N. Linthorne has published a detailed analysis of this competition where he presents compelling arguments in favour of the existence of a tailwind of more than 5 m/s for the race of Flo-Jo. (If this performance were discarded the current world record would be a quite respectable 10.61 s, still by the same athlete). Another case where the wind measurement played a major role (invalidating a world record) was the 8.96 m jump of Ivan Pedroso in Sestriere. 

While the wind measurement was perfectly legal, at 1.2 m/s, the record was invalidated on the argument that the wind gauge was obstructed by the body of a judge (a decision which, I, personally, deplore). 

To echo the criticisms of B. Nelson, I find the rules concerning the wind speed limit quite arbitrary. The current rules stipulate that “If the wind velocity, measured in the direction of running or jumping, behind the athlete averages more than 2 metres per second, the record will not be accepted”. This restriction is valid for the races of 100 m, 200 m, 110/100m HD and the long and triple jump. It was imposed by the 1936 Berlin Congress of the IAAF, following a german proposal of a speed limit of 1 m/s. The current limit (which is obtained as a mean velocity measured over a given time period, 10 s for 100 m or 5 s for the long jump etc.) is thus just a compromise, without any scientific foundation.  

If the situation for individual events is somewhat awkward that for combined events is downright ridiculous. Until 1964 there was no wind restriction for combined events record homologation. Then in the Tokyo 1964 IAAF Congress the rule for individual events was extended to the combined events as well. To my eyes this is the only logical decision. However, the IAAF, under the pressure of athletes and coaches, amended the rule increasing the wind speed limit for the disciplines of 100 m, 200 m, 110/100m HD and long jump, to 4 m/s. This means that a record of, say, 100 m in the decathlon, registered with a wind speed of more than 2 m/s but less than 4 m/s, can be perfectly valid and better than the standing world record of 100 m. Probably this was motivated by the fact that, raising the speed limit in combined events, the wind assistance rule would apply less often. (In which case, raising it further would cause even fewer problems of wind-related record cancelation, and so on ad absurdum). There was a 1969 proposal by the federation of New Zealand, reported in the 1991 volume of Athletics, to measure the wind speeds over all the concerned events (100/200 m, 110/100 m and long jump in decathlon/heptathlon), average them and require that the average not exceed 2 m/s. While this proposal had the advantage of doing away with the arbitrary value of 4 m/s, it would not prevent the decathlon 100 m record being superior to that of the individual race. Anyhow, the proposal was not accepted and now we are stuck with the 4 m/s absurdity.

And while for 100 m, 200 m, 110/100m HD and the long and triple jump one can understand the necessity of a wind speed limit (although I will devote a future post to the case of the hurdles, which necessitate a special treatment) one can wonder why the remaining track and field events are exempted from the wind assistance rule. An elementary calculation shows that while running against a headwind one loses more than what one gains while running with a tailwind. Thus when there is a wind of non-negligible strength all athletes running 400 m or more are at a disadvantage. And what about discus (and, as a matter of fact, javelin also) where a strong headwind offers a definite advantage? There is no rule whatsoever limiting the validity of records in throws with a strong headwind.

What can be done? To begin with, let us assume that the existing top-quality anemometers can provide almost instantaneous measurements, without delays, sampling wind velocities over very short time intervals. The first step would be to calibrate the stadia under several wind conditions, and complement the extensive measurements by simulations, so as to be able, by using a not excessive number of anemometers to give the value of the wind speed at any point of the stadium over all times. The “any point” requirement is essential since it is clear that the wind speed is not the same over all lanes even in a straight line race. Moreover every stadium has its particularities with “wind shadows” and “wind channels” which may result in quite appreciable differences in wind speeds even between not very distant locations. With the proposed calibration we would be, in principle, able to know the precise value of the wind speed for every athlete at every instant of his/her effort.

And now comes my proposal. Since any value of wind speed limit is arbitrary there is only one solution: 0 m/s, i.e. no wind at all. In fact the initial proposal is that of B. Nelson who in 1979, suggested that the registered sprint times should be adjusted so as to take into account the assistance of the wind. Today, 35 years later, this proposal appears quite realistic. The recent progress in biomechanics would allow the elaboration of quite realistic models which could estimate the corrections to be applied to performances in the presence of wind (be it tail- or headwind) so as to evaluate the equivalent performances at “zero wind”. The IAAF could establish a working group with the aim of building the most elaborate model for the estimation of the wind effect or perhaps organise a symposium around this same theme and select the most satisfactory model for the wind-due corrections. These wind corrections should be applied to all track and field events. Moreover the model should provide for corrections due to altitude (all performances should be adjusted to sea-level ones; an unfavourable choice) and latitude. For the latter, the simplest solution would be to adjust the performances so as to bring them to the equator (a choice favourable for the athlete).

What is the probability of acceptance of a proposal to adjust the performances for zero wind speed? Unfortunately, exactly equal to the proposed wind speed.