24 February, 2014

On the absurdity of milliseconds

While researching for the blog post on Bob Hayes I stumbled upon some stupid comment. Someone had written that Hayes had an advantage because by running in lane 1 he was closer to the starter and thus could hear the start signal before the other athletes. Well, let us ignore that the rules stipulate that: 
where loudspeakers are not used in races with a staggered start, the Starter shall so place himself that the distance between him and each of the athletes is approximately the same
and assume that there were no loudspeakers and that the starter was standing on prolongation of the start line and thus that the start signal arrived first at the ears of Hayes. What was his advantage of H. Jerome, running in lane 4 or H. Figueroa in lane 2? Something of the order of 1/100 of a second. Given that Hayes beat them both by 0.20 s claiming that he had an advantage is just silly (to say nothing of the fact that the track of lane 1 was in a sad state, which definitely costed Hayes another 0.10 s).

However this remark got me thinking. Does it make sense to use an accuracy of a millisecond in athletics? At least one world title has been decided at this time difference. At the 1993 World Championships Gail Devers beat Merlene Ottey (for me the absolute goddess of feminine sprint) by 10.811 versus 10.812. Ottey herself commented this decision by saying “the decision who is better depend upon how to calculate the situation: if more important is the head, Gail won, if body, then I won”. 

Indeed the rules stipulate that “the athletes shall be placed in the order in which any part of their bodies (i.e. torso, as distinguished from the head, neck, arms, legs, hands or feet) reaches the vertical plane of the nearer edge of the finish line”. The difficulty lies in defining in a precise way and on a deformed photo what is precisely a “torso”. For an athlete dipping for the finish shoulders should definitely count but sometimes the judges cannot distinguish them from a part of the neck. For an athlete running at 10 m/s a millisecond corresponds to just 1 cm. Can we be sure of such a precision when a human eye is called upon to disentangle a difficult situation? My answer is a resounding “no”. In the case of Devers and Ottey they simply should have shared the gold medal.

Moreover that event should have prompted a change in the tie—break rules of IAAF. They should have adopted the same attitude as FINA. Swimming used to break ties by measuring to the 0.001 s, but in 1972 at Munich G. Larsson and T. McKee seemingly tied in the men’s 400 individual medley in swimming. They were both timed in 4:31.98 but the precision timer broke the tie and gave the gold medal to Larsson, with a time of 4:31.981 to McKee’s 4:31.983, i.e. a difference of 0.002 s. Given the speeds of swimmers, say 2 m/s, a difference of 1 millisecond corresponds to 2 mm. This would call for swimming-pools having submillimetric accuracy (something totally impossible: even if they were built so, they would no stay so over time). FINA understood this and now swimming calls a tie to the 0.01 s a tie for that position. (Unfortunately, the 1972 400 men’s individual medley result was not changed). Let us hope IAAF decides one day to forget about milliseconds and accept the fact that in some races there can be two winners.

21 February, 2014

Another most interesting blog

Just when I was complaining that there are not that many interesting athletics-oriented blogs around, I stumbled upon this blog by Dr. J. König, a Senior Lecturer in Greek at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is a specialist of greek literature and culture of the Roman Empire with a special interest in ancient athletics. His book “Greek Athletics”, 

a collection of articles and book extracts by international scholars, was published in an affordable paperback format last year by Edinburgh University Press. His blog “Ancient and Modern Olympics” can be found at the URL

Jason König’s blog

You can read below the succinct presentation of the blog 

but I urge you to go and have a look for yourselves.

16 February, 2014

A most interesting blog

Curious as it may sound, there are not that many interesting blogs on athletics. I, for one, would have expected a much more intense activity in this domain. I am not talking about blogs that give results and report on the activity of a community. What I have in mind is blogs that offer an uncommon, original look on athletics. Recently I stumbled upon one I found most interesting and I decided to share this its URL with you. Here it is

Jon Mulkeen's blog

Just to give you a taste of what it deals with, here is a screenshot of the beginning of a recent post (motivated by the announcement of the current decathlon record holder, A. Easton, to take a year off decathlon and give the 400 m hurdles a try).

There are many other interesting entries and I urge you to go and have a look at them. If you like my blog you will certainly like Mulkeen’s one.

13 February, 2014

On longer jumps

How many times haven’t we seen one of the favourites miss out on the important competition of the year by fouling two jumps in the qualifiers and then jumping a third “conservative” one which lands him just outside the qualifying places. The great J. Owens would have been eliminated in Berlin hadn’t L. Long, his German “opponent”, advised him to back his marks by a good half metre. 

Luz Long and Jesse Owens during the Berlin Olympics

Bob Beamon had also risked elimination in Mexico after two fouls. Fortunately for the history of athletics he managed to get his nervousness under control and obtain qualification.

The problem comes from the fact that we are not simply asking long and triple jumpers to jump as far as they can and then simply measure their jump. The rules add an extra difficulty: the jump is measured from a fixed line. As a consequence, the jumpers try to come as close as possible to this line and, as a result, they often step over it, which leads to an invalid jump. At this point I cannot refrain from mentioning an absurdity of the rules: the national and international rules are not always identical. In the case of long jump this has hindered the progression of the world record. In fact while, according to the IAAF rules, a jump is invalid when an athlete touches the ground beyond the take-off line (something controlled by the plasticine indicator) the american rules are more basic and do not allow the athlete’s foot to overshoot the take-off line. If such a thing occurs the jump is invalidated even if there is no mark on the plasticine indicator. C. Lewis was deprived of a record around 9.15 m because of this americano-centric peculiarity.

So, what we are asking is that athletes who run at 10 m/s to count their steps with centimetric precision so as to jump as close as possible to the take-off line. This was good for the Olympic Games of my ancestors and perhaps the simplest way to stage competitions all the way up to the modern “electronic” era. But today, keeping these archaic rules is just not allowing two of the noblest field disciplines to blossom. For many years now we are accustomed, at least for major championships (Olympic, World and Continental) to have a camera focused on the take-off board giving the precise distance of the tip of the athlete’s foot to the take-off line. (Current technology allows measurements of at least millimetric precision). And this is a distance that the athlete has indeed jumped. Wouldn’t it then be fair to add it to the length measured beyond the take-off line? My answer to this is an unambiguous “yes”. 

So, here is my proposal. Replace the 20 cm take-off board by a 60 cm one. In this way the jumpers will not worry excessively about calibrating their run-up. It suffices to take off from the board in order to have the distance to the take-off line measured. If they take off before the board they still get 60 cm added to their jump. It goes without saying that if they foul their jump is invalid, but with a 60 cm take-off board and the real length of the jump measured, it would be really a rare accident to have a jumper foul. No need for plasticine in this case. One can use the simpler, american, rules and the athlete can be convinced that he did indeed foul by inspecting the video on the judge’s iPad. 

While all this is perfectly feasible as far as major competitions are concerned, it is not clear whether for minor ones this technology-based jump measurement is easy to implement. Juilland in his book suggests another possibility: that the take-off board be covered by a substance allowing the athlete’s foot mark to persists for a time sufficient for measurement. Perhaps this is easier than a video-based measurement. Still one has to study its feasibility and the related costs. Finally for local competitions the old, i.e. the existing, rules could just apply. This would be a further incentive for jumpers to improve their marks  and have access to higher level competitions which would offer them the bonus of a realistic measurement of jump length.

What is the probability of acceptance of a proposal for an exact measurement of the athlete’s jump? Unfortunately, exactly equal to the one of the proposal related to wind speeds and on throwing circles.

05 February, 2014

Where is Bob Hayes?

Bob Hayes is one of the greatest sprinters ever, perhaps the greatest of all or, at worse, second only to Usain Bolt. 

I am currently re-reading the superb “La fabuleuse histoire d’Athlétisme” by R. Parienté (the second edition where, regrettably, they have omitted all photos, including the fantastic photo of the 1500 m finish at the 1974 Commonwealth Games between F. Bayi, J. Walker and B. Jipcho on the cover) and I started reminiscing the 60s. 

Bob Hayes triumphed in the 1960, Tokyo, Olympics dominating the 100 m in a world record electronic time of 10.06 s. 

Due to the illogical way IAAF has been managing the records this time was rounded to 10.0 s and considered as equal to the manual 10.0 s of A. Hary. (Since manual records were still being homologated Hayes' record should have been a manual 9.8 s).
I tried to find the official record timeline on the site of IAAF but without success. If it exists it must be very well hidden. Only the current world records are easily accessible. Wikipedia, on the contrary, does give the record progression, based on a compilation by Track and Field News which is complete and accurate. While browsing the Web I was shocked when I stumbled upon a compilation of the evolution of the 100 m men’s world record where Hayes’ name was absent. The same ridiculous list 

100 Meter Record Progression

9.58 seconds, Usain Bolt, (JAM), Aug. 16, 2009 
9.69, Bolt, Aug. 16, 2008
9.72, Bolt, May 31, 2008
9.74, Asafa Powell, (JAM), Sept. 9, 2007
9.77, Powell, Aug. 18, 2006
9.77, Powell, June 11, 2006
9.77, Justin Gatlin, (USA), May 12, 2006
9.77, Asafa Powell, (JAM), June 14, 2005
9.79, Maurice Greene, (USA), June 16, 1999
9.84, Donovan Bailey, (CAN), July 27, 1996
9.85, Leroy Burrell, (USA), July 6, 1994
9.86, Carl Lewis, (USA), August 25, 1991
9.90, Burrell, June 14, 1991
9.92, Lewis, Sept. 24, 1988
9.93, Calvin Smith, (USA), July 3, 1983
9.95 (electronic), Jim Hines, (USA), Oct. 14, 1968 
9.99, Hines, June 20, 1968
10.0, Armin Hary, West (GER), June 21, 1960 
10.1, Willie Williams, (USA), Aug. 3, 1956
10.2, Jesse Owens, (USA), June 20, 1936
10.3, Percy Williams, (CAN), Aug. 9, 1930
10.4, Charles Paddock, (USA), April 23, 1921 
10.6, Donald Lippincott, (USA), July 6, 1912

is repeated over and over. What is the point of all those 9.77 (including the annulled 9.77 of Gatlin) when all the equal performances at 10.0, 10.1, etc. are not given?

Bob Hayes run a 10.06 s 100 m on a crushed brick track on lane 1 on a track that had been devastated the previous day by the 20 km walk. A synthetic track offers a 0.1 s advantage over 100 m, but in the case of Hayes, considering the state of the track, the disadvantage would be more like 0.2 s. Subtract 0.2 s from his time and one finds 9.86 s, a time which would have been a world record for more than 25 years. 

But wait, there is more. There is this incredible 4x100 m. Before the race the french sprinter J. Delecourt told a coach of the US team “you only have Hayes” meaning by this that they could not hope to win the race with just one good sprinter. (The french team was considered a serious contender for the gold medal, also because of their perfectly executed relay passes). The answer of the coach was “Hayes is enough”. It turned out that the latter was right. Hayes took the relay for the final leg some 5 m behind Delecourt. Less than 10 s later he was crossing the line with 3 m advance of the teams of Poland and France with a new world record of 39.0 s. 

The time of Bob Hayes was an incredible 8.5 s (with rolling start). Since in this case he was not running on lane 1 I will allow only for a 0.1 s correction in order to calculate the equivalent synthetic track time. However the time was manually registered and so the standard correction of 0.2-0.25 s is necessary in order to obtain an equivalent electronic time. We end up thus with a worse case scenario of 8.65 s. Now, Bolt’s split in the 2012 Olympics 4x100 m relay was 8.70 s. As I was hinting at the beginning of this post, it is not clear who is the greatest sprinter: Hayes or Bolt. Both are fantastic athletes who have marked their discipline in a permanent way. In the case of Hayes we can only regret that he opted for (american) football just after the Games and so we’ll never know what was his true potential.