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 S├ębastien 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.