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.