08 February, 2015

Save the triple jump

In a recent post of mine I commented on the folly of the IOC and their plans to amputate the olympic program of athletics. I could not help going back to what I consider a sacrilege and, although I already presented my point of view, I felt that a follow-up was in order.

I chose to dedicate this post to the triple jump but I could equally well write about shot put or any other of the disciplines which are in danger of been kicked out of the olympic programme. Here’s what may happen. The five disciplines, 20000 m men’s race-walking, 10000 m, 200 m, shot put and triple jump may disappear from 2020 onwards. I have amply discussed the arbitrariness of this choice and presented my arguments in favour of the last four or, if pushed to my extreme defences, the last three events. As you most probably have noticed by now, I do not care much about race-walking, so it is OK for me if they drop it from the olympic programme. But how is it possible to contemplate seriously to exclude the triple jump and shot put from the Olympics, events that have been present since 1896? (In fact the last time some event disappeared from the olympic athletics programme without being replaced by something similar, was in 1928).

Joao de Oliveira, ex-world record holder and Olympic medalist

The one thing that we hear repeated at nauseam is Coubertin’s moto (which, by the way, is not his): “participation is more important than winning”. But how can they talk about participation when they plan to expel from the Games a substantial part of modern athletics. At this point I cannot refrain from giving my opinion of the "great" Baron de Coubertin, venerated by generations of people interested in sports. The creation of modern Olympics was based on some serious misunderstandings of the ancient ones on the part of Coubertin. Contrary to what he thought, the ancient athletes were not amateur. Modern athletics have suffered for years due to this misconception (with the help of another infamous figure, that of A. Brundage, but more on the latter in some other post perhaps). In fact Coubertin, being of aristocratic extraction, was using the amateurism argument in order to assert the control of the upper over the working classes in the domain of sport. His misogyny was responsible for the absence of women from the Olympic Games: up to the Second World War the percentage of women participating at the Olympics did not exceed 10 %. And just to settle once and for all the “participation” argument: if there is one point where Coubertin did not understand the ancients it was in the importance of winning. Even St. Paul got it right: in his epistle to Corinthians he writes explicitly "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?" Perhaps Coubertin was not familiar with the writings of St. Paul.

Chrysopigi Devetzi, World and Olympic medalist

So what is the point of trying to curtail the olympic athletics programme? What is the IOC trying to do? To put it bluntly, they are trying to reduce the number of participants and the time dedicated to athletics so that they can add new disciplines to the Olympic programme, disciplines which will arrive bringing a substantial dowry thanks to television rights and sponsors. I can understand that, living in an era where the only thing that counts is money, the IOC is eager to capitalise on the success of the Games and maximise their profits. But is it necessary to amputate the olympic athletics programme in order to do this? As I will explain below this is totally unwarranted. There exist several perfectly acceptable technical solutions. In fact, before considering solutions which would have an impact on athletics, it is clear that the programme should be relieved of disciplines which are either marginal (like the vintage “modern” pentathlon created by Coubertin himself in 1912) or duplicate existing events, like the “team” competition in fencing. But let us concentrate on how the programme of track and field events could be made more compact. 

Jonathan Edwards, World and Olympic champion and world record holder

First, if we are serious about limiting the number of participants, the simplest solution would be to imitate swimming and limit the number of athletes of a given country per event to just two. While this would not allow to reduce the number of athletes by 1/3 (some countries manage to qualify only one or two athletes) it will definitely definitely bring the gain closer to the 20 % that is targeted by the suppression of the five events. Second, qualifying limits can be made harder and thus further reduce the number of athletes who make it to the Olympics. (Remember, we are not talking about participation any more: the important thing is winning). Finally, we could fix the total number of athletes admitted at each event in such a way as to minimise the number of qualifying events. 

This last point would merit that we spend a few lines on it. Fixing the number of qualified athletes and admitting the best ones in the Games has definite advantages but, on the other hand, excludes from the Games all but the very best. Although I do not understand what is the point of having a sprinter from some exotic country participate at the 100 m and run in 12 seconds, I can understand that the IOC wishes to have as a large a participation as possible, when it comes to countries. The only solution to my eyes is then to organise a pre-olympic tournament, say a month before the Games, and have all athletes who do not have already secured their ticket to the Olympics participate. In order to fix the ideas, let as assume that in some event we plan to have only the 24 best at the Olympics. This number can be obtained by taking the 18 best performers (based on results obtained in the year preceding the Olympics) and complement them by the first 6 of the pre-Olympic tournament. 

There are probably other technical solutions as well. Limiting the number of attempts in horizontal jumps and throws is one that springs to mind (although I do not really like it). Rethinking the whole organisation of vertical jump competitions and in particular that of the time-consuming pole vault could also lead to a time saving. In fact, anything would be better than the atrocity the IOC bigwigs are planning to inflict on athletics.

01 February, 2015

The flying steeplechaser

Back when I started writing this blog I knew that one day I was going to write about one of my personal heroes, Giorgos Papavasileiou, the flying steeplechaser. The main difficulty was how does one write about a champion of the 50s and early 60s, just from memory with practically no data. Well, the internet is a magical place. I started looking around and I found out, to my greatest amazement, that a biographical book did exist on Mr. Papavasileiou. The announcement gave the phone number of the author and without delay I did contact him. After a most friendly discussion over phone we fixed an appointment for my next travel to Greece. We met and I discovered that Costas Tsagkarakis (the book’s author) was roughly my age, an athletics fan and a personal admirer of Giorgos Papavasileiou. In fact, since we were both not missing any competition at the Panathinaikon Stadion, we must have been, on many occasions, seated next to each other, at the best possible place in order to watch Mr. Papavasileiou fly over the water without wetting his feet.

The cover of the book on G. Papavasileiou

Giorgos Papavasileiou started his athletic career in Thessaloniki in 1950 and the next year he moved to Athens. In his first participation at a 3000 m steeple race he managed to win a bronze medal at the national championships. Member of the national team in 1953 he broke his first national record over his preferred distance. During his military service he participated several times at the CISM championships winning not only the steeple race (twice) but also the 5000 m once. In 1955 he was first over 3000 m at the Mediterranean Games and broke the greek records in the other two races he participated to, the 1500 and the 5000 m. The same year he won for the first time the Balkan title over 3000 m steeple: he would go on to win the same title for 7 consecutive years. In 1956 he broke the Balkan record of 3000 m steeple with 8:56.00. He participated at the Melbourne Olympic Games where, with 8:56.60 he was classified 13th among 23 participants. In 1958 he participated at the European championships, where he won his semi-final. Unfortunately in the final he was pushed and fell and so managed only an 8th place albeit with a national record of 8:51.20. He won again the Mediterranean title in 1959. 

The superb style of G. Papavasileiou

Preparing for the 1960 Olympic Games he broke more than once the national record of the steeple race bringing it to 8:45.80. But at the Olympics he got doubly unlucky. Arriving to Rome he caught cold and was not feeling well but, what is more important, the Italian organisers had arbitrarily decided to limit the number of athletes in the final to just 9. Thus Papavasileiou, having obtained the 10th position was eliminated. He had reached the apex of his career and at 30 years of age he continued running for a few years but without the previous success. Following an injury he decided to end his carreer in 1964. It was a career rich in results: 18 national titles, 7 Balkan titles, 2 Mediterranean titles and 3 military championships (CISM) titles. He broke 16 times a national record, 12 of which over his preferred discipline, in the span of 8 years. 

After quiting competition he did not abandon athletics.  Already in 1966 he joined the national coaches’ team and held over the years various administrative positions in the national federation. I had the chance to meet Mr. Papavasileiou in person thanks to Costas Tsagkarakis. Believe it or not, at 85 years of age (and looking a good 20 years younger) he is spending every afternoon at the Olympic Stadium in the north suburbs of Athens training young athletes. We met there, on more than one occasions, and I had the opportunity to discuss with him and ask several technical questions.

A photo from 2014 with from left to right, the blog's author
G. Papavasileiou and C, Tsagkarakis (the book's author)

A question that was mentioned in one of the previous blog posts was what was his opinion on a possible 5000 m steeplechase race. It turned that he was in favour of such a race, which, to his eyes, would be even more interesting than the current, 3000 m, one. But the question that I was burning to ask, for years, is the one concerning the hurdle and water jump style of some Kenyan champions. Here is a photo of Kipruto, a sub-8 min, steeplechaser: clearly this is an unacceptable style (I could go into a technical analysis here but let us leave it at that).

The bizarre (to say the least) style of Kipruto

G. Papavasileiou, a specialist of 400 m hurdles as well, a distance he was customarily running at interclub competitions, insists on the importance of good style and in particular on passing over the hurdle without stepping on it. But where he answered in a peremptory style was the water jump. The style favoured by some Kenyans to take the water jump without contact with the barrier is counter-productive. According to Mr. Papavasileiou accelerating before and taking a big jump over the water is one of the best ways to change one’s rhythm and launch an attack in the race. I totally agree with this assessment. The only problem is that most steeplechasers do not have the unique talent of G. Papavasileiou who was flying over the water. 

G. Papavasileiou flying over the water

I have started this post on a personal chord and I would like to finish it in the same spirit. Sometimes when you meet somebody you only admired at a distance you may be disappointed as the private persona does nor match the public one. In the case of Giorgos Papavasileiou it was the exact opposite that happened. I knew about the champion but then, first thanks to the book of Costas Tsagkarakis and then by direct contact, I met the man Papavasileiou. And I must say that I was impressed. I hope to have many more occasions to meet him in the future and perhaps report again in this blog. Meanwhile, this post is a meager tribute to this great athlete.