18 December, 2016

Those non-european europeans

In my report on the European championships I wrote about the scandal of the new mercenaries of athletics. The turkish team presented 18 non-european-born athletes who garnered 10 medals (pure-bred turks on the other hand secured just two medals). I was pointing out there that we are adulterating our european competitions through the presence of non-european-born athletes.  I was finishing on a hopeful tone since the IAAF had let it be known that after the Olympics they were going to take care of this problem. But then the European Cross Country Championships arrived and Turkey managed a one-two in both senior races. Here are the winners of the women's race

Meryem Akda (Mirriam Jepchirchir)-Yasemin Can (Vivian Jemutai)

and here are the ones of the men's.

Polat Arikan (Paul Kemboi)- Ali Kaya (Stanley Kiprotich)

Now before anybody starts accusing me of hostility against Turkey (for obvious reasons) I will speak my mind. I am not bothered in the least by the fact that Turkey is winning european medals. Had the winners been pure-bred turks I would have applauded their victory without an instant's hesitation. I protest against the presence of all those kenyans in the turkish team mainly because I am convinced that their presence is hurting turkish (and european) athletics. If I were a middle-long distance runner in Turkey would I bother to train hard, knowing that I would never make the national team, the places being taken by athletes imported from Africa? Definitely not! I would look for some other sport with a more level ground. And, to be fair, Turkey is far from being the only country playing this game. In fact at the Amsterdam Europeans Italy had even more foreign-born athletes than Turkey (21 to 18).

After I saw the results of the Cross Country Championships I was of two minds about writing this article immediately or waiting for the IAAF to do something. What pushed me in the direction of posting was an article of Louise (a.k.a. swift_girl) with the delicious title  

Nation Hopping Nonsense!

I already wrote about her great analysis on the four plagues of the athletics world. In her recent article she is doing a great, lapidary, analysis of the problem with the kenyan turks. She asks five questions 

Where were they born?  
Where did they grow up? 
Where do they currently live? 
Where do they train?   
Where will they fly back to after the race?

which, all, have the same answer: Kenya. 
(However, I think that Ali Kaya really lives in Turkey).

There is even the shocking confession of Can-Jemutai after her victories in the Amsterdam Europeans this summer, where she said that she hoped one day to win medals for Kenya.

Probably the greatest mercenary: Saif Saaeed Shaheen (Stephen Cherono) of Qatar 

Louise makes a series of recommendations concerning the measures that should be taken. You can find them in her post. As far as I am concerned I do not blindly object to the presence of foreign-born athletes in continental championships. There are several cases where this is perfectly natural but also cases, like for instance Zola Budd's, where nationality hopping can provoke raucous objections. A case that, for me, should be accepted without discussions is that of people coming from old colonies of some country and living in that country for years but who have only recently acquired the citizenship. 

The case of the double nationality is more delicate. Some people marry and as a consequence they (may) change their citizenship (Wilson Kipketer is the best such example). Also there are people who emigrate and decide to pursue their career in the new country. But here some constraints should apply. People should really live in their adoptive country for some time before being allowed to compete under its colours. The question of time between participations under the first and the second nationalities should also be settled (two or four years should be the typical answer).

And, after all, if people decide to change nationality for personal reasons we should let them do so. It is doing it for money, even if we live in an era of absolute professionalism, that I cannot condone. This is hurting athletics and makes the competitions what Louise, with her legendary outspokenness, her franc-parler, is calling a 'farce'.

01 December, 2016

Understanding the Paralympics

Hadn't it been for Pistorius I would never have been interested in the paralympic movement. Still, when the blade runner started "making waves" in the athletics circles I started paying attention. Then along came M. Rehm with his "out of this world" 8.40 m long jump record and I felt that "augmented humans" could not be ignored anymore. I wrote two posts, one dealing with Pistorius and one focusing on Rehm. Upon researching them I found out that France had a great champion in the person of M.-A. Lefur, world and (para-)olympic champion and world record holder.

M.-A. LeFur winning the 100 m at the London, 2012, Paralympics

So, after the Rio Olympics I followed the Paralympics competitions. To tell the truth I did not follow them as systematically as the olympic ones, but after all that was the first time I was interesting myself in sports for disabled persons. (One further motivation was that the greek team had a great success in the Rio Paralympics, winning more medals than in the Olympic competition). One difficulty that I faced immediately was understanding the IPC (the acronym stands for International Paralympics Committee) classification. All these T and F categories were totally impenetrable for me. So, I decided to learn more about the classification for disabled athletes and the best way to do this was to prepare a blog article. In this way it may be a useful guide to people who face the same difficulty as myself. (You have certainly noticed that I am using the term "disabled" and not the politically correct "differently abled". I am convinced that "disabled" is not in the least derogatory. It describes a real situation and, at least for me, commands a greater respect for the persons who train and compete despite their physical handicap).

The basis of the IPC classification is the International Classification of Functioning Disability and Health published by the World Health Organisation. The main idea is to provide a system for the eligibility of athletes according to their impairment placing them into classes according to the extent of activity limitation.

There are 10 eligible impairment types:

Impaired muscle power

Impaired passive range of movement

Limb deficiency

Ataxia (lack of muscle co-ordination)

Athetosis (repetitive involuntary movements)

Hypertonia (abnormal increase in muscle tension)

Short stature

Leg length difference (minimum of 7 cm)

Visual impairment

Intellectual impairment (must be diagnosed before the age of 18)

The classification scheme assigns a letter and a two-digit number to each of the categories. First the letters: T stands for track and F stands for field. But to make things harder to understand jumps are classified as "track" and thus have a T prefix. So F stands for throws only. The numbers are related to the type of impairment (first digit) and the gravity of the impairment (second digit). As a general rule the lower the number in a given class the more severe the impairment. For instance in the class T42-44 the impairment is severest in T42 and less severe in T44. (Both LeFur and Rehm belong to the T44 category. Pistorius is a T43).

Here ere the detailed disciplines

11–13: Blind (11) and visually impaired (12, 13) athletes
20: Athletes with an intellectual disability
31–38: Athletes with coordination impairments; 31-34 for wheelchair racing or seated throwing, 35-38 for ambulant (running) events
40-41: dwarfism, multiple sclerosis or congenital deformities
42–47: Amputees; 42-44 Lower limb affected by limb deficiency, 45-47 upper limb affected by limb deficiency 
51–58: Limb deficiency

Running and jumping has 16 classes: T11-13, T20, T35-38, T40-41, T42-44, T45-47 and for wheelchair T32-34, T51-54.

Throws have 15 classes: T11-13, T20, T35-38, T40-41, T42-44, T45-46 and for seated throws T31-34, T51-58.

Given the nature of the impairments we expect a certain structure in the records. For running, the record of T13 is in general better than that of T12 which in turn is better than the one of T11. There are few performances for the T20 class and none for running and jumping for the T40-41 classes. Classes 42-47 in general have good performances in running with two great performances for the T43 class: Oliveira's 20.66 in the 200 m and Pistorius' 45.39 in the 400 m. The same pattern is reproduced in the jumping events (but more on this point latter). Wheelchair racing events are not very performant over short distances (where the wheelchair inertia prohibits strong accelerations) but become more efficient as the distance grows. Their records are better than the current world record for able athletes for distances beyond 400 m. In throwing events the men's records are in general very good in the F11-13 class as well as in the F42-46 (with the exception of T45 where the upper limb impairment is severe). For women the throwing records follow the same pattern but they are not of the same quality, most probably because the recruitment of female parathletes is not as strong as the one of men's. Clearly seated throws are at a definite disadvantage and this reflects itself in relatively modest records.

M. Rehm winning the Rio Paralympics long jump

I have mentioned above a few great parathletes. T44 M. Rehm with his 8.40 m long jump record (his 8.21 m in Rio would have won him a 5th place in the olympic competition). O. Pistorius with his 45.39 400 m record and his participation at the London 2012 Olympics. Marie-Amélie LeFur's 5.83 m long jump record was a minor deception for me. Her (slightly wind-aided) 5.84 m jump in Doha was in fact an over 6 m one from the point of take-off. So, I was hoping that she would jump beyond 6 m in Rio. Well, perhaps next time (although in her recent interviews she said that she was planning to take a year or two off).

Probably the greatest T&F parathlete is Marla Runyan. Not only was she a multiple gold medalist at the 1992 and 1996 Paralympics but also a finalist of the 2000 olympic 1500 m. She won also the 1999 Pan American Games over the same distance. She qualified again for the 2004 US olympic team in the 5 km but in Athens she did not manage to make it to the final. She holds several T13 IPC records for 400 mw with 54.46, 1500 m with 4:05.27, 5000 m with 15:07.19, high jump with 1.80 m and long jump with 5.88 m, as well as for the pentathlon. Her personal bests at 3000 m, 10000 m, and the marathon are also best world performances but, curiously, they were never ratified by the IPC. Runyan is an accomplished heptathlete and holds the heptathlon-800 m US record with 2:04.60. 

M. Runyan, paralympic champion and olympic finalist

Several more great athletes do exist. Poland's, T44, Maciej Lepiato jumped a 2.19 m world record in Rio. Jackie Christiansen's, F44, shot put record of 18.38 m goes back to 2011 while in discus throw David Blair established a new F44 record with 64.11 m in Rio. Cuba's Omara Durand holds the women's T12 world records for 100 m, 200 m and 400 m with 11.40 s, 23.03 s and 51.77 s respectively! 

O. Durand. She could have made it to the olympic semi-final in the 400 m

Oksana Zubkovska was a high and long jumper with personal bests of 1.90 m and 6.71 m before becoming a parathlete due to sight loss. She has the T12 world record with 6.60 m from Rio (but she jumped 6.70 m in June, which apparently was not submitted for homologation). Given that the T12 high jump record is a meager 1.57 m I am convinced that she can shine in this discipline as well. The same sight loss made Assunta Legnante, the 2007 European Indoor shot put champion, become a parathlete. Her personal best from 2002 is 19.20 m and she holds the F11 world record with 17.32 m.

O. Zubkovska. She could have qualified for the olympic long jump final

I cannot conclude this article without mentioning two special cases. The first is Ilke Wylluda, the 1996 olympic champion in women's discus throw and, with 74.56 m, the second all-time best performer. Having her leg amputated in 2010 she returned to athletics as a parathlete. She won bronze and silver in discus throw and shot put in the 2014 IPC Europeans but her first appearance at the Paralympics in 2012 was not a success as she finished 5th in shot put and only 9th in discus throw. Unfortunately, she was injured while preparing for Rio and she missed this year's Paralympics. The other is a 19 years old pole vaulter: Charlotte Brown. She had severe eye problems right from birth and she is legally blind from age 11 (she can see only a "jigsaw puzzle" of light and dark shades). Despite her severe impairment she is very active in sports her main discipline being pole vault where, last year, she managed to win a bronze medal in the state championships with a 3.5 m clearance. Alas, pole vault is not a discipline in parathletics but, for me, Charlotte Brown is a world record holder.

C. Brown. For her, sky is the limit 

While perusing the impairment types I was intrigued by the intellectual impairment one. It is typically defined as leading to difficulties with regards to pattern recognition, sequencing, memory or slower reaction time. How does this have an impact on performance? Two examples are provided in the explanatory guide. Middle distance T20 athletes have difficulties in pacing, while in long jump the impairment makes the anticipation of the take-off board more difficult. Still the T20 world record for men's 800 m is a respectable 1:53.63 while in the long jump the Rio winner established a world record with 7.60 m. For F20 men's shot put the record is 16.84 m. For women the corresponding records are 2:18.10, 6.09 m and 13.94 m, the last one established in Rio.

While in athletics all ten impairment types give rise to special classes in competition this is not true for other sports. Moreover each sport has specific competition classes. In powerlifting for instance intellectual and visual impairment are not eligible and there is only one class. In swimming all ten impairments are eligible and the 14 classes are distinguishing freestyle, butterfly and backstroke events from the breaststroke ones. For judo only visual impairment is eligible and all three classes compete together in one event. 

Clearly if one wishes to understand the functioning of Paralympics one has to focus on the sports one is interested in and try to understand the classification system. Still, at least for athletics, this is highly nontrivial and the only way to follow the Paralympics is by having a short summary, of shopping-list kind, close at hand. I will have to do this for the Tokyo, 2020, Paralympics.

15 November, 2016

Something happened

On October 8th the blog completed three years of existence. In my post celebrating the third anniversary I was writing that the blog had had close to 20000 views since its first post. That's a bit more than 500 per month or slightly less than 20 per day. Then something happened: from October 15th the number of views skyrocketed. They went 47 on the 15th, 86 the day after and 201 on the 17th.

Over one month the number of views reached 4800 and on November 1st a record 246 views were attained. The tendency continues to this date with some ups and downs: 20 views on November 5th, 41 on the 6th but then 225 on the 8th. (And 201 on November 15th, as I write these lines).

I must say that I do not understand this. The increased number of views concerns only articles posted in 2016. The views of the pre-2016 did not change appreciably. Moreover 90 % of the 4800 page views come from the US. 

My first idea was that this was an artefact due to some new way of Google counting page views. But a look at my second blog (visit it!) sufficed in order to invalidate this hypothesis. There last month's page views did not exceed 500 (US counting for roughly 40 % of the total). Another interpretation could have been that the blog was cited and linked to in some well-frequented page. This is the case of my most viewed article "The javelin controversy". But this would not explain the uniform increase of the views of the 2016 posts (some of which are necessarily less interesting than others).

So, I am at loss. Of course, one could argue that having more page views is a good thing but if these views are due to some robot piloted by keywords which, olympiade oblige, contain the word "athletics" the situation could become frustrating. (However this scenario is also improbable due to the non-negligible fluctuations observed).

Still, it is somehow funny to check the views in the morning finding out that the previous day's ones have jumped from a dozen or two to over a hundred, once people in the US started working. 

10 November, 2016

Fouling out in decathlon

I was watching (on tv) the European Championships when I noticed J. Ureña of Spain entering the throwing circle for his third attempt at discus throw. He had fouled the first two and that was his last chance. Ureña had made an exemplary competition up to that point: he was second in the classification after 6 events and a serious contender for a medal. However discus throwing is his worst event and throwing under tremendous stress he fouled his last attempt, dropped out of the medal race and lost his chances to make the olympic minimum.

J. Ureña end his father, who is also his coach, after the third foul

A similar situation occured at the Rio Olympics. This time the victim was O. Kasyanov of Ukraine. Being 7th in the provisional classification he could not manage a single valid throw in the discus and abandonned the competiion. However the differences between Ureña and Kasyanov are substantial. Ureña is a young, 23 years old, decathlete with a particularly weak discus personal best. Kasyanov on the other hand is a weathered, 31 years old, competitor with an excellent personal best of 51.95 m in the discus. 

So, fouling in decathlon and losing one's chances is something that can happen even to the best athletes. The probably best known case is that of the olympic and world champion as well as ex- world record holder D. O'Brien. During the 1992 US Trials, O'Brien, who was the number one favourite for the olympic title in Barcelona, decided to start the pole vault event at 4.80 m. Not an unreasonable height given his personal best of 5.20 m but still a tad high. He failed all three attempts and was thus eliminated from the team. This was doubly embarassing since his sponsor, Reebok, had invested a fortune in promoting the duel between O'Brien and D. Johnson, the famous "Dan & Dave" campaign. With Dan out of the Games, Reebok had to modify the tv spots featuring Dan encouraging Dave. (Johnson had to contend himself with bronze in Barcelona where another Reebok athlete, R. Zmelik from Czechoslovakia, won gold). O'Brien proved his great class by improving the world record after the Games with 8891 points. He then went on to add the 1993 and 1995 world titles to his 1991 one and finally captured the elusive olympic gold in the 1996, Atlanta Games. (In the 1996 US Trials, certainly remembering the 1992 fiasco he started his pole vault competition at the tame height of 4.60 m).

D. O'Brien at the 1992 US Trials

Another disaster occured in the 2001 World Championships. E. Barber, from Sierra Leone who had changed her allegiance to France was the reigning wolrd champion having won the heptathlon two years earlier. In Edmonton, Barber was first at the first two events (100 m hurdles and high jump) but at shot put she had three fouls and dropped out of the competition. That was the last chance of Barber to win a major title in the heptathlon. In the World's of 2003 and 2005 she had to settle for second place behind C. Klüft. Still, she captured gold in the 2003 championships in her second specialty, long jump, a discipline she continued to practice long after she had abandonned the heptathlon, jumping a respectable 6.55 m in 2013 at 39 years of age.

E. Barber after her third shot put foul

B. Clay was the 2008 olympic decathlon champion (and silver medalist at the 2004 Olympics). Moreover Clay was one of the best throwers  in decathlon, second only to M. Smith. Clay's records in the decathlon shot put, discus and javelin throw were 16.27 m, 53.68 m and 72.00 m (as compared to Smith's 16.94 m, 52.90 m and 71.22 m). Clay's 53.68 m is the best discus performance in a decatlhon and, in fact, he has done even better, but not in a decathlon competition, throwing 55.87 m in 2005. And since we are talking about great throwers, Smith personal best in the shot put is 18.03 m. In 2012 Clay participated at the US Trials, hoping to make the team for a third time. He tripped in the 110 m hurdles, was initially disqualified for tipping the 10th hurdle, then reinstated, with a time of 16.81 s. Unfortunately, being most probably perturbed by this misfortune and not having obtained yet the reinstatement, he participated at the discus throw and fouled thrice. Still he hang on and finished the competition although I am sure that he simply jogged through the 1500 m finishing in 5:09.62. Had he thrown a feasible for him 52 m in the discus he would have made the team despite the abysmal times in 110 m and 1500 m. He amassed 7092 points, the third and qualifying place necessitating 7955 points. With a 52 m throw in the discuss we would have scored 8004 points.

B. Clay at the 2012 US Trials

K. Johnson-Thompson does not have (yet!) the impressive titles of the other three champions I discussed above. Well, she is the european indoor champion of 2015 in pentathlon and she has two impressive ratios of combined event total vs sum of personal bests with 6682/6967, i.e. 96 %, in heptathlon and 5000/5053, i.e. an incredible 99 %, in indoor pentathlon. In fact, when she established her 5000 record she registered her best performances in 60 m hurdles, shot put and 800 m while in the jumps she obtained 1.95 and 6.89 m, to be compared to her personal bests of 1.97 and 6.93 m. Her 6.89 m is the world indoor best for the pentathlon. After her victory in the indoors, Johnson-Thompson was one of the favourite for the 2015 World's and she finished the first day in second place. And then disaster struck. She fouled all her three attempts at long jump, including a great jump at her third attempt of around 6.80 m fouled by a very small centimetre. She appealed the decision and participated at the javelin, but when her appeal was rejected she just jogged through the 800 m, finishing last. Had her jump been validated whereupon she would have run a decent 800 m she would have certainly obtained a medal.

K. Johnson-Thompson arguing in vain with the judges

The possibility of fouling out is something that combined events athletes have to face in every competition and be prepared for. I will not pretend to have the perfect strategy but here is what I would advise. First, we must distinguish long jump and throws form vertical jumps. In the first, horizontal, case I would suggest that the athlete take a maximum risk in the first try. If this works so much the better. If he fouls then the second try should be a very cautious one aiming at securing a minimal number of points so as to avoid the disaster. If this succeeds then the third try can be again a maximal risk one. But suppose the second attempt is also a foul. Now two possibilities exist. If a minimal performance is enough for the athlete to attain his (perhaps revised) objective then he should go for this. However if too small a number of points is tantamount to failure then the athlete should go all out, take risks and hope for the best. At worse he will have fouled out this event. But, hey, things like that do happen. Vertical jumps call for a different strategy. I believe that the athlete should always take an easy jump at a lesser height so as to secure a moderate number of points. After that one can do as one likes. The difficult thing is to define what is a "lesser" height. A ballpark estimate would be 20 cm for high jump and 50 cm for pole vault below what the athlete belives he is capable of in the competition at hand. An even lower height could be advisable since it would lend extra security. How would this work for O'Brien? His best pole vault performance in 1992 was 5.00 m. So my recipee above would suggest that he start with a jump at 4.50 m. Starting at 4.80 m was an unnecessary risk which costed him olympic gold.

But there is another, even worse fouling out possibility: falling in the hurdles event. We saw that for Clay. This deprived him of a third qualification for the Olympics. For women a hurdles incident is even more dramatic since the 100 m is the very first event of the heptathlon. N. Broersen was among the favourites for the women's heptathlon in the 2013 world championhips. 

N. Broersen falling in the 2013 World's

Unfortunately for her she fell on the very last hurdle. Still she got up and crossed the finishing line but all hopes for a medal were lost despite her nice performances in the remaining events. (Her efforts were to be rewarded the following year when she won the 2014 indoor world title). A second recent hurdle disaster was that of US athlete B. Nwaba at the 2015 World's. She lost her balance at the first hurdle, tripped on the second and fell. Still, despite getting a zero in the hurdles, she continued and finished bravely her heptathlon. She finished 4th in this year's indoor World's. (Had she obtained a better result in the long jump, close to her personal best, she could have grabbed the bronze medal. Curiously long jump was again her worse event in the 2016 US Trials and in the olympic heptathlon). 

The cases of Broersen and Nwaba are far from unique. Almost every major championship has a hurdle disaster in the combined events. By the way, when you look at the photo of the European champion A. Vetter in my post  on the 2016 Europeans you can see in the background an athlete sprawled on the track. That's K. Tyminska of Poland who missed thus her chances to qualify for the Rio Olympics.

01 November, 2016

Caster Semenya athlete of the year ⁉︎ You're joking

I have trouble understanding the IAAF's athlete of the year selection process. Two years ago they included in their list J. Gatlin, a doping twice-offender who should have been banned for life. This year they are at it again, this time with C. Semenya who dominates the 800 m thanks to the decision of the CAS that overruled the IAAF imposed testosterone level control. I have promised to write a longer article on Semenya and I will do it one day. However, looking at the list, I started thinking who would I vote for and which names I would have omitted. 

So, here are my comments on the the IAAF preliminary list and my personal top-three.

Almaz Ayana. She ran an out-of-this-world 10 km at the Olympics. However her subsequent lacklustre performances over the 5 km make me rather sceptical. Is there a repetition of the Wang Junxia scenario?

Ruth Beitia. Although she is highly commendable for her longevity and career I do not think she has a place among the top-ten athletes.

Vivian Cheruiyot. Again, a great athlete but I would not have included her in my top-ten list.

Kendra Harrison. I would inclue "Kennie" in my top-three list despite the fact that she could not make it to the Olympics. She broke one of the "haunted" world records dominating the discipline (except when it counted, at the US Trials).

Caterine Ibargüen. Definitely in my top-three list. She has dominated triple jump like nobody else over the past years.

Ruth Jebet. A great runner. I did particularly like the fact that she did not take undue risks at the Olympics and went for the record in a tamer competition.

Sandra Perkovic. An excellent and very consistent thrower. I know that I am being unfair by not including her in my top-three but somehow the performances from the 80's still linger in my memory (although I know that they were obtained in dubious conditions).

Caster Semenya. The fact that she appears in the list is an injustice to other women.

Elaine Thompson. She was my favourite for the olympic medals. Still, I wouldn't include her in my top-three. Next year perhaps?

Anita Wlodarczyk. The greatest female hammer-thrower of all times. She is definitely in my top-three list and my favourite for number one (despite the fact that I am an unconditional Ibargüen fan).

So my top-three in order: Wlodarczyk, Ibargüen, Harrison.

Usain Bolt. He's the greatest sprinter of all times. It is impossible not to include him in the top-three.

Thiago Braz. Come on, be serious. Braz da Silva's feat was winning the Olympics and beating Lavillenie. Is this enough for an athlete of the year selection? I do not think so.

Ashton Eaton. Probably the best decathlete of all times but this year was not his best one.

Mo Farah. He has been dominating his distances for quite some time now but the rumours concerning his coach (A. Salazar) in doping matters are enough to make me hesitate.

Eliud Kipchoge. Great Marathon runner but I wouldn't have included him in my top-ten list.

Conseslus Kipruto. An upcoming steeplechaser but still not the best. Next year perhaps?

Omar McLeod. To my eyes he is the future of high hurdles. Definitely in my top-three list.

David Rudisha. His come-back to top shape just in time for the Olympics is ample justification for the top-ten list but, somehow, not enough for my top-three.

Christian Taylor. I do not think that this was Taylor's best year despite his success. We were all expecting him to go fetch Edwards record. Who knows? Perhaps at next year's World's. 

Wayde van Niekerk. The indisputable number one. Not only did he crush the competition at the Olympics but he totally dominated the quarter-mile throughout the year.

My men's top-three in order: van Niekerk, Bolt, McLeod.

I find this photo of van Niekerk and James absolutely superb.
I had to give it here.

While I stand by my choices I am aware that the IAAF voters may (will) make different choices. So, most probably Ayana and Farah (perhaps even Jebet or Perkovic) will find themselves among the top-three. Well, we'll have to wait and see.

PS1. The IAAF has made public the names of the three finalists. For men the results are exactly what I expected: Bolt, Farah and van Niekerk. For women we have Ayana (something I expected), Thompson (I wouldn't have predicted this despite the fact that I am a great fan of her) and Wlodarczyk. 
My favourites for the title are always van Niekerk and Wlodarczyk but we have to wait till the end of the month.

PS2. The athletes of the year were announced today. They are Bolt and Ayana. While I feel that for Bolt the nomination is totally justified (but, still I would have chosen van Niekerk), I find the non-nomination of Wlodarczyk to be a huge injustice. She has been dominating her discipline like nobody else. 
On the other hand the nomination of the two "rising stars" was 100 % to my taste. Both Nafissatou Thiam and André de Grasse are athletes that I have been following for quite some time now and I am overjoyed by their nomination.
President's award went to Tegla Loroupe, another great athlete that I have always been admiring.

PS3. Just in case you were wondering who have been nominate athletes of the year since this distinction started back in 1988, here is the list

1988 Carl Lewis (USA) / Florence Griffith-Joyner (USA)
1989 Roger Kingdom (USA) / Ana Fidelia Quirot (CUB)
1990 Steve Backley (GBR) / Merlene Ottey (JAM)
1991 Carl Lewis (USA) / Katrin Krabbe (GER)
1992 Kevin Young (USA) / Heike Henkel (GER)
1993 Colin Jackson (GBR) / Sally Gunnell (GBR)
1994 Noureddine Morceli (ALG) / Jackie Joyner-Kersee (USA)
1995 Jonathan Edwards (GBR) / Gwen Torrence (USA)
1996 Michael Johnson (USA) / Svetlana Masterkova (RUS)
1997 Wilson Kipketer (DEN) / Marion Jones (USA)
1998 Haile Gebrselassie (ETH) / Marion Jones (USA)
1999 Michael Johnson (USA) / Gabriela Szabo (ROM)
2000 Jan Zelezny (CZE) / Marion Jones (USA)
2001 Hicham El Guerrouj (MAR) / Stacy Dragila (USA)
2002 Hicham El Guerrouj (MAR) / Paula Radcliffe (GBR)
2003 Hicham El Guerrouj (MAR) / Hestrie Cloete (RSA)
2004 Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) / Yelena Isinbayeva (RUS)
2005 Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) / Yelena Isinbayeva (RUS)
2006 Asafa Powell (JAM) / Sanya Richards (USA)
2007 Tyson Gay (USA) / Meseret Defar (ETH)
2008 Usain Bolt (JAM) / Yelena Isinbayeva (RUS)
2009 Usain Bolt (JAM) / Sanya Richards (USA)
2010 David Rudisha (KEN) / Blanca Vlasic (CRO)
2011 Usain Bolt (JAM) / Sally Pearson (AUS)
2012 Usain Bolt (JAM) / Allyson Felix (USA)
2013 Usain Bolt (JAM) / Shelly-Ann Fraser (JAM)
2014 Renaud Lavillenie (FRA) / Valerie Adams (NZL)
2015 Ashton Eaton (USA) / Genzebe Dibaba (ETH)

2016 Usain Bolt (JAM) / Almaz Ayana (ETH)

08 October, 2016

The blog is three years old

Three years ago I started blogging on Athletics after having read the book of A. Juilland "Rethinking Track and Field". Yes, I stole his title, sort of. But then as Steve Jobs said once, quoting Picasso (but in fact it was T.S. Eliot who said it): "good artists copy, great artists steal". Just joking. The idea was to present some ideas of mine which would not justify a full article (I have published a few of those in New Studies in Athletics). Here I was aiming at shorter things and, at times, at presenting some irreverent ideas. The formula of a blog was one I was familiar with since one year before I had started a blog on pinballs. (And yes, the link is active so that you can click it and visit that other blog of mine).

Three years later the blog is still alive. Not a single month has gone by without me posting something. With more than 100 posts and closing in on the 20000 views the blog has slowly evolved. In the beginning I was not planning to comment on current events. But then, when one finds something interesting, one cannot resist the temptation. Moreover after having followed last year's World Championships I felt that I had to write about my experience. This was the beginning of a series of articles with a report on the major championships. This year I wrote about the World Indoors, The Europeans and the Olympics. I like the formula because it allows me not only to comment on the championships but also to give my impressions on selected athletes, the ones I will follow in the future and the ones I would like not to see again on the track (Gatlin and Pitkämäki, I am looking at you).

Reading the articles I have published one can easily distinguish my love for combined events. Well, it's a fact. I have always been fascinated by the decathlon (and have always been hoping that one day women were going to adopt it, but my hopes are slowly fading). So, if you are a combined-events buff like myself don't hesitate to visit here. I am signing for at least one more year of blogging.

05 October, 2016

Facing the calvary: the combined-events' 800/1500 m

As I promised in the previous post I would like to discuss these special events that mark the end of the decathlon/heptathlon/pentathlon, namely 1500 m and 1000 m for men and 800 m for women. For combined event athletes these events are a true calvary (all the more so since they come at the end of two days of gruelling efforts) and their performances are rather below par. A notable exception to this is Nadine Debois' 2:01.84 s record in the heptathlon 800 m, a performance set in 1987. 

Nadine Debois winning the heptathlon 800 m at the European Cup of combined events in 1987

Just to be able to appreciate the quality of this record let me point out that with the current scoring tables this performance corresponds to 1121 points. For men to obtain the same score in the 1500 m they have to run below 3:39! Debois was also a 400 m specialist (she was member of the 4x400 m national team that finished 7th at the Rome, 1987, World's and the Seoul, 1988, Olympics) which explains her performance in the 800 m. N. Debois' record stands for 30 years now. The one who came closer to breaking it was Irina Belova, who at the very end of her career ran a 2:02.06 800 m at the Götzis, 2001, Hypo-meeting. However since Belova had been previously suspended for a doping offence (she lost her World Indoor pentathlon title on that occasion) I am somewhat sceptical about her performance. 
The only other athlete who came within one second of Debois' record is Ester Goosens of the Netherlands. She ran a 2:02.70 800 m in a 5873 points heptathlon in 1997. However Goosens was not a real heptathlete but rather an 400-800 m athlete (her national records over the 400 m both indoor and outdoor, 400 m hurdles and 800 m indoor still stand) who dabbed at combined events. By the way, Goosens has the indoor pentathlon 800 m record with 2:04.42.

Ester Goossens was a 400-800 m specialist

In the recent years the best performance in a heptathlon 800 m is that of Karolina Tyminska who ran an 2:05.21 in the Daegu, 2001, world championships.

For men things are not as good. The best 1500 m performance for a 7000+ points decathlon is due to Robert Baker and goes back to 1980. He ran 3:58.70 to complete a decathlon of 7583 points (scored with the current table). Closer to us we have Curtis Beach who ran a 3:59.13 1500 m in a 2011 decathlon. Beach is a 8000+ decathlete but his personal best of 8081 from 2015 was obtained with a 4:06.18 1500 m. This is most probably the best 1500 m time for a 8000 plus decathlon. (The only other decathlete coming close to this is Herbert Peter who ran a  4:08.42 in a wind-legal 8111 decathlon. He had the best 1500 m 7000+ performance with 4:00.51 in 1978, but then his record was broken by Baker). Beach (who is also an excellent 400 m hurdler with a 49.87 s personal best) has the best indoor 1000 m heptathlon performance with 2:23.63 from 2012, obtained in a 6138 heptathlon. Since Beach is still competing (he was 4th at the 2016 World's Indoors) it is not impossible to see him break Baker's record one day. His 800 m personal best of 1:47.75 (and his 1:47.99 season best) corresponds to a 3:42 s 1500 m. It suffices thus that he perform at a conservative 93 % in order to break Baker's record. 

Curtis Beach is an excellent 800 m runner

Of course, when we talk about best performances in any individual event of a decathlon/heptathlon we are talking about a real multi-event competition where the athlete participates at all events and at least starts in the 1500 m/800 m. (Otherwise it is very easy to establish best performances like the 83.96 m javelin (old-style) throw of S. Boros who took part in a decathlon but only threw the javelin). Moreover the performance in the combined event must be a serious one. F. Zarnowski, the great decathlon specialist places the threshold at 7000 points. I am not quite sure about the threshold for women but logically it should be around 5000-5500 points for heptathlon and 4000 points for pentathlon. Below this minimal score we cannot really talk about a combined event. Which reminds me of having read in the late 50s or early 60s of Silvano Meconi, the italian recordman in shot put, participating in a decathlon where he had an excellent performance in the shot put, around 17 m, but managed to score less than 3000 points overall. Bill Mallon the great historian of the Olympics has presented the progression of the world best in each decathlon event including an impressive amount of details.  Concerning the 1500 m we learn thus that there are performances better than the world best but which were obtained in a low-score decathlon. Luigi Beccali, the 1932 olympic champion of 1500 m, ran a 4:00.2 in a decathlon but his overall score was below 5000 points. To date the best performance in a decathlon 1500 m is due to Paul Cummings (ex half-marathon world record holder with 1:01:32) who ran a 3:48.2 in a below 5000 points decathlon.

So, indeed, the performances in the decathlon's 1500 m do lag behind those of women in the heptathlon's 800 m and one does not see how the situation could change. Decathletes usually settle for a 700 points performance in the 1500 m while women strive for an over 1000 points score in the 800 m.

As N. Debois was pointing out in her commentary included in to my previous post, the 800 m is easier than a 1500 m. The 800 m is an event at the limits of prolonged-speed and middle-distance while the 1500 m is really a middle-distance event. This explains why there are practically no decathlon-1500 m specialists.
Also the heptathletes participate at the 800 m  having contested fewer events and are thus less tired than the decathletes. The latter start at the 1500 m after 9 events and a short time after the pole vault event which is particularly tiresome. 

I am deeply indebted to Mme Debois who has responded so kindly to my query and I hope this article will help her reminisce her superhuman effort in Talence in 1987. (She scored 6227 points, missing out third place for just 10 points most probably due to her below-par 30.12 m at javelin throw and despite her world-record 800 m).

04 October, 2016

The battle of the sexes: heptathletes and decathletes

Both are athletes competing in combined events. Thus the obvious assumption is that heptathletes and decathletes have similar profiles. In a sense they do, but it is interesting to have a closer look. It goes without saying that I am talking here about the world elite, combined events athletes who have garnered international distinctions and/or whose best performance figures among the all-time top-ten best.

Let me start with men. The typical decathlete is an all-around athlete who performs equally well on practically all nine events (I will come back to the 1500 m in my next post). However a top decathlete's performances, although at times excellent, do not suffice for him to compete with the specialists of the various events. Among the best decathlon performances only Tim Lobinger's 5.76 m record at pole vault could earn a podium position at some major international competition. But then Lobinger is not a real decathlete, but just a pole vaulter who dabbed at decathlon occasionally. If we discard Lobinger's record the only one that could stand outside a combined event competition is Eaton's 8.23 m long jump and perhaps his 45.00 s time in the 400 m. But more on Eaton later.

I went through the list of top decathletes. None of the giants of the discipline like R. Sebrle, T. Dvorak or D. O'Brien had ever had any success in non-combined events. The only minor exception is D. Thompson who was member of the 4x100 m UK team that in 1986 won bronze at the Europeans and silver at the Commonwealth Games. He had after all a 10.26 s personal record in the 100 m.(Today the decathlon 100 m record is held by D. Warner with 10.15 s).

I like this photo of D. Thompson. It looks as if he has exterminated his opponents

The one exception to the rule that decathletes are just superlative all-arounders is A. Eaton. I have written about his 400 m hurdles 2014 season in an older postInitially Eaton planned a season away from decathlon as a means of "doing something fun" but also to get away from the strenuous multi-event training. Not only did he realise his plan but he ended the season with a superlative 48.69 s record and, what is more important, with a victory at a Diamond League meeting where he beat the event's specialists. (The only decathlete I can think of who has a better performance in the 400 m hurdles is Norway's K. Warholm who ran at the Rio Olympics a 48.49 s in his heat before exiting at the semis. But then 20 years old Warholm can hardly be considered as a top decathlete).

A. Eaton may not be the perfect stylist over the low hurdles but he is definitely efficient

It is now interesting to ask the same question about women. Are they also great all-arounders who excel at heptathlon or do they perform differently from men? One has to look no further than the current world record holder to find differences. Jackie Joyner-Kersee had won two gold medals in heptathlon in the Olympics (1988, 1992) and another two in the World's (1987, 1993) but on top of this she had one olympic gold in long jump (1988) and another two in the world championships (1987, 1991). Eunice Barber was also a great long jumper. Her heptathlon gold medal in the 1999 World's was complemented by a long jump gold in the 1995 All-Africa Games and another one at the 2003 World's. And for both  Joyner-Kersee and Barber I am not counting the "lesser" medals.

C. Klüft was also a good triple jumper and could have been the best decathlete ever

Carolina Klüft is certainly the second best ever heptathlete after Joyner-Kersee. Her palmarès includes one olympic (2004) and three world (2003, 2005, 2007) gold medals plus one indoor in the pentathlon (2003). (And I am not counting her continental medals). Like the two champions mentioned just above she was also a long jumper. She won a bronze medal in the long jump of the 2004 World's (and finished 5th in the 2011 World's in what turned out to be her last major championship). But she was a much more complete athlete than the previous two. She was also a triple jumper with a quite respectable 14.29 m best (but she failed to qualify for the triple jump final of the 2008 Olympics, where she finished 9th in long jump). As I already wrote Klüft could have broken the world record of women's decathlon with a performance of over 9000 points. Curiously she was never tempted by this event. (And, by the way, I wonder if she had ever tried a 400 m hurdles. I wouldn't be astonished if she had).

By now the pattern becomes clear. Contrary to decathletes, heptathletes can excel at  non-combined events. And the list does not stop with the three athletes we mentioned. Jessica Ennis-Hill, 2012 olympic and 2009 & 2015 world champion is an excellent hurdler. She holds the best heptathlon performance over 100 m with 12.54 s. While competing at the heptathlon of the  2006 Commonwealth Games she jumped a 1.91 m personal best, a performance that would have sufficed for a gold medal in the individual event. (Anika Smith, of South Africa won the high jump with 1.91 m which she managed at her second try, just like Ennis-Hill. However Smith had one miss at the opening height of 1.78 m, while Ennis had no misses till 1.91 m). The 2006 Commonwealth's heptathlon was won by Kelly Sotherton who has an olympic bronze medal (2004) and a world's one (2007), to which we should add her World's 2008, silver in the pentathlon. A remarkable athlete, Sotherton reinvented herself as a 400 m runner, when a back injury made it impossible to pursue her career as a combined event athlete. She obtained a silver medal as a member of the UK team in the 2011 european indoors.

K. Sotherton at the end of the 800 m ordeal

I have already written about the feat of Nafissatou Thiam, 2016 heptathlon olympic champion, and Katarina Johnson-Thompson at the 2016 Olympics. Their performance of 1.98 m at high jump (a heptathlon world best) was better than the one of the individual event winner. Both Thiam and Jonhson-Thompson are great jumpers. Thiam was second the european U23 2015 championships at high jump while Jonhson-Thompson, the 2012 world junior champion in long jump, won a silver medal at the 2014 indoor World's.

N. Thiam can become a 2 m high jumper

Here I would like to mention two more heptathletes, because of their unusual profile. The first is the women's decathlon world record holder Austra Skujyte.  She obtained a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics as well as two bronze medals in the world indoor pentathlon in 2004 and 2012. She has the world's best heptathlon performance in shot put with 17.31 m. (The pentathlon world record holder, 2012 indoor world champion  and 2008 heptathlon olympic champion Natallia Dobrynska is not very far behind with a personal best of 17.29 m. In fact Dobrynska participated at the 1999 World Youth championships as a shot putter). To my knowledge Skujyte is the only heptathlete to have participated as a thrower at a major championship: with 17.86 m she was 17th at the 2009 World's, 15th at the 2010 indoors with 17.55 m, 12th at the 2010 European's with 17.72 m and 11th at the 2012 ones with 16.53 m. The second is the 1996 olympic and 1995 World champion Ghada Shouaa from Syria. She used to participate at several individual events at the Arab Championships winning most of the time but the most unusual, for a heptathlete, was her 1993 victory over 800 m. (She went on to win also the 100 m hurdles, long and high jump as well as javelin throw at the same championships. She would have won the heptathlon easily, had she participated).

A. Skujyte is an excellent shot putter but also a very good discus thrower

The list could go on and on but I think that I have proven my point. I would just would like to mention a few more exceptional heptathletes. They started their careers as combined-event athletes and went on to become number-one in individual events. Heike Drechsler, two times olympic and also two times world champion in long jump (to say nothing of her world indoor title in 200 m) started her career as a combined-event athlete, under her maiden name of Daute. In 1981 she obtained a world junior record with a performance of 5812 points( 5891 with the current tables). After world records in long jump with 7.45 m and the 200 m with 21.71 s she came back to the heptathlon, winning the 1994 Decastar in Talence with 6741 points. A look at her performances (13.34, 1.84, 13.58, 22.84, 6.95, 40.64, 2:11.53) would suffice to convince even the most sceptical that she could have had an equally brilliant career as heptathlete. 

H. Drechsler at the 95 World Championships. 
She dropped out of the heptathlon after the shot put

Barbora Spotakova, 2008 and 2012 olympic and 2007 world champion in javelin throw started her career as heptathlete. She was 4th at the 2000 world junior championships, won by C. Klüft. She was of course first in the heptathlon javelin. Her 54.15 m performance would not give her a medal in the individual event but with the winner's throw at 54.82 m everything would have been possible. Spotakova has also participated at a decathlon in 2004, but her 6749 score is rather mediocre. In 2012 she participated at a heptathlon again, improving her personal best by 7 points to 5880, but registering a world's best in heptathlon's javelin with a throw of 60.90 m. High jump 2008 olympic champion Tia Hellebaut also started her career as a combined-event specialist. In 2008 she competed at the World's indoor pentathlon winning the competition and registering a world's best of (indoor) pentathlon high jump with 1.99 m (jumping 15 cm more than the second athlete). Naide Gomes is another exceptional athlete. After a career in combined events where she won the world indoor title of pentathlon in 2004, she specialised in long jump winning another world title in the 2008 indoors. As a national of São Tomé e Príncipe she had participated at the 2000 Olympics in the 100 m hurdles but she gained portuguese citizenship in 2001 and her international distinctions count for Portugal. To my knowledge she did not pursue her heptathlon career beyond 2005 although she continued jumping till 2013. And I will be closing this list with the 2015 200 m world champion Dafne Schippers. Already a world junior champion in heptathlon she won a bronze medal in the 2013 World's. Her 22.73 s is the best performance, post Joyner-Kersee. The latter ran a 22.30 s in 1988 in Indianapolis with a supposedly 0 m/s wind, but when one remembers the zero wind in F. Griffith-Joyner's 100 m, one starts to wonder whether JJK's 200 m performance is really not wind-aided.

N. Gomes  flying in a long jump competition

One can ask, justifiably so, why this difference between men and women combined-event specialists does exist. I must admit that I do not have a convincing explanation. One possibility could be that the men's decathlon is an event more mature than the heptathlon and thus in order to shine one has to be a real all-arounder while in the women's event there may still be a place for dilettantes. Still, I find this improbable given the very high level of women's performances. Another possibility could be that the preparation for the heptathlon leaves some place for specialisation while for the decathlon, with three additional events among which one highly technical (the pole vault), there is simply no spare time in training allowing the athlete to prepare an individual event.

I would like to conclude this article on a more personal tone. While compiling the data for the article I was impressed by the exceptional, for a heptathlete, 800 m record of Nadine Debois and tried to find a photo of hers in the web. Alas, with no success! The wikipedia page in french gives very few details. Curiously the page in finnish is more detailed. We learn for instance that N. Debois had the french indoor record of long jump with 6.81 m in 1986 (hey! this is one more example that heptathletes can shine at individual events) and that in 1987 she ran a 400 m hurdles in 56.54 s. But still no photo. I continued searching and found a Nadine Debois, professor of Sport Psychology at INSEP (which is the french National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance). I could locate some published works of hers (if you can read french I suggest that you read her excellent article on the Evaluation of the Athletes' Mental Strategies here) and an email address. Without hesitation I sent her an email and an hour later I got an answer: yes, she was indeed the ex-heptathlete and she attached the photos she could round up in short notice to her email. 

N. Debois participating at a cross-country competition

So from now on at least some photo of N. Debois, who is one of the rare french world record holders, will be available on the web. We exchanged some correspondence and I forwarded her the first version of the article (before I decided to split it in two parts). It was Mme Debois who pointed out that in that first version I had forgotten H. Drechsler. She had also taken the time to elaborate on the differences between male and female combined events specialists. I reproduce her arguments (which are more detailed and deep than mine) below, translating from french in (hopefully) the most faithful way.

"Concerning the reasons that could explain why women can distinguish themselves at individual events better than what men manage to do, I would suggest that this is essentially due to the nature and the number of events which distinguish heptathlon from decathlon and have an influence on the versatility necessary in order to meet with success at very high level. In the decathlon one must find a a harmonious equilibrium between speed, force, springiness, resistance, endurance and coordination. In the heptathlon, the reduced range of events as well as their nature favour athletes with abilities of speed, springiness and coordination. This is the reason why heptathletes are often highly competitive at 100 m hurdles, long jump and high jump. The 200 m is equally a speed event. Women's shot having a weight of just 4 kg, the heptathletes may count on their speed in order to compensate a lack of force (something more difficult for decathletes with a shot of 7 kg). As for the 800 m, despite the fact that it does "scare" the heptathletes, it is easier than a 1500 m, since the 800 m is an event at the limits of prolonged-speed and middle-distance while the 1500 m is really a middle-distance event. Moreover the heptathletes are less tired when they participate at the 800 m, having contested fewer events, while the decathletes have faced 9 events, among which the 400 m of the first day (a demanding race) and the pole vault which requires lots of energy. Thus we can really qualify the decathletes as "complete" athletes while we can encounter heptathletes who can reach a high international level thanks to strong events compensating a weak one. This is for instance the case of E. Barber who shined in the 100 m hurdles and the long jump (including in the individual events) but had a serious weakness in the shot put. This had not prevented her from becoming world champion in the heptathlon. Myself [N. Debois], at my level of 6333 points, had a weakness in the javelin throw. Of course, there also exist heptathletes of very high level who have a profile well balanced over the various events".

It goes without saying that I am really indebted to N. Debois for her most valuable contribution to this article.