13 March, 2016

Let's hear it for the scissors high jump

I had started working on this post a few days ago. And it was clear from the outset that I was going to talk about the greatest scissors jumper of all time, Iolanda Balas. Then, before I had managed to put the finishing touches on the post we learned the sad news. Iolanda Balas had passed away. So this post is also a tribute to the memory of that great champion.

Since I have already published an article on high jump techniques (focusing of the Fosbury flop which I like to refer to also as the Brill bend) I did not ever think that I would write something on such a primitive technique as the scissors. But then I run accross a post in the Track and Field News forum where somebody was talking about Rolf Beilschmidt who has apparently, during the warm-up of the 1979, Montréal, World Cup jumped over 2.15 m with scissors. Beilschmidt did not manage to grab a medal at this Cup but he was the winner of the 1977 edition. His personal record was 2.31 m and he shares the best high jump decatlhon performance with C. Schenk with an impressive 2.27 m in a decathlon where he scored 7088 points. He was briefly a European record holder in 1978 with 2.29 m. In a video retracing the story of one of the greatest jumpers of all time, Vladimir Yatchenko, one can see Beilschmidt jumping in the 1979 European Indoor Championhsips. Like Yatchenko he was a straddler and his style was as close to perfection as it can get.

The reference to Beilschmidt spurred my interest and I started thinking about the scissors technique. The name that springs to mind first is that of Iolanda Balas. She made her first apparition at the international arena when she won a silver medal at the European Championships of 1954. In 1956 she broke the world record for the first time but failed to grab a medal at the Melbourne Olympics losing at the same time her record.  In 1958 she retook the world record with 1.78 m and improved it a dozen times bringing it to 1.91 m (a record that was broken only in 1971) in 1961. 

Balas winning in Rome

She won the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, the first one with a 14 cm difference from the silver medalist and the second one with 10 cm. From 1957 till her retirement in 1967 she had a winnning streak of 142 competitions, which constitutes also a unique record.

Was Balas' style a pure scissors? I am afraid this is an academic question. One has to go back to the evolution of high jump techniques. While the first high jumpers used a pure scissors technique

soon that technique evolved towards a more horizontal position known as the Lewden scissors (introduced by the french high jumper Pierre Lewden). 

Pierre Lewden

For me there are subtle differences between the Lewden technique and what is known as the eastern (or japanese) cut-off. In fact in his book, Track & Field Omnibook, Ken Doherty distinguishes nine bar-clearance techniques and credits the athlete who invented it:

Modified Scissors (Page, 1887)
Eastern Cut-off (Sweeney, 1895)
Eastern Trail-leg Shift (Oler, 1914)
Eastern Back-to-the-bar (Larson, 1917)
Western Roll (Horine, 1912)
Straddle (Stewart, 1930)
Dive-Straddle (Cruter, 1938)
Flop (Fosbury and/or Brill, 1968)

but unfortunately there is no mention of Lewden. Well, I think that I will excuse Doherty for this omission, be it only for the fact that he does not attribute the flop to Fosbury alone but he does also mention Brill.

A look at Balas' jumps shows clearly an horizontal position when going over the bar, with the upper body leaning towards the run-up area, just like Lewden. 

Balas in Rome

But, in fact, who cares whether Balas jumped in a pure scissors or a cut-off technique? She simply jumped the way she jumped.

But, wait, there is more. While now-a-days all elite jumpers use the Fosbury flop it is not infrequent to see them during warm-ups pass over a low bar using some variant of scissors (usually with a rudimentary technique). Watching them one realises that those jumpers are superbly gifted. By the way, it is remarcable that both Holm and Barshim do not lean their upper body back but rather bend forward, in their effort to lower their centre of mass, something that the scissors specialists do the other way round.

Barshim "scissoring" 2.15 m

So while scissors is a technique of the past as far as high-level competition is concerned, it remains that it is always a pure expression of jumping ability. And when one sees the feline grace of Barshim it is almost as visually pleasing as the best flop-style jump.

09 March, 2016

A great article by J.-P. Vazel

Those who follow my blog have certainly noticed that I have a great respect for the french coach and blogger extraordinaire Jean-Pierre Vazel. He is a constant source of inspiration for this blog. Unfortunately his blog, Plus vite, plus haut, plus fort (which is the french translation of the Olympic motto "Citius, altius, fortius", proposed by de Coubertin in latin for the Paris, 1924, Games) is in french and thus is reserved only to the happy few who can understand the language of Molière. 

However this time Vazel has published an article in english. You can find it at the site of freelap (a site I recommend for all people interested in coaching). The subject is a historical account of the maximal speed attained by humans (males only) over the last 100 years. 

It's a brilliant piece of work, perfectly documented and and with a cogent analysis. As always, concerning J.-P. Vazel's work I urge you to go there and read his article. This time you do not have the excuse of the language.

And for those who could have a doubt. No, the favicon of my blog is not taken from the same picture as the one of the article of Vazel. 

Mine is taken from the amphora above.

07 March, 2016

Gatlin's knockabout farce

A few days ago I run across an article with title "Justin Gatlin breaks Usain Bolt's 100 m record with 9.45 second dash on Japanese television show". In fact the internet was brimming with articles on the same subject. All written more or less in the same ludicrous admiring tone talking about Gatlin's feat. And of course, downplaying the fact that Gatlin was propelled along the track by fans creating a favourable wind of 20 m/s (incorrectly reported in most publications as 20 miles per hour i.e. roughly 9 m/s).

If this is where Athletics are heading I will stop interesting myself in this sport and close this blog. (Perhaps I could take up something else, writing a blog on pinballs for instance. Now, that sounds like a good idea).

This farcical performance was staged for the japanese television show Kasupei. The expression of the japanese journalists is priceless.

But what is the real value of Gatlin's performance? First let us analyse the wind assistance. Looking at the fan set-up it is highly improbable that a 20 m/s wind could be indeed blowing  all along the track. I am ready to settle for a more conservative 10 m/s. In a paper published 15 years ago, Mureika estimates the time gain due to an assisting wind. The formula he proposes breaks down when the speed of the wind is higher than that of the athlete but if one limits oneself to the case where the two speeds are equal one finds that the time gain for a 10 s 100 m race is of the order of 0.3-0.6 seconds. Jean-Pierre Vazel has published a most interesting article on the effects of wind and has proposed an empirical table relating wind speed to performance gain over 100 m. Vazel's analysis covers only the range of "realistic" speeds 0-5 m/s but one can attempt an (admittedly hazardous) extrapolation to wind speeds of 10 to 20 m/s obtaining a time gain of 0.25-0.35 s. So let us take the most conservative estimate and decide that Gatlin's performance must be corrected by 0.25 s, which results to a mere 9.70 s. We are far from Bolt's world record of 9.58 s even if we correct it to 9.63 s due to wind assistance (+0.9 m/s).

But, wait, things are getting worse. Vazel has analysed the video of Gatlin's attempt and points out that a) Gatlin has anticipated the start and b) the timing was not triggered by the starter's gun but most probably started at the athlete's first move. He estimates the gain due to these irregularities to roughly 0.10-0.15 s. (The analysis of J.-P. Vazel is much more detailed than this and, if you can understand french, I urge to read his post). Putting the two corrections together we arrive at a correction between 0.35-0.50 s. So, at the very best Gatlin has run a 9.80 s 100 m but most probably closer to 9.95 s.  In fact Vazel reports that in Japan, during the same show, Gatlin has run a 9.64 s 100 m with rolling start and has estimated his corrected time to 9.95 s compatible with the wind-assisted performance. On the other hand Gatlin's best time of 2015, 9.74 s, was registered in May, his World Championships performance being 9.80 s. So a 9.95 s in November is quite a respectable performance but nothing to write home about.

So, No! Gatlin did not break  Bolt's 100 m record. He did not even come close. Despite this Gatlin keeps boasting that he will finally beat Bolt at the 2016, Rio, Olympics. "I'm going to win. We are bringing  the gold medal back to the USA. We are going on a tour around the country with it around my neck like a gold chain", Gatlin said recently at an interview. Bolt's riposte was a stinging one: "Keep talking and I will keep working hard". Well, Rio is only a few months away.

This wind-assisted attempt made me go back to the archives and look-up the fastest times registered under excessive wind speeds. I was aware of W. Snoddy's, 1978, 9.87 s performance obtained with a 11.2 m/s wind. A correction for the wind transforms it into a quite respectable 10.15 s, not in disagreement with Snoddy's best performance over 200 m  of 20.27 s (he was a 200 m rather than 100 m specialist). Other people estimate his corrected time to something at least 0.10 s higher. Anyhow, the wind reading was a rough estimate: it was most probably announced at 25 miles per hour which is equal to 11.2 m/s. Wind gauges, in particular at that time, were not calibrated for such squall-like winds. (Just as an anecdotal information, W. Snoddy ran a 19.6 s 200 m in 1983 but this performance is listed as a "doubtful distance" one. He ran a legal 20.64 s that same year).

The absolute record in wind-assisted races, as far as wind speed is concerned, is held by C. Garpenborg from Sweden. He ran a manual 9.9 s in 1976, in Las Vegas, assisted by a 16.6 m/s wind (this speed is tantalisingly close to 60 km/h, so one could again surmise that the wind speed is just an estimate). Wikipedia reports his time as 9.84 s but I have trouble believing that his electronic time could have been better than the manual one.

Garpenborg, whose legal record over 100 m is a respectable 10.25 m, occupies a unique position in the Athletics elite. He is the only european to win the US championships over 100 m. His time of 10.39 s was sufficient for the victory, most probably because the best american sprinters were concentrating on the qualification for the Olympics Games, the famous "Olympic Trials". On European ground his best performance is a second place in the 1977 Indoor Championships where he was beaten by Borzov by a mere 0.01 s over 60 m. (Many spectators saw Garpenborg beating Borzov. Unfortunately no video of the event is available).

01 March, 2016

On Decathlon variants

Those who follow this blog of mine know that I like a lot combined events. In fact the first "technical" post of the blog was devoted to what started the combined event saga, the ancient pentathlon.

In this post I would like to talk about decathlon variants and first of all what is sometimes called the "speed decathlon". While researching for this post I came across a reference in the message bords of Track and Field news to a 30 minute decathlon. 

This sounds amazing. I have trouble believing that one can complete the 10 (in fact 9 since the rule is that one must start for the 1500 m before the end of the 30 min) events in so short a time. Still there it is, and the performances are quite decent. To my eyes the greatest difficulty is how to manage the 400 m followed by the 110 m hurdles. In a normal decathlon one has a full night for recovery. In a 30 min one (or even in its longer versions) one should make clear strategic choices.

I do not think the 30 min decathlon is being contested today. What did replace it is the one-hour decathlon, which is still a gruelling event. The problem with  the 400 m-110 m hd is always present. You can find below a comparison of personal records and the ones registered in a speed-decathlon of two great champions. R. Změlík is the 1992, Barcelona, Olympic champion and current world record holder of the one-hour decathlon with 7897 points. 

R. Sebrle is the 2004, Athens, Olympic champion and former world record holder. The performance of Sebrle was not realised in an one-hour event but rather in a a 100 minutes one where, following a disastrous 1500 m, he failed to break the 8000 points barrier by a handful of points at 7989. 

It is remarkable that both champions adopt the same strategy concerning the 400 m: they run it at some 7 seconds slower than their record time so as not to exhaust themselves before the 110 m hurdles. It would be interesting to know how mush time did they take off to rest between the first and second half of the decathlon. Still, their performance in the second half was comparatively worse than the one in the fist half: 0.89 vs 0.86 for Změlík and 0.87 vs 0.84 for Sebrle.

Overall, Změlík is the best performer with a ratio of one-hour vs two-day decathlon equal to 0.915 (7897/8627). Compared to this, R. Sebrle does rather poorly with a 0.885 ratio (7989/9026) despite the fact that he competed in a 100 min event. 

On the other hand, R. Barras, the 2010 European champion is doing almost as well as Změlík with a ratio of 0.907 (7671/8453). (Since there is a detailed video of his attempt one can see that there is an extended break between the 400 m and the 110 m hurdles, of almost 15 min. I can only guess that this must be typical and, in any case, it is the logical choice). 

Quite naturally, the women's equivalent to the one-hour decathlon does exist. It is a 45 min heptathlon and the world record is held by S. Braun with 6214 points and a 0.89 ratio (6214/6985).

I like the idea of one-hour decathlon quite a lot. It must be a very spectacular event (but I had never had the chance to attend one). It goes without saying that it is very tough also as far as the organisation is concerned. The athletes can participate only in very small groups of 2 or 3, the track and field must be laid out for all events to be held in parallel (for the various groups). Rule-wise the only change to the standard rules is that the athletes have only 6 attempts in the high jump and pole vault events.

On the other hand there exists a combined event that I find absurd: the double decathlon or eicosathlon (and a double heptathlon for women). Since there are just 8 field events the remaining 12 slots of the eicosathlon are filled by track events. Here is the composition of the eicosathlon

First day
100 m, long jump, 200 m hurdles, shot put, 5000 m
then a break of at least one hour
800 m, high jump, 400 m, hammer throw, 3000 m steeplechase

Second day
110 m hurdles, discus throw, 200 m, pole vault, 3000 m
then a break of at least one hour
400 m hurdles, javelin throw, 1500 m, triple jump, 10000 m

While in the decathlon the proportion of field to track events is 6 to 4 in the eicosathlon it gets inverted becoming a 8 to 12. 

I have a better proposal, one that is not based so strongly on running: a decapentathlon (purists would say a pentekaidecathlon but I prefer to avoid this mouthful), with the 10 events of the decathlon (with one small change) plus five more. First; replace the 1500 m of the decathlon by a 1000 m one. Then add triple jump, hammer throw, 400 m hurdles, 2000 m steeplechase and 3000 m. Moreover organise the event over three days. Here is a possible organisation

First day
Morning: 100 m, discus throw, triple jump
Afternoon: pole vault, 2000 m steeplechase

Second day
Morning: 110 m hurdles, hammer throw, 400 m
Afternoon: long jump, 1000 m 

Third day
Morning: 400 m hurdles, shot put, high jump
Afternoon: javelin throw, 3000 m 

And, of course, this proposal would concern both men and women. I am a fan of women's decathlon, after all. (And since we are edging into the domain of fancy proposals, how about a two-hour or even a 100 min decapentathlon).

Having talked about eicosi- and decapentathlon it is time now to consider shorter combined events. The classic, ancient greek pentathlon, immediately jumps to the mind. It was in fact staged as an olympic competition once in modern times, during the 1906, Athens, Intercalated Olympics. It was the only time when the fifth event was a greco-roman wrestling match. Due to suspicions of an arranged result by the swedish competitors the event was removed in the 1908, London, Olympics only to return in 1912 as pure track and field event with a 1500 m replacing the wrestling. The legendary Jim Thorpe was the first winner of that new pentathlon (and of the decathlon as well). The olympic pentathlon was particularly short-lived since it disappeared after the 1924, Paris, Olympics. The current world record holder is B. Toomey (his performance dating back to 1969), with 4282 points. However R. Sebrle, during his world record 9026 performance registered a 4500+ score (obtained by taking for the points of the 200 m the arithmetic mean of the points scored over the 100 m and 400 m). Eaton, who is not as good a thrower as Sebrle would have obtained a 4400+ score. (One may wonder what a thrower extraordinaire like Mike Smith of Canada would have obtained in pentathlon but an extrapolation from his decathlon record of 1996 is still shy of 4400 points. Speaking of Smith it is noticeable that the sum of his personal records tallies up to 9362 points so that his best decathlon of 8626 points is just at 0.92 of his maximum. Had he performed at 95 % like Eaton he would have scored a world record 8894 and with 97 % like Sebrle he would have reached beyond 9000 points).

A one-time triathlon was in the 1904, St. Louis, Olympics. It consisted of long jump, shot put and a 100 yard race and was part of the Gymnastics competitions (although by now the IOC is listing it in the Athletics section). It was a one-off event, fortunately now forgotten.

So the question is now: "is there some short combined event better than the pentathlon"? In my post on combined events I am mentioning the proposal by Gaston Meyer, in his Encyclopédie des Sports, where he proposes a tetrathlon consisting in 100 m, high jump, shot put and 1000 m. I had at the time qualified Meyer's proposal as a "drab choice". Now I am going to make an about-face and acknowledge the value of that proposal. Indeed a tetrathlon with well chosen events is a perfect formula. My main divergence from Meyer is in the choice of the events. What I would prefer is a tetrathlon with 200 m, long jump, shot put and 1000 m. Having opted for 200 m it is normal to have an event like long jump best suited to pure sprinters. Choosing 200 m rather than 100 m makes the organisation of the tetrathlon equally possible indoor and outdoor (and the shot put was chosen with the same constraints in mind). Moreover such a tetrathlon would reestablish the parity between men and women in combined events. 

In a purely tele-visual logic, a half-hour tetrathlon would be the perfect event. And one could even imagine a, blitz-style, 15 min tetrathlon. Still, if I had to choose one event among all those mentioned in this post, the one-hour decathlon would be my favourite.