23 August, 2016

The mysterious affair of the US women's 4x100 m relay

I have started collecting material for a more detailed article on the Rio Olympics and I reached the point where I had to deal with the relays. And then I felt that I had to write something about the 4x100 m women's relay fiasco.

No, the fiasco is not one of the US team. I have a great respect for athletes and (with a reservation I will voice later in this post) I admire the members of the US female team. The fiasco is one of the instances and their dealing with this case. 

So, what did happen during the semi-finals? A. Felix reached the third relay runner, E. Gardner, and tried to pass her the baton. Gardner did not manage to hold it firmly and the baton slipped out of her hand. With an impressive demonstration of presence of mind the US team-mates recovered the baton and went on to finish the race so that they could file a protest (Had they abandoned, a protest would have been impossible).

In the protest the US team argued that Felix had been elbowed by a brazilian athlete and had to throw the baton at Gardner who did not manage to grab it. Felix and Gardner initially did not try to recover the baton but started screaming in frustration. Only later the realisation that they had to finish the race set in and they went back to recover the baton. Felix declared:

“It just knocked me off. I mean, I was tripping, but I don't know, I was still trying to get it off, but I just...I couldn't.”

However a look at the video shows the brazilian runner turning her back to Felix. She does not see her coming and she is definitely not obstructing her: it is Felix who is bumping into her, which could even lead to disqualification of the US team (but that would have been too harsh a judgment indeed). 

I just hope the IOC does not order the video to be deleted

The rest is history. The brazilian team was disqualified. The rules stipulate that in case of disqualification either the race is re-held without the disqualified athlete/team or the affected athlete is allowed to compete in a subsequent round of the event. However, in clear disregard of the rules the US team was allowed to run alone their heat. Their time of 41.77 s was better the 42.70 s of the last two qualified teams, Canada and China. Initially, there was supposed to be a run-off between China and Canada but the judges went back to the photo-finish and decided that Canada had beaten China. So the latter was expelled from the final (and their subsequent appeal was denied).

All this rigmarole got me thinking. Had the same thing happened to some other team, what would have been the outcome? I am convinced that the clemency (and the rule twisting) shown in the present case would have been totally absent for any other team. But here we had to deal with a great US drama. Had the 4x100 m been non-qualified, A. Felix, who the US media try to pass as the female counterpart of U. Bolt, would have gone back home almost empty handed. After missing the US Trials for the 200 m (remember, the USATF had twisted the arm of the organisers in order to make the program compatible with a 200-400 double for Felix) and losing the 400 m, getting eliminated in the 4x100 m would mean that Felix's harvest in Rio would be a single 4x400 m gold. That was unacceptable and thus the US team was offered a place in the final which they went on to win. (Fair is fair: they managed to beat the jamaican team roundly 41.01 to 41.36 s, a jamaican team hampered by the presence of V. Campbell-Brown who is way past her prime).

And just a few lines in order to put the Felix-Bolt comparison to rest. Felix has 6 gold medals at the Olympics and 9 at the World's. However most of them are obtained in the relays. She has just one individual olympic gold medal and four individual world champion titles. Bolt in comparison has 6 individual olympic golds and 9 overall, where in the World's he has 11 gold medals and 7 individual world champion titles. Enough said.

21 August, 2016

Are shot-putters becoming spinners?

I am going to write a long, detailed, account on the Olympic Athletics competition, just as I did last year for the World Championships and last month for the Europeans. However as I am following the unfolding of the Games I could not resist the temptation to present my thoughts on something that could be establishing a trend.

Watching the men's shot put final I was impressed by the number of athletes using the rotational technique: 9 out of the 12 finalists. Only T. Majewski, D. Storl and F. Elemba were throwing in the "classic" O'Brien-glide style. (I did not, out of laziness, do the same analysis for the women's shot put but spinners are present there also: in fact one out of the three medalists, A. Marton, uses the rotational technique). Having a good 75 % of the top shot putters spinning is to me eyes significant. 

Franck Elemba, winner of the 2015 African Games

For years athletics technicians have argued about the respective merits of each technique. There is a consensus that the rotational technique allows for more momentum and force to be put into the implement. Also, it creates more horizontal velocity and this usually results in longer throws. However, the rotational technique is more complicated than the glide one and may thus lead to a loss of balance; shorter throws as well as fouls then ensue. 

I have written about the spin technique is two posts of mine. In the first I attributed (wrongly) its invention to the soviet thrower A Baryshnikov and his coach V. Alekseyev. This was remedied in a subsequent post where I talked about J. McGrath. 

John McGrath, throwing here with the glide technique

He was USA champion in 1965 and his personal record, from 1966, with the O’Brien style, was a solid 19.59 m. In 1968 he started throwing with the rotational technique and managed to throw over 18 m. Still, Baryshnikov should be credited for bringing the rotational technique to the attention of the public at large, already in 1972, with a throw of 20.45 m. He improved the world record with a 22.00 m throw in 1976 and obtained a bronze medal at the Montréal, 1976, Olympics with 21.00 m. The other renowned athlete to promote the rotational technique was B. Oldfield, who did not hesitate to dub it the "Oldfield spin". (Most probably he copied it from Baryshnikov, when they both participated at the 1972, Munich, Olympics, where Baryshnikov did not qualify for the final, in which Oldfield, then a glider, finished 6th). His world record throw of 21.60 m in 1973 was never homologated for crazy amateur-ship reasons and the same holds true for his best throw of 22.86 m in 1975.  In 1984, after the amateur-ship furore had died down, and when he was already 38, he finally set an official US record with a throw of 22.19 m.

Brian Oldfield, throwing in Munich

The actual world record of 23.12 m is held by a spinner, R. Barnes, the best glider being his predecessor U. Timmermann with 23.06 m.

To tell the truth the rotational technique is not as new as one could surmise from the previous paragraph. As early as 1957 the Czech shot putter J. Malek, coached by K. Kerssenbrock, used the rotational technique. Baryshnikov's coach, V. Alekseyev, had experimented with the rotational technique already in the fifties. K. Bartonietz mentions also O. Chandler's, 1951, performance of 17.08 m but it is next to impossible to find a confirmation of the use of rotational technique for Chandler's throw. Moreover the only photo of O. Chandler I could find shows a more classical, pre-O'Brien, style of throw.

Otis Chandler, clearly non-rotational style

Till now, the spin style did not manage to displace the more classical glide. Oldfield had summarised the situation as follows: “In very general terms, stronger athletes could be gliders. More dynamic athletes, those better at jumping and sprinting, could be spinners”. However the results of the 2016 Olympics point at a certain direction: spin is probably becoming the predominant technique. We'll need more statistics before concluding one way or another and in any case we should not expect a Fosburry-style tsunami, with all shot-putters becoming spinners in the next few years. Still, the trend is there and I am going to keep an eye open for a possible confirmation.

02 August, 2016

A lacklustre championship (part two: field and combined events)

I cannot help but begin this second part with the victory of Stefanidi, her first gold medal in a major championship. After silver and bronze in European and World championships this time Stefanidi clinched the gold medal dominating the women's pole vault competition and beating the Championships record of Isinbayeva with 4.81 m. 

N. Kyriakopoulou finished at (the most unrewarding) fourth place. It goes without saying that I am very happy with the greek success, but I am glad also with A. Bengtsson, who captured the bronze medal confirming thus her great talent.

Men's pole vault was the exact opposite of the women's event: something we better forget about. Can you imagine a European champion with a 5.60 m performance? Well, it is exactly what it took R. Obera to win. Of course, if there is somebody to blame for that, this is none other than the greatest pole vaulter of our times, R. Lavillenie. 

I have trouble accepting the fact that Lavillenie has not integrated the fact that his technique is far from perfect and that his achievements are due to his exceptional physical qualities, mainly his superb speed. Unfortunately when unfavourable weather conditions take the edge off his speed he cannot compensate this by pure technique. Moreover I think that what happened in Amsterdam is essentially a sin of pride. Instead of starting with a cautious jump at 5.50 m allowing him to calibrate his jumps and following with one at 5.70 m securing the gold medal he decided to start when everybody else had already finished.

R. Beitia won her straight third european gold medal in women's high jump while in the men's competition G. Tamberi added a european gold to the indoor world one of this winter.

If you follow my blog you have certainly noticed that I. Spanovic is an athlete that I appreciate greatly. I was thus particularly happy when she added an outdoor European title to last year's indoor one. Her jump of 6.94 m was just 8 cm longer than J. Sawyers' (another great talent I will keep an eye on) but in fact there was never question of Spanovic not winning. I am looking forward to the olympic competition and the Spanovic-Bartoletta-Reese shootout. (Spanovic said that she hoped to jump between 7.10 and 7.20 m in Rio adding that she hopes that this will be enough for gold or at least for silver: an olympic medal is the one missing in her collection).

Men's long jump was for me an anticlimactic event. The truth is that I do not like G. Rutherford. I find his attitude arrogant and I believe that his accumulated successes are due to the sad fact that, contrary to triple jump, not a single great long jumper exists today. Men's triple jump was won by M. Hess, a young and promising jumper, in 17.25 m. Women's triple jump competition brought the second greek medal. V. Papachristou won bronze, just a she did this winter in the World Indoors. 

The gold medal went to an amazing P. Mamona who with 14.58 signed the biggest success in her career. In fact, after Mamona's silver in the 2012 Europeans I was keeping an eye on her and this time I was not disappointed.

The throws were the most consistent events with the favourites winning in all but the javelin throw. Thus C. Schwanitz and D. Storl took the shot put gold with european leading performances of 20.17 m and 21.31 m respectively. P. Malachowski won the men's discus throw event while S. Perkovic dominated her german opponents with a throw just 3 cm shy of 70 m. For A. Wlodarczyk winning the women's hammer throw was a pure formality but for the men's event for a moment, during the qualification event, we came within an inch of a great surprise when P. Fajdek fouled his first two throws. Things were much more tame in the final where he secured the gold medal already with his first throw. In the same event M. Anastasakis of Greece was 4th, for his first participation at a senior major championship.

Women's javelin throw was won by T. Khaladovich: she was 5th in 2014. The great favourites B. Spotakova, world record holder and reigning olympic and european champion could only finish 5th, while the reigning world champion K. Molitor finished 4th. The only one who managed to live up to expectations was L. Stahl, winner in 2010 and bronze medalist in 2012 and 2014, who at her last throw moved to second place. In men's Javelin throw the 2012 and 2014 winner, V. Vesely and A. Ruuskanen were second and third respectively (but notice that second had qualified with a massive throw of 88.23 m). The victory went to Z. Sirmais (already european champion in junior and u23 categories). The huge surprise of the event was the 5th place of this year's world leader T. Röhler. I think that this was the first time Röhler was entering a major competition as the favourite and he does not have yet the experience allowing him to channel his stress in a constructive way. Who knows, his bad european experience might be helpful for him at the Rio Olympics. My great satisfaction was the elimination of T. Pitkämäki in the qualification. I do not like Pitkämäki. Since, when he (accidentally, of course) wounded S. Sdiri, skewering him with his javelin, and despite the seriousness of the situation pursued unperturbed his competition I decided that Pitkämäki was missing some basic human component. Since that time I wait eagerly for his athletic retirement. 

Men's decathlon was won by T. van der Plaetsen who was 3rd in the 2014 World indoors. What I found really interesting is that van der Plaetsen did not register a single personal best in his way to the european gold. An interesting (and unhappy) moment of men's decathlon was when J. Ureña, who was second in the overall ranking at that time, fouled out in discuss throw and dropped out of the medal race. One day I am going to write a post on fouling out in combined events.
Women's heptathlon was a most interesting competition. Last year in the World's I had singled out two promising Dutch athletes N. Visser and A. Vetter who I expected to excel in Amsterdam together  with the more experienced N. Broersen. Funnily enough they followed very different paths. Visser chose to focus on the hurdles were she was eliminated in the semis. 

Broersen, after a catastrophic high jump, trailed in 4th placed and when she did not manage to get ahead of Dadic for 3rd place in the javelin she decided to drop out.  (My guess is that she has some injury which either does not allow her to perform at 100 % or had put back her preparation, in which case she should be in better shape in Rio).

The one who excelled in Amsterdam was A. Vetter, who took command of the competition early on and in the end deprived A. Nana-Djimou on a third consecutive european title.

With 6626 points she erased Schippers' name from the list of the national records and will be one of the major players in Rio.

There are two points I would like to discuss concerning these Championships. The first is the participation of Y. Stepanova. She was the only Russian participating at these championships and she was allowed to do so because she was the whistleblower concerning her country's doping practices. I will not discuss the role of Stepanova in the ban of Russia from athletics competitions which will result in russian athletes being absent form the Rio Olympics. This is a very complicated issue and I do not feel that I should, in this post, venture to tackle such sensitive matters. My question is a technical one. Stepanova was allowed to participate due to her "truly exceptional contribution to the fight against doping in sport". But how about qualifying performances? When Stepanova (born Rusanova) was competing, she was an under 2 min 800 m runner (but, of course, her performances were annulled due to doping violations). So Stepanova was admitted at the Europeans without a qualifying time. Does this mean that from now on we are going to allow athletes to participate for "exceptional contributions" although manifestly they are not up to the required level? Looking at the video of Stepanova's race it is clear, well before she injured herself, that she was not in championship shape. So, is Stepanova's participation marking the beginning of a "two weights and two measures" era? I hope not, otherwise the use of double standards will result in an institutionalised un-fairplay, something that the antidoping campaign is supposed to  fight against.

The second point has to do with the proliferation of non-europeans under recently acquired european nationalities. There were no fewer than 21 such in the italian team and 18 in the turkish one. In the latter one could find a collection of jamaican, cuban, kenyan, azeri and ethiopian athletes. Out of the 12 turkish medals,  only 2 were won by pure-bred turkish athletes. So, gradually we are adulterating european competitions by the presence of non-european athletes. Now, don't get me wrong. I do not object to the presence of foreign born athletes in continental championships. There several cases where this is perfectly natural. First there is the case of people from old colonies living in a country for years but having only recently acquired the citizenship. There are also people with double nationality who decide for personal reasons to opt for one or the other country. People also do marry and as a consequence change (or not) their citizenship. Finally, there are people who emigrate and decide to pursue their career in the new country. When this is done for personal reasons I can understand it. But I would draw the line at the case of athletic mercenaries. The IAAF has let it be known that they are going to examine (once the Olympics are over) the question of the massive naturalisations under the Laminé-Diack regime but I doubt that anything they decide will be applied retroactively. I am going to follow the evolution and will definitely dedicate a post to this burning matter.

01 August, 2016

A lacklustre championship (part one: track events)

The obvious remark is: "what did you expect from a European championship taking place just over a month before the Olympics?" Still, a continental championship is a continental championship and, while some athletes do not wish to take risks of an injury which would spoil their olympic chances, for other athletes this is the major event of the year. Take for instance all those who are not going to the Olympics (for various reasons). For them these championships are an occasion to excel. There are also those who will be competing in Rio but without substantial chances for a medal. For all those the Amsterdam, 2016, European Championships should have been a climactic moment. So how did it go?

I will not respect the chronological order of the events but comment on them in the standard order which allows me to begin with two great ladies of spring events, D. Schippers and Y. Lalova. 

The first confirmed her position as a major contender for olympic medals over 100 m and 200 m although, not wishing to take risks, she competed only in the former distance winning it with a great margin in 10.90. Lalova was second to Schippers (and also second to Asher-Smith in the 200 m). Twelve years after recording that astonishing 10.77 Lalova is still present and a major player in international competitions. I am now convinced that if her career had not been stopped by her 2005 femur fracture, Lalova would have been the fastest white female sprinter (well, in fact, she is, and Schippers has still to beat Lalova's record). C. Martina won the men's 100m in an astonishing coming-from-behind finish beating with 10.07 the great favourite J. Vicaut (who, by the way, was trailing the jamaican/turkish sprinter J.A. Harvey). Just look at the photo-finish

Martina went on to lose the 200 m gold in exactly the same way as he lost the 2008 olympic silver: a lane violation. (The details of what happened in 2008 are most interesting and the wikipedia is presenting a succinct account). M. Rooney and L. Grenot managed to keep their 2014 titles over 400 m. In the women's event I was particularly happy to see F. Guei win an individual medal. For people who do not recognise the name immediately, Floria is the one who won for France the 4x400 m gold medal in the 2014 Europeans. This time she  could only consolidate the silver medal in the 4x400 m despite a 49.92 split. Another french runner, R. Lamote, had to contend herself with a silver medal over the women's 800 m behind an astonishing N. Pryshchepa. Still Lamote is one of the athletes I am going to keep an eye on over the next years. The other promising young runner A. Hinriksdóttir finished last in the final but one can expect something better in the future (but I do not like at all her running style). Men's 800m and women's 1500 m were a polish affair with a Kszczot-Lewandowski double relegating pre-race favourite P.A. Bosse to a hard to digest 5th place while A. Chichocka prevailed easily over S. Hassan in a ridiculously slow, over 4:30, race. (A slight disappointment here by S. Ennaoui's performance who finished 7th in a race where her speed should have made a difference). The men's 1500 m race was a most interesting one where, while the Ingebrigtsen family won another gold medal after Henrik's victory in the 2012 European's, this time it was the younger brother, Filip, who prevailed to the astonishment of everybody (including the winner himself). Henrik, 3rd in the 1500 m, tried to recoup in the 5000 m race but he had to settle for 4th in a race where the photo-finish is one worthy of a 100 m race with I. Fita winning his first international title.

And now we are entering the kenyan-turkish domain with the victories of Y. Can (born Vivian Jemutai) over 5000 and 10000 m and P. Arıkan (born Paul Kipkosgei Kemboi) over men's 10000 m followed in second place by A. Kaya (born Stanley Kiprotich Mukche). Can established a European under23 record in the 10000 m with 31:12.86. Turkey won another long-distance medal, a silver one with K.K. Özbilen (born Mike Kipruto Kigen) in men's semi-marathon, a race won for Switzerland by Eritrea-born T. Abraham. Women's semi-marathon was a portuguese affair with S. Moreira 1st and J. Augusto 3rd, with Italy's V. Inglese in between the two. By the way I liked enormously the idea of a semi-marathon in the Europeans. It is a much more lively race than the marathon. But, the thing that I liked most was the disappearance of the race-walking events. Ah, if only the IAAF decided to forget about this unnatural event!

France won gold and bronze in men's 110 m hurdles with D. Bascou and W. Belocian. Women's high-hurdles were won by C. Roleder, who managed to beat the favourite A. Talay in 12.62. I was amazed Roleder's (and, in fact, also Bascou's) speed burst after the last hurdle. In the case of Roleder, whose silver medal in the 2015 World's was a major surprise, this victory settles any doubt one could have had concerning her real potential. And I had trouble understanding why C. Billaud did practically jog through the final, but apparently she had hurt her back in the semis. On the other hand E. Pesiridou of Greece competing at her first major championship managed to finish 6th in the final

Men's 400 m hurdles were won by the cuban-turkish athlete Y. Copello  while the 2014 winner K. Hussein had to contend himself with a bronze medal. The one athlete who made a major impression on me was Norway's K. Warholm. He ran an impressive 48.84 in the semi-final and foundered in the final only because he chose to run a suicidally fast first part. I am going to watch out for this decathlete-turned hurdler in the Rio Olympics (and in the years to come). Listening to the speaker presenting the athletes in the women's 400 m hurdles I was amazed by the number of combined events specialists who opted for this event. As I wrote in my post on Eaton's 2014 choice the 400 m hurdles is particularly appealing to deca/hepta-thletes. S. Petersen won the race, an event were she was disqualified in the heats two years ago. Another norwegian athlete, A.H. Iuel, ran a suicidal race with a too fast first part and could only manage a 6th place, but I am going to keep an eye open for her.

Women's 3000 m steeplechase was won by G.F. Krause in 9:18.85 with Albania's L. Gega in the second place. I find this conversion of Gega from the 1500 m (where her 4:02 personal record does not suffice for an international career) to the 3000 m steeple particularly clever. When her technique reaches maturation she will be among the protagonists of this discipline.

The men's event was won with flying colours by M. Mekhissi-Benabbad, in front of A. Kibitok, now running under his turkish name of A. Kaya. This was his fourth in a row victory: for me, his 2014 disqualification was a shameful decision. Of course, Mekhissi-Benabbad is not an angel. He is known for his violent temper which pushes him sometimes to unacceptable behaviour. But his disqualification for having taken off his shirt following a protest of Spain, whose athlete was going to profit directly from this disqualification, is a monument of *un*fair-play.

Great Britain won the men's 4x100 relay while France, with a particularly weak team, had fortunately J. Vicaut as anchor and managed a great finish for a silver medal. The women's Netherlands team with perfect relay exchanges and a fantastic Schippers literally squashed the opposition. (Unfortunately no splits were given for the 4x100 m). I am curious to see what will Holland's team do in the Rio Olympics. Women's 4x400 m was won by Great Britain in a world leading time of 3:25.05 despite a fabulous anchor by France's F. Guei. Speaking of great anchors, Grenot's was even better, with a 49.73 split, with which she managed to win a bronze medal for Italy. But perhaps the most exciting race was men's 4x400 m. The Belgium team with the three Borlée brothers and  an excellent fourth, J. Watrin, reiterated their 2012 triumph in 3:01.10. This should a sub-3 team in Rio

Since this post was getting rather long I decide to split it just as I did for last year's World's. The second part will contain a report on field and combined events as well as some thoughts, in particular, concerning the naturalisation process and how it might ruin the European Athletics.