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.

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