15 August, 2017

Disconcerting thoughts

I have been following closely the World Championships trying not to miss anything in preparation for my report. (Don't worry, it's coming. It will take some time as always but is definitely coming). And I was wondering about what happened to the great powers of yesteryear. Not long ago, in fact just two years ago in Beijing, the World Championships were dominated by Kenya and Jamaica. They took home 7 gold medals each while the USA managed only 6. (The US had obtained the same score in 2013 in Moscow, where Kenya won 5 gold medals and Jamaica 6, but one cannot really compare because of the presence of Russia, expelled from official competitions from 2015). In the 2016 Olympics the situation did not change appreciably since Kenya and Jamaica won 6 gold medals apiece while the US, profiting from the absence of Russia, boosted their gold medal count to 13.

Then came the rout of Jamaica in London where, even Kenya has not been as dominating as before. Kenya is going home with just 5 gold medals while Jamaica has a measly count of 1 (O. McLeod in men's high hurdle race). What is happening? People are talking about a generational gap, the old champions ending their career in low-key performances while the young ones are not yet up to the task. But there is another, more pernicious thought. There have been repeatedly allegations as to the relaxed, laissez-faire, attitude of both the jamaican and the kenyan federations concerning doping. What if what we are observing today is also due to a more stringent enforcement of doping regulations? I do not wish to enter into such speculations since there is nothing tangible except for a few cases of doping offenses by jamaican sprinters. But one wonders.

In the meantime the US continue their progression. From 6 gold medals in Moscow and Beijing to 10 in London, not very far from their score at the Rio Olympics. All would have been well were it not for an article I stumbled upon on the site of "Sports Integrity Initiative" with title "US leads world in doping positives for first six months of 2017". It is based on a report from Movement for Credible Cycling which includes doping offenses from all sports. Athletics is number two in the list with 45 doping violations plus 13 more detected in retesting. Somehow I started feeling awkward about medal counts. And then reading Swift_Girl's twitter page I found a reference to an article in Daily Mail from which I picked out one sentence describing the interview of the winners of the men's 100 m.

"What follows tells you all you need to know about the grotesque dystopia that is modern athletics. All the stages of a sport's crushing defeat, all the stops on its descent, are mapped out in its exchanges".

Disconcerting thoughts, indeed.

07 August, 2017

The preposterous statement of a greek journalist

I was following the quarter-finals of the the men's 100 m when I heard something that left me flabbergasted. It was Gatlin's heat and D. Chatzigeorgiou said, quite seriously, that we should not criticise Gatlin for being a doping offender because he has served his sentence. I cannot imagine anybody in their right mind making such a statement. 

Gatlin has been caught at doping. Twice. Anybody else would have been banned for life. Gatlin is still running and he ended up being crowned world champion in London. (The best tweet I saw on this is one re-tweeted by swift_girl: "Well, he's not the champion the sport wants, but it's the champion it currently deserves"). 

The journalist who made this unacceptable statement is not just anybody. D. Chatzigeorgiou is the head of sports programs of the greek television and he is coordinating the greek tv delegation in London. I have, in the past, considered him as a knowledgeable journalist although I cannot stand his, grammar-school style, elocution. How could he pretend that all of a sudden Gatlin was a respectable guy? A murderer who goes to jail and comes out after he has done his time is still a murderer. This never changes. Serving a sentence means that he cannot be punished for the same thing again, but that does not wash away the guilt.

 The photo is from a parody of Chatzigeorgiou
 interviewing  K. Stafanidi that you can find here

Had Gatlin been of any other nationality but american I seriously doubt that we would have profited ffrom those unusually clement measures. When russian athletes must prove their innocence in order to be able to participate in athletics competitions, Gatlin's culpability was rewarded by what amounts to a slap on his hand. And then M. Chatzigeorgiou admonishes us to show respect to this brazen cheater. (Please don't get me wrong. My criticisms do not stem from anti-american feelings. I would have written the same post had the russian and american nationalities been reversed).

London's public reacted by booing Gatlin, showing that they do get athletics. M. Chatzigeorgiou apparently does not. Is this one sign of todays Greece, a country in its death throes, where people are desperately trying to cling to illusory values? 

Gatlin paying tribute to Bolt at the end of the final

At least Gatlin himself had the decency to pay tribute the greater sprinter of all times, U. Bolt.

06 August, 2017

The hyperandrogenism plague

Back in 2015 I wrote about gender issues and the fact that, following the appeal of D. Chand (an indian sprinter) against the decision of the Athletics Federation of India (sustained by the IAAF) to ban her from participation at women’s events at the Court of Arbitration of Sport, the initial decision was suspended. That decision opened the floodgate, allowing hyperandrogenic female athletes to participate in women's competitions.

This allowed, among others, C. Semenya to return to the limelight winning the 800 m in the Rio, 2016, Olympics (after having been unable to reach the final in the World's one year before). She is now poised to win the same distance at the 2017 World Championships. But enough on Semenya. I am going to write a longer article on her after the London World's.

The Rio 800 m podium: Niyonsaba, Semenya, Wambui
You can judge for yoursleves

(By the way. J.-P. Vazel had published in his blog a very interesting article on hyperandrogenism, an article to which I was linking in my post. For unfathomable reasons Vazel's article has disappeared and the link leads to an error page. Fortunately I had made a copy of the article as soon as I saw it. In fact the blog of J.-P. Vazel seems dead, not having been updated in almost a year. On the other hand Vazel is quite active in Twitter).

But let us start at the beginning. What is hyperandrogenism? This is a term used to describe the excessive production of androgenic hormones, essentially testosterone, in females. The IAAF regulations stipulated that no hyperandrogenic female would be eligible to compete in a women’s competition if she had functional androgen levels (testosterone) that are in the male range. In fact, it is this rule that replaced the existing Gender Verification policy. If a female athlete had androgen levels inside of the male range (in the case of testosterone larger than 10 nmol/L) she could not compete in women's events (unless she could establish that she derived no advantage from such levels of androgen). What that meant in practice was that a hyperandrogenic athlete had to undergo a hormone treatment in order to bring her testosterone levels down to ones deemed "normal" for females. 

These are, in a nutshell, the rules suspended by the Court of Arbitration of Sport. A two year period was set by the Court at the end of which the IAAF would have to provide convincing scientific evidence of significantly enhanced performance in hyperandrogenic athletes, lest the hyperandrogenism regulations be thrown out as void. The IAAF found themselves with their back to the wall. They had to allow hyperandrogenic athletes to participate in major championships. D. Chand, who was at the origin of the affair, improved her 100 m record to 11.24 s and obtained a bronze medal at the 2017 Asian Championships.

The two-year period is now practically over and the IAAF is gearing up for the hearing at the Court of Arbitration of Sport. Two research articles will provide the main argument in support of the IAAF regulation. The first is an article (Bermon S, Garnier P-Y. Br J Sports Med 2017;0:1–7. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2017-097792) by S. Bermon and P.-Y. Garnier published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine under the title "Serum androgen levels and their relation to performance in track and field: mass spectrometry results from 2127 observations in male and female elite athletes". The second is an article by the team of the Karolinska Institute of Stockholm (Eklund E, et al. Br J Sports Med 2017;0:1–9. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2017-097582) with title "Serum androgen profie and physical performance in women olympic athletes". An article more "accessible" to non-specialists is a review by S. Bermon in the journal Current Opinion in Endocrinology (volume 24, June 2017, pages 246-251) under the title "Androgens and athletic performance of elite female athletes". Bermon's conclusion is clear: "Female athletes with high androgen levels benefit from a 2–5 % competitive advantage over other female competitors with normal androgen levels".

The same trio again. At least they are ruining only the 800 m

What does this mean in practice? Let's assume that Semenya has a 5 % advantage due to her high testosterone levels. Taking out this advantage her 800 m record would be over 2 min, relegating her to the "also run" class. There you have it. Allowing hyperandrogenic females to participate in women's events is tilting the field in a way that is blatantly unfair to "real" women. Yes, I wrote the word real on purpose. Because I am convinced that gender is not a "yes or no" issue, the two sexes being separated by an unbridgeable gap. There is a continuity between male and female and hyperandrogenic females are a class of their own, being neither (anatomically female but endocrinologically male). When unscrupulous countries are scouting for such cases and push to allow them to participate in women's competition in the name of human rights I perceive this as a blatant injustice. Let us be fair to women and not force them to play with loaded dice.

01 August, 2017

The "javelin option" for vertical jumps

This is a sequel to my post of July 8th in which I considered whet the European Records Credibility Project Team dubbed the "javelin option". The reference is obvious: when the specifications of the javelin were introduced back in 1986 (and again in 1992, and, for women in 1999) the list of record had to be set aside and new records started to be homologated from that date onwards. 

I tackled the question of of track and of field events in that previous post of mine with the exception of the vertical jumps. 

 Standing high jump at the 1906 OLympics.
Do you notice something?

So, how to modify the rules for the vertical jumps so as to make a revision of world records mandatory I will not go to the excesses of Juilland who talks about laser beams and “star wars” technology. What could be a “javelin option” for high jump and pole vault? I think that the simplest change important enough so that it would warrant a new record list would be to limit the total number of jumps an athlete can make. 

I went through the results of the last three World Championships and I think that a total of 8 allowed attempts sounds quite reasonable. When you run out of attempts you are out. Then there is the question of how many attempts you can take at a given height. The simplest rule would be to allow the athlete to make all tries at the same height. But this means that the athlete can concentrate all efforts at a height where all the other competitors have already exhausted their tries. This would make for lopsided competitions and strange tactics something highly undesirable. So probably the rule of "three fails and you're out" should be upheld. An interesting possibility would be to make it four instead of three but unfortunately there is no way to estimate how this would influence the outcome of a competition. 

Since the number of attempts is limited and the heights are always known in advance one thing to be added to the new rule would be that the athletes declare where they start and which heights they'll attempt. They may decide not to jump a height they had declared but one attempt would be tallied out form their total.

Just to leave open a possibility for a record, once there is a clear winner he should be awarded three jumps at a height of his choice aiming at record breaking (even if this means merely a personal record).

Back in 2015 I wrote about the unfair rules of tie-breaking. My arguments there stand also in the case of the new rules I consider here for the vertical jump. 

F. Gonder winning the pole vault in the 1906 Olympics.
Having tied at the first place we won at the jump-off.

Finally there is the question of vertical jumps in combined events. I will risk going out on a limb and suggest that for combined events the number of vertical jumps be limited to six. Since there are practically no tactics in combined events the athletes will not have to declare all the heights they are going to attempt but just the initial one. And so as to minimise fouling-out disasters let them take any number of attempts at a given height. After all we have this (absurd) rule of 4 m/s allowed wind speed for combined events, which I wrote about in my post on wind effects. So, why not allow deca/hepta-thletes take more than three jumps at a given height if they need them? Given that they have a fixed total this is not hampering the proceedings of the competition.

08 July, 2017

The "javelin option" or how to reset the world records

In my post on the tabula rasa for records I mentioned an option which was considered and discarded by the European Records Credibility Project Team, the "javelin option". It was named so in reference to the changes in the javelin specifications which had made the introduction of new records mandatory. I find the idea behind such a revolutionary change in athletics quite appealing but, in the same time, I am aware that such an option would never come to pass given the conservatism of the governing bodies. In fact I am not quite sure that the "1913 option" will meet with success (but time will tell). 

Since this blog, inspired by Juilland's writing, does not baulk at extreme proposals I will, in what follows, formulate my own "javelin option". I have made over the years several revolutionary proposals, so, my "javelin option" will essentially be a compilation of the latter interspersed with some recent ideas of mine.

Let us start with the track events. In my post on “Metric vs. Imperial” units I was suggesting that the official distances should become

100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000 and 20000 m

with the Marathon replaced either by a 40 or by a 50 km.

In a subsequenct post I tackled the question of relays, hurdles and steeplechase. (The question of the 110 m men’s relay was addressed also in another post).

At the end of my post on Metric vs. Imperial I was pointing out that in order for the imperial to metric conversion to make sense the stadium circumference should be increased to 500 m. If that came to be then all the old records would bhave to be replaced. The single exception is that of the 100 m, which does not depend on the stadium circumference. I think that in this case we should just bite the bullet and decide that all track records  must be erased including the 100 m.

Of course, we should not hold our breath. The stadium dimensions are here to stay. So what could one do given this situation? One crazy proposal (technically crazier than that of 500 m stadia) is to have the athletes run clockwise. (Again that would not solve the problem of the 100 m). In fact the races at the 1896, 1900 and 1904 Olympics were ran clockwise. 

And, I'm sure the 1906 Olympics were run clockwise
in this magnificent Panathenaic Stadion

This is another “imperial” influence. Oxford and Cambridge athletes were running clockwise and continued doing so till the late 40s. Curiously it’s at the London, 1908, Olympics that the running direction was reversed becoming counterclockwise, something that became the international standard.

Having disposed with track events we can turn now to jumps. In my post on Longer Jumps, I made a proposal, which I consider quite reasonable, namely to replace the 20 cm take-off board by a 60 cm one and measure the true length of their jump. It is pefectly feasible with today’s technology and has in fact been tried in competitions.

Vertical jumps pose a special challenge and will be the object of a separate post.

Finally we turn to the throws. In my post I suggested that throwing circles should be enlarged to 3 m for all three disciplines of shot, discus and hammer throw. Moreover the weight of men’s shot and hammer could be raised to 8 kg as argued in that same post. It remains that the javelin has been recently modified (well, not really recently, but compared to the history of athletics the modification is recent). There are two directions we can go to from where we are now. Either further limit the flight of javelins by moving the centre of mass slightly forward or allow for a textured surface (which was banned in the new specifications) that would allow longer throws. 

Oh, and just in case you were wondering about race-walking: scrap the records and forget about this discipline.

01 July, 2017

An interview with N. Debois

A few months ago when I set out to write a post on the difference between decathletes and heptathletes I was impressed by the fact that the heptathlon world record for 800 m is still standing, after 30 years. It is held by a french athlete, Nadine Debois, and what was amazing is that I could not find a single photo of hers on the web. However I did find a professor of Sport Psychology at INSEP (which is the french National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance) with the same name and I wrote her asking whether she was indeed the ex-heptathlete. She was! We exchanged some mails and Mrs. Debois provided most valuable insight on how the heptathlon differs from the decathlon for my article on “the battle of sexes”. Thus I came with the idea of an interview to be published in the blog. It took us some time to find a convenient date but finally we managed to find one at the end of January. 

We met at Mrs. Debois’s office at the INSEP where she answered my questions. Obviously our discussion was in french. In what follows I tried to transpose the interview in english in the most faithful way. The questions and answers are marked by our initials and whenever I insert a remark of mine I do it by putting it in brackets.

BG How did you come to choose combined events as your specialty?

ND I would rather say that it was the combined events that chose me. In fact, before coming to athletics I was a swimmer. At the end of 1976 I decided to drop swimming but wished to continue with some sport. Since at high-school I was good at athletics I decided, around February 1977, to join the club of Boulogne. I participated at my first competition in April. My coach decided to have me compete in pentathlon just to see how it would go. I had learned to run the hurdles, throw the shot and high jump. However my first experience with long jump and the 800 m was during that first competition. That was a competition at the county level. I did fairly well, finished second, enjoyed the competition and was qualified for the regional championships. I finished second there also and narrowly missed a qualification for the national championships.

I realised that I could excel in combined events. I had talent for several disciplines. I also liked the fact that one passes from one event to the next one particularly interesting. A competition extending over hours was also appealing. 

Specialising in heptathlon did not prevent me from shining in middle distances. In fact I ran a 2:16 as a junior without any special training. But, to tell the truth, the events I liked most were the 100 m and the high jump. Much more than the 800 m. In fact when I was a swimmer I hated it when I had to swim a 400 m or an 800 m. 

BG But a 400 m in swimming is already an event of more than 4 minutes.

ND It is not only this. What I did not like were the monotonous training sessions, where one had to swim a number of pool lengths. What I did like was training of speed and explosiveness.

BG Wow, You managed to run a 2 min 800 m without training?

ND No, that’s not true. I did train but not as much as a specialist. Still, with hindsight, I realise that I could have done better over 400 m and 800 m. The question is would I have kept the motivation for this ? When one’s career is over, one can talk about talent and potential but the essential thing is to enjoy what one is doing. 

The arrival of the heptathlon signalled for me a moment where I had to take a decision. I had a substantial handicap with the javelin throw. My PB is just 34.70.

BG I know. In Talence you threw just 31 m. Perhaps you did not like to train in javelin throw.

ND No, it's not that. In fact I did play the game, training for the javelin, for one or two seasons. But I never managed to make substantial progress. 

As a junior, competing in the pentathlon I was not bad in the shot put and was good in the remaining 4 disciplines. I was steadily progressing from 1977 to 1980. The same held true for the indoor pentathlon. With the heptathlon I was hoping to find a solution for the javelin and thus I remained a combined events athlete. This is the reason I did not convert to a middle distance runner. I am sure I could have run faster if I enjoyed the middle-distance training. The problem is that I like variety and, for me, even a 30 min jogging was boring.

BG How did you manage to combine a champion's career with a scientific one?

ND I have always been good when it came to studies.. I have two older sisters and a older brother who could not go to higher education due to financial reasons. I had the chance to be the youngest one. My high school professors did help too. 

From the start, I had an obligation to succeed. The first two years at the university were compatible with training. But one professor pointed out that that year’s group was not sufficiently good and recommended me to join the INSEP. I followed her recommandation,essentially for my studies project towards the CAPEPS. [BG A french competitive exam leading to tenured positions in physical education]. I pursued my training but my main effort was on studies and the preparation of the exam. I obtained my CAPEPS in 1983 and started preparing for the 1984 Olympics. I had missed the french olympic team in 1980 by a mere 3 cm: jumping 6.42 m, the minimum being 6.45 m. Unfortunately I did not manage to qualify for 1984 either. It took me a full two years to come back in optimal shape; I was in shape only in 1985.

I started working as a physical education professor and three years later I got a position at INSEP which allowed me to work part-time on a full salary, devoting the rest of my time to training. I did not find that situation totally satisfactory. So, I started interesting myself in research and the possibility of a doctorate in sports sciences. For this I had to follow a masters's course but the only one available was at Grenoble, geographically out of question. Thus I started by obtaining a state diploma on athletics and the diploma of INSEP which provided the basic preparation for research. This made possible to obtain an equivalence for the master's degree.

This point is essential because I believe that athletes who do not organise their life outside of sports, who live only for sports are inherently fragile. Having another pole of interest does offer stability.

Having obtained the CAPEPS I decided to try the Agrégation [BG another french competitive exam more prestigious than the CAPES, leading to better careers]. That was in 1988 (an olympic year) and I immediately realised that I could not reconcile high level preparation and demanding studies. Thus the Agrégation had to wait till 1992. In fact I passed the CAPEPS drawing on all my resources but, after that, I decided to take my time and do things calmly. For instance I passed my PhD in 6 years while in parallel pursuing my work. People usually take 3 to 4 years to complete a thesis (but, then, they only do this and nothing else).

BG When did you retire from competition?

ND After the 1988 Olympics. I participated with my patellar tendon partially torn off. The injury was detected just before the 1987 World's and I was advised to have it fixed by surgery. That would mean missing out at the Olympics and after having missed those of 80 and 84 I could not seriously consider it. As a consequence of the injury, I could not jump correctly and my performances fell to just 6 m and 1.75 m, meaning a loss of circa 300 points. So, at Seoul I participated only at the 4x400 m. I got operated on after the Olympics, came briefly back to athletics in 1989 and then I decided to have a child. Thus I retired from competition at 28 years of age.

BG The years 80 saw athletics become gradually a professional sport, first in the US and later in France. What was your experience of this?

ND Yes, that was the period when we started obtaining some financial support from the French Athletics Federation. There were also some modest bonuses for participation at competitions and the beginning of sponsoring. In 1988 all this made some substantial addition to my salary. 
Later on the system was amplified and sportsmen could live from their gains related to sport.

However for me athletics was essentially a hobby and not a profession. I was feeling a need for physical activity but on the other hand I was afraid that sports were incompatible with feminine traits [she laughs]. The first time I watched sport at the TV was during the 76 Olympics games. I was admiring Nadia Comaneci but on the other hand I was afraid to come to look like Cornelia Ender (remember, I started out as swimmer). That’s one of the reasons I decided to drop out of swimming !

BG What do you think about women's decathlon?

ND There are already elements of my answer in the mails we exchanged [BG see the blog post on the battle of sexes]. A decathlon would be much more appropriate. An athlete who is just fast and explosive can become a very good heptathlete. For decathlon one must be more complete. Of course the scoring tables should be adapted in order to take into account the differences between men and women, in particular in new events like pole vault. 

On a more personal level, I would welcome a women's decathlon because for me the second day of heptathlon, with just three events, is too short. I remember some competitions where the second day was already over at noon. (This is the reason I prefer the pentathlon where all five events take place in a single day). Two full days sound better to me. Also if you have one weakness in some event, you can hope to overcome it if there are 9 other events where you can excel. 

For me the javelin throw was too penalising in the heptathlon. This had also to do with the fact that I am ambidextrous. I do write with my right hand but I prefer the left. At the beginning I was using my left arm for the shot put but I soon shifted to the right one. I never managed to do this in the javelin. Speaking about the decathlon I think that I would manage the discus throw without difficulty: with my long arms I would have reached a level comparable to that of my shot put. My main difficulty would have been the pole vault where my coordination would have, perhaps, been insufficient.

BG The 80s have also been the decade of doping. Were people aware of this at the time?

ND Certainly. There were persisting rumours concerning athletes from USSR and DDR. But also athletes from the USA. I ran the 4x400 m in Seoul next to F. Griffith-Joyner and was impressed by the transformation of her body in just one olympiad's time. 

BG And in France?
ND There were already regular controls and we were convinced that the cheaters would be caught.

BG How about now-a-days?

ND Of course, there are people who take drugs. It has also to do with the question of money. Look, I do not have any objection to athletics as a profession. It is simply something that did not sit well with me. For me, high-level athletics was a choice (and I do not like it at all when people are talking about the "sacrifice" one must do in order to reach this high level). I had precise objectives. At national level I was aiming at victory. At international level I was trying to break my own records and to "reach the final". In fact, being relaxed, I often obtained excellent results. Perhaps, if I had a better chance for a podium position I would have been more nervous.

I remember the 1987 world championships where I participated already suffering from my knee injury. My heptathlon javelin throw attempt did coincide with the famous 400 m hurdles race, where Moses managed to beat Harris and Schmid by a hairbreadth. I concentrated and used the cries of the crowd as a source of energy. That was my best throw ever, a 34.70 m personal best (poor performance for others but so good for me !). 

BG What do you think about the changes of allegiance we see in the recent years?
ND As I was saying the athletes are professional and choose accordingly. For me it does make sense to chance one's nationality in case of marriages or when one really emigrates. But it should be a real, personal, choice, not something motivated by money and politics.
I could imagine people going to foreign clubs, just like in football, but participating with their national team at international competitions. There is also a question of culture, something that the medals wars are distorting.

The questions and answers ended there but we spent some more with Mrs. Debois talking about combined events. Two things of this chat are worth mentioning. 

The first was the idea to run the 1500/800 m of deca/hepta-thlon as a handicap race (just as in the case of the modern pentathlon): the first person to cross the line is the winner. ND said she could like such an arrangement since she was always running that 800 m alone at the front of the pack. But of course not everybody would be on the same footing. As the things stand today there is some suspense at the arrival which is not bad. [BG I would add that managing staggered starts with the precision of a 100th of a second is an impossible task].

The second was the idea of one-hour combined events. ND said that she had once participated at a one-hour heptathlon and that she found the experience very interesting. One has to choose a strategy. While in a normal heptathlon she was not taking risks with high jump, starting low and jumping all intermediate heights, at a one hour event this is impossible. One must anticipate and also know where to stop. One should pay attention to one's body, everything changes in so brief an event. Going to the long jump immediately after the 200 m is quite different from the normal situation where one has a whole night to rest. One hour events can be very spectacular and it is a pity they are not held more often.

To sum it up, this interview has been a real pleasure for me and I am greatly indebted to N. Debois for sparing the time to answer my questions.

18 June, 2017

Mixed relays go Tokyo

In my report on the World Relays I was making clear my enthusiasm for mixed relays. They offer a great spectacle and the team strategy plays a crucial role. In case you are not convinced I urge to go back to my previous post and watch the 4x400 m relay. (By the way, when I tried just now to do this I discovered that the video had disappeared. I went back to YouTube, found a video and linked it again but I cannot be 100 % sure that it will stay. While YouTube is great there are moments like this when I hate it. Is it so difficult for Google to make sure that things stay at their place? Unless it’s a question of rights in which case I prefer not to say more, lest this post become a diatribe on the abuse of power by rights-holders).

S. Miller-Uibo and S. Gardiner at the 2017 World Relays

So the good news for the Tokyo Olympics is that the mixed 4x400 m will be part of the official program. It will definitely be an exciting race. On the other hand, given that by 2020 the various teams will have sufficient experience, I’m afraid that all of them will adopt the same strategy, making the race slightly less spectacular. In my article on World Relays I wrote that the mixed relay made its fist appearance this year. While this is true as far as senior teams are concerned, it is worth mentioning that the mixed relay made its first official appearance in the Cali, 2015, World Youth Championships. (By the way, the US youth team that won in Cali with 3:19.54 would have made the podium in Nassau this year).

The IOC has some special plans for the Tokyo Olympics. First, they are pushing for a parity between man and women, something I find eminently laudable. They are encouraging this through the introduction of more mixed events. The 4x400 m relay in athletics is one of those but there will be also a 4x100 m medley mixed relay in swimming. Mixed table tennis and triathlon relay will also be part of the program. Where I start raising objections is when they introduce team archery and judo. What is the point of these team events? I have always found team fencing absurd (and it's making a comeback in Tokyo!) and now we are going to have more of the same. And all this when the IOC is trying to limit the number of participants: there will be 285 fewer athletes in Tokyo, athletics being the major victim where the participation will be amputated by 105 persons.

I have trouble understanding the logic of the IOC. First, in a decision where money has trumped tradition, they decided to expel wrestling form the olympic program. The problem is that in the end they had to decide between wresting and modern pentathlon and since the later was invented by the famous baron (de Coubertin) and supported by another noble, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., it was wrestling that got the boot. The fact that wrestling goes back all the way to the ancient Olympics did not count (or perhaps it did in a negative way, while the moniker “modern” for a 19th century sport did confer to pentathlon a special status). Poor Socrates, he will certainly be rolling over in his grave, he who said “I swear it upon Zeus an outstanding runner cannot be the equal of an average wrestler”. The same goes for K. Palamas, the poem of whose has become the official olympic anthem, sung at every opening ceremony since 1960 and in which it is question of “running, wrestling and throwing”.

Just to sweeten the pill wrestling was accepted for Tokyo among the new sports that will make their appearance there (but this will most probably be a one-off, the swan’s song for that noble discipline). In the meantime we will have 3x3 basketball (which is adding 64 athletes to the tally), BMX freestyle in cycling as well as Madison for track cycling. The new sports are surfing, skateboard, sport climbing and karate while baseball/softball is making its comeback. Clearly I lament the evolution of modern Olympics. 

08 June, 2017

The bubble has burst

Back in October 2016 something happened to my blog. All of a sudden the page view jumped from a meagre 20-something per day to hundreds of views. I wrote about this a blog post aptly entitled "Something happened". I was speculating there as to the possible origins of this phenomenon. The increased number of views was limited only to 2016 and, later, 2017 posts. Two things became quickly apparent. The views were regularly spaced in time coming in bursts of 30 or so views and, second, there was a week-end effect, whereupon the views were dwindling down to almost nothing for a short time over the week end:

And then, after the views had reached an all-time day maximum of over 300, the bubble burst. 

We are now down to slightly over 10 views per day. (I am not going to discuss the effect such a measly attendance may have on my blogging. This will have to wait for the blog's 4th anniversary). 

I am still at loss about what really happened. My favourite theory is that something that I wrote, a special turn of phrase I used, triggered some flag and this resulted to my blog being followed by robots who looked for telltale phrases. I have to go back and look carefully for words such as "explosive" or something similar, unless the robots are not very clever and while they found out that I am really a fanatic they failed to register that the thing I am fanatic about is athletics. Anyhow, the hundreds of daily views are now thing of the past and unfortunately the only thing they really managed to do was to spoil my statistics.

01 June, 2017

Λιθοβολία (stone throw), a forgotten discipline

The list of track and field disciplines that came and went over the years is long. Even limiting oneself to those disciplines that have been part of the olympic program one finds a long list of different events. Some of them, like 200 m hurdles (contested in 1900 and 1904) or both hands (aggregated) Shot Put (part of the 1912 program) are easy to understand. Others like ancient greek style Discus Throw (1906-1908) need some explanation. But none is as puzzling as the Stone Throw which figured in the 1906, intercalatory Olympics, program.

Stone throw is a discipline with ancient roots. While absent from the ancient olympics it has been practiced in Greece all along its history. Unfortunately no movie of competitive stone throwing (greek style) can be found (if one excepts a village contest during a festival where people are throwing in an unorthodox underhand style) and thus I must rely upon my memory.

I have had the occasion, when I started interesting myself in athletics, to attend some regional competition where stone throw was part of the program. So, I’ll describe the style from memory. The style is close to that of javelin throw but given the stone's weight major differences do exist. The athlete starts his run-up holding the stone with two hands in front of him. Preparing for the throw he brings the throwing hand over his head without braking his run-up and launches the stone in an overhand throw. The only constraint is that the stone must be launched before crossing the foul line. After that the athlete can cross the line without penalty.

Stone throwing has also been part of the scottish tradition and has been figuring in the Highland Games. The scottish stone being heavier than the greek one requires a different throwing technique.

I have been unable to find a photo of the throwing stone and in the ones where the stone is thrown in the greek style the stone is too blurred. Fortunately in the snapshot above we have a nice photo of the stone which corresponds exactly with the one I have seen in the past. Unfortunately recent revivals of stone throw like the one where the photo just below was taken use a stone of non-standard shape.

This is a pity because the throwing technique depends crucially on the proper handling of the stone during all the phases of the throw and giving the possibility to the athlete to wrap his fingers around it somehow spoils the discipline.

While researching for this article I came upon a wikipedia article in greek, which was probably off-handedly written, giving an incorrect weight and mentioning a wrong throwing style. (As you can imagine I immediately corrected it). In order understand the stone's weight, 6.4 kg, one must go back to the times of the Ottoman Empire. Greek being under the ottoman rule had adopted the ottoman units and despite becoming an independent country in 1821 kept the ottoman units till 1959! (By the way wikipedia's article on metrication is interesting. When one clicks on the link "old greek" units one is taken to a page where units from ancient Greece are presented. This is one more manifestation of the fact that, were it not for the current financial crisis, nobody would be really aware of the existence of modern Greece). So, when the weight of the stone was fixed in the late 19th century a round number in the then currently used unit, the oka, was chosen. The stone weights exactly 5 okas, and since an oka is equivalent to 1280 gr the weight of the stone in metric units is 6.400 kg.

Λιθοβολία, stone throw, has been part of the olympic program only once, at the intercalatory Games of 1906. The winner of the event was, expectedly, a greek, G. Georgantas. 

Having written this sentence I feel that some explanation as to the "expectedly" is mandatory. While greek athletes were familiar with the stone-throwing style, foreigners were not. This bestowed some advantage to the local competitors who obtained the gold and bronze medals with Georgantas and Dorizas. The silver medal went to M. Sheridan who left Athens with two gold and three silver medals. (On the other hand this "advantage" of the greek competitors should have also materialised in the ancient-style discus throw, where Järvinen managed to beat Georgantas. But this is a story that is worth telling in detail and some day I may just do this). The photo of Georgantas above is clearly a static pose. Moreover the angle is such that one may think that the stone is round shaped (which it isn't).

A much better representation is the drawing of R. Edgren, a hammer ex-world record holder and a famous journalist, who participated at the 1906 Games, unfortunately for him past his prime at 32 years of age. (In my ancient-style discus throw article, I will come back to Edgren's drawings).

Before concluding I would like to add a short analysis of the importance of the over-hand throw. Georgantas record in stone throw was roughly 20 m while in shot put he had a record of slightly above 13 m. Throwing a lighter, 6.4 kg instead of 7.25 kg, shot would boost his shot put record to just over 14 m. So the explanation for the 20 m record should be sought in two factors. One is the smaller arm inertia due to the style. Although not as small as in javelin throw it is definitely smaller than the typical value of 6-7 kg one uses in shot put, perhaps closer to a 3 kg value. Second, the fact that the athlete does not have to brake, definitely improves the performance. It is not clear what is the contribution of this last style detail but let us assume that in the case of Georgantas two-thirds of the performance gain in stone throw came from the throwing style (from 14 m to 18 m), the remaining one third (from 18 m to 20 m) being obtained by the non-braking. We can now apply this analysis to modern shot putters, who can throw over 22 m in either of the modern, glide or spin, styles. Were an overhand throw to be allowed with a javelin style run-up (even with a constraint of non-crossing the fowl line) throws close to 30 m could have been possible. Of course, that would necessitate a specific and quite delicate preparation incompatible with the current shot putters' one. But throwing the shot at 30 m would have been really revolutionary.

19 May, 2017

The tabula rasa of records

The European Records Credibility Project Team have made public their recommendation. When I first heard about the project I was afraid that it would degenerate into a witch hunt where old records would be scrutinised for credibility resulting in an unfair treatment based on influence and hearsay. Fortunately my fears did not pan out.

The report of the team starts by reminding that among the objects of the 1913 IAAF Constitution was “To pass upon and register World’s amateur records in field and track athletics”. By the way, while the credibility project is a european initiative it is clear that whatever measure will be adopted it will carry over to the world records.

Four options have been identified from the outset.

1) The Status Quo. Do nothing and keep the record list as it is.
2) The Witch Hunt. Examine the records one by one and remove the suspicious ones. I cannot think of anything worse than this. Had this proposal been adopted we might have seen East German records erased but Flo-Jo’s windy 10.49 would have survived. 
3) The “javelin” option (as dubbed by the Team). It refers to the changes in javelin specifications which made new records mandatory. That would have been great. I may one day write a post on what the ideal “javelin” option would be. However it remains that such an option is totally unrealistic.
4) The “1913” option (again in the Team’s terminology). It consists in amending the criteria for record recognition which unavoidably requires establishing new records.

Fortunately the Team favoured this last option, which means that the existing record list will be erased and will be replaced by a new one satisfying specific criteria. The Team’s recommendations concerning the later are rather lengthy and cast in a slightly bureaucratic parlance but the gist of them is the following.

1) Records would have to have been achieved at international events where the highest standards of officiating and technical equipment could be guaranteed.
2) The athlete must be subject to an agreed number of doping control tests in the months leading up to the record.
3) Doping control samples taken after world-record performances would need to be stored and available for retesting for 10 years. Given that IAAF has stored blood and urine samples only since 2005 no record prior to 2005 can be remain in the official list. 
4) All record holders have an obligation to maintain their sporting integrity after a record is recognised. If sanctioned for a serious breach of the rules (for example a subsequent doping offense) recognition of their records will be withdrawn even if there is no proof the breach affected the record setting performance.
5) Current records which do not meet the above criteria would remain on the "all-time list" but would not be officially recognised as records. Also, if a record recognition is withdrawn no immediate successor should be ratified but rather a limit should be set for a new record to be established at a future date.

Kratoshvílová's 1:53.28 will be replaced by Jelimo's 1:54.01. 
Two remarks: Middle-aged Kratoshvílová looks better than the young one.
Kratoshvílová will look better than Semenya when the later will be WR holder.

The long and short of this is that no records anterior to 2005 will figure in  the list and doping offenders cannot be record holders. Having said this what would be the world record list complying with the Team’s recommendations? Here it is:

Event Men Women
100 m U. Bolt 9.58 C. Jeter 10.64
200 m U. Bolt 19.19 D. Schippers 21.63
400 m W. van Niekerk 43.03 S. Richards-Ross 48.70
800 m D. Rudisha 1:40.91 P. Jelimo 1:54.01
1500 m A. Kiprop 3:27.69 G. Dibaba 3:50.07
5000 m K. Bekele 12:40.18 T. Dibaba 14:11.15
10000 m K. Bekele 26:17.53 A. Ayana 29:17.45
Half Marathon Z. Tadese 58:23 J. Jepkoskei 1:04:52
Marathon D. Kimetto 2:02:57 M. Keitany 2:17:01
3000 m st B. Kipruto 7:53.64 R. Jebet 8:52.78
110 m hd A. Merritt 12.80 K. Harrison 12.20
400 m hd K. Clement 47.24 M. Walker 52.42
4x100 m Jamaica 37.58 USA 40.82
4x400 m Bahamas 2:56.72 USA 3:16.87
High Jump M. Barshim 2.43 B. Vlasic 2.08
Pole Vault R. Lavillenie 6.05 Y. Isinbayeva 5.06
Long Jump D. Phillips 8.74 B. Reese 7.31
Triple Jump C. Taylor 18.21 F. Mbango 15.39
Shot Put J. Kovacs 22.56 V. Adams 21.24
Discus Throw G. Kanter 73.38 D. Caballero 70.65
Hammer Throw P. Fajdek 83.93 A. Wlodarczyk 83.98
Javelin Throw T. Röhler 93.90 B. Spotáková 72.28
Decathlon A. Eaton 9045 K. Clüft 7032

I do not know how recommendation No 4 of the Team will be implemented but I decided in a lapidary way to leave out of the list all athletes that have been sanctioned for a doping offence. Thus, for instance, S. Perkovic does not figure as world record holder in women’s discus. Also I have had great trouble with the relays in particular men’s ones. The current 4x100 m record is number 16 in the all-time list while the 4x400 m is number 11.

20 years later only 8 centimetres separate Edwards and Taylor

All in all, looking at the record list above I feel that we are not losing much by readjusting the list. On the other hand I am not sure that we are having a 100 % clean list.  It would, perhaps, be better to drop all existing records and start afresh from next year. But, even so, I am afraid that the doping Hydra will raise her heads again and again. 

06 May, 2017

The barrier is still intact

The verdict has fallen. The two-hours barrier for men’s Marathon is still unbroken. The Nike Breaking2 event took place early this morning in the automobile race track of Monza in Italy. The track of Monza was chosen because of its gentle corners (after all it’s just a 2.4 km track and so corners do count) and for its rather clement weather conditions (at this time of the year).

The famous race-track of Monza

It was a race where fresh pacemakers have been present throughout (as I had predicted in my recent post). Drinks were delivered by scooter so as not to slow-down the runners. And of course the special Nike VaporFly shoe did play an essential role. 

The pacemakers were also an active wind-screen

The three champions selected for the attempt met with various fortunes. L. Desisa could not keep up with the pace and ended with a 2:14:10 time almost 10 more than his personal time. Z. Tadese, who is in fact a semi-marathon specialist, did improve his personal best by a full three minutes with 2:06:51 still way off the 2 hours mark. The only one who gave the barrier a real scare was the current olympic champion E. Kipchoge. 

E. Kipchoge at the end of his 2 hours effort

His time of 2:00:25 is more than 2:30 better than his official personal record of 2:03:05.  If somebody could break that mythical barrier that person could only be Kipchoge. A specialist of 5000 m, he was world champion in 2003, silver medalist in 2007, olympic medalist in 2004 (bronze) and 2008 (silver). He possesses the basic speed that could allow him to break the marathon world record under “normal” conditions. At 33 years of age he has the requisite maturity for this. 

The official site of the IAAF gives an analysis of the race (but still the record cannot be homologated under the existing rules). The runners passed the 10 km point in 28:21 and the half-marathon in 59:57. A sub2 time was starting looking iffy at that point and that was confirmed by the splits at 30 km (1:35:20) and at 40 km where, given the time of 1:54:00, it was clear that only a superhuman effort could catch up with the delay. One can criticise the irregularities, in view of the standing rules, of the attempt (and I am one among those who did so) but still the effort of Kipchoge is historical. In some sense it is even better than a sub-2 time. Had he broken the barrier we could have waved that away saying he got excessive help from the staging of the event. Having come close and failed lends to his effort a human dimension.

PS  Ross Tucker (of Sports Scientists fame) suggests that if one reads a single article on the Breaking2 attempt that should be the one by Sarah Barker. I read it and I agree 100 % with him. So, if you read just two articles on the Nike attempt (well, if you have gone this far, you have certainly read mine, so that counts as one already) go and read her article in deadspin.
And, by the way the link in Sports Scientists points to the excellent analysis of Ross. Look, make it three and read that article too. It's great reading.