09 September, 2017

A bizarre championship. Second part: field and combined events

I hope you will excuse me if I start this second part of my report with the victory of K. Stefanidi. After having won the Olympic (and the European) title in 2016 Stefanidi went on to dominate the 2017 season. Her 4.91 m record was a world leading performance. She entered the competition at 4.65 m, a height where most of her opponents had started to falter. And once S. Morris was eliminated at 4.89, Stefanidi passed and went on to 4.91 m which she successfully cleared. The surprising new-comer was R. Peinado of Venezuela who tied at third place with Y. Silva. A minor disappointment were the 9 and 10th places of E. McCartney and A. Bengtsson who could only manage a 4.55 m height.

K. Stefanidi, the best pole vaulter 
of these last two years

I did really enjoy the men's pole vault competition. I have rarely seen R. Lavillenie be so serene, starting with confidence at a relatively high 5.65 m and making the good choices of heights to pass. In a year where he was not in the best of shapes he managed to grab bronze medal with his season's best of 5.89 m. The gold medal went to S. Kendricks who did impress me not only for his performance (he jumped 5.95 m)  but also with his fair-play, rushing into the reception area to congratulate Lavillenie. Pre-event favourite P. Wojciechowski was a disappointing 5th but the polish pride was saved by P. Lisek's silver medal. The ex-world champions S. Barber and R. Holzdeppe were disappointing and the same holds true for the wunderkind of pole vault A. Duplantis (although most probably Duplantis had peaked for the U20 Europeans in July).

It's been years since I have last seen Lavillenie so happy

Men's high jump was won by M.E. Barshim who is the uncontested number one of the discipline this year. Curious as it may sound, for an athlete who is the second best performer of all times, Barshim's only other global gold medal was the 2014 indoors' one. He jumped 2.35 m at the World's but went on to jump 2.40 m twice at meetings just after the championships. B. Bondarenko is having a mediocre season and could only manage a 9th place in London. The one athlete I did notice (in particular for his excellent technique) was silver medalist (with 2.32 m) D. Lysenko of Russia who jumped a personal best of 2.38 m after the championships. At 30 years of age M.E. Ghazal of Syria captured his first global medal with 2.29 m relegating on count-back the astonishing E. Rivera of Mexico to a 4th place. Italy's G. Tamberi, who jumped 2.39 in 2016 only to get injured just before the Olympics, was back in London with a 2.29 m year's best but could not make the final just for one missed height.

Barshim has dominated this season's high jump

M. Kuchina-Lasitskene had no trouble whatsoever winning the gold medal of women's high jump. After having cleared 2.03 m she went on to try 2.08 m, which would have made of her the second best performer of all times (together with B. Vlasic) with a russian record, but she missed all three attempts. Y. Levchenko of Ukraine obtained the silver medal with a huge personal best of 2.01 m, while K. Licwinko of Poland had to equal her outdoors record at 1.99 m in order to obtain the bronze medal. It looks like R. Beitia's career is coming to an end this time: with a 1.88 m jump she was relegated to the 12th place.

The women's horizontal jumps were a minor disappointment for me since my two preferred athletes did not shine. In triple jump C. Ibargüen lost to Y. Rojas for a measly two centimetres despite a great competition. The style of Y. Rojas is always the same awful to look at but quite efficient. Some people are advancing the argument that if Rojas manages to improve her style she will be able to do extraordinary things. I do not share this opinion. I believe that Rojas' style is adapted to her morphology, her minuscule second jump being precisely one that allows her to conserve her speed. I do not know if Ibargüen's defeat signals a possible career end. I hope not since it will be difficult to find another triple jumper with her feline grace.

But what I still cannot believe is that I. Spanovic went home empty handed. In particular since her last jump was visually way beyond Reese's winning mark of 7.02 m. It seems that Spanovic's number on her back left a mark in the sand and the length of her jump was measured from that point. Having seen her jump at the European indoors I was ready to bet that this time she was going to clinch the gold medal, but in the end she registered her worst result since 2012. D. Klishina was second of a high level competition with an excellent 7.00 m and the first global medal of her career.

Darya Klishina, flying to a silver medal. 
I would have preferred to give a photo of Spanovic, but...

C. Taylor won the men's triple jump with 17.68 m but W. Claye did chase him all the way and lost the gold medal for just 5 centimetres. Clearly Taylor was not in his spring, 18 m plus, shape. N. Evora, always present in important competitions won the bronze medal repelling the assaults of four Cuban jumpers (one of them competing for Azerbaijan).

Men's long jump saw two south africans on the podium: L. Manyonga first with 8.48 m and R. Samaai third with 8.32 m. J. Lawson of the US was the silver medalist with a leap of 8.44 m. The 2013 world champion A. Menkov of Russia was fourth with just one valid jump at 8.27 m. What I did like best in this, admittedly low-key competition, was the absence of G. Rutherford. I don't know whether he was simply injured or has in fact retired but I am crossing my fingers for the second.

My men's shot put and discus throw favourites did quite well but the score was not perfect. T. Walsh did indeed win the men's shot put with a superb 22.03 m throw. The second new-zealander J. Gill did make it to the final only to finish 9th. A least he is starting to fulfill my expectations, because for one or two years I was afraid he had fizzled out. D. Storl, still quite young for a shot putter had only one valid throw ending in 10th position. He was the only glider in the final and it seems that my last year's article "Are shot-putters becoming spinners?" was not off the mark. As I had already pointed out in that article, women are rather slow in catching up. Among the three medalists only the silver medal winner, A. Marton, is a spinner, the gold medalist L.Gong and the bronze one M. Carter both using the glide technique. In fact, if my count is correct, only two among the 12 women finalists were spinning.

Walsh being carried on the shoulders of bronze medalist Zunic

D. Stahl in discus lost the gold medal by a mere 2 cm, after the winner, A. Gudzius of Lithuania, threw a huge personal best of 69.21 m. F. Dacres of Jamaica missed out on a medal, finishing fourth, but this is a definite improvement over his last year's olympic debacle. The Harting brothers were nowhere to be seen, Robert finishing 6th and Cristoph absent from the championships.

S. Perkovic took her revenge for the 2015 defeat. She had two throws beyond 70 m and won with 70.31 m, the silver medal going to the amazing D. Stevens (the 2009 world champion) who improved her area record with 69.64 m. M. Robert-Michon confirmed her olympic medal with a world bronze one at 38 years of age. This time Y. Pérez managed to disappoint me only a little. Arriving in London as one of the favourites with a huge personal best over 69 m, she finished fourth with a modest 64.82 m throw. Still better than the 2015 world champion and over-70 thrower, D. Caballero who had to content herself with a 5th place. 

The women's javelin throw was won by B. Spotakova, 10 years after her only other world tile, the one won in Osaka in 2007. Not a bad performance for the 36 years old veteran. The Rio olympic champion S. Kolak was a relative disappointment, finishing fourth. All in all the competition was rather low-key the gold medal being won with a 66.76 m throw. We are definitely missing 70-plus female javelin throwers.

While the women's javelin is going through a crisis the men's discipline is flourishing. Walcott, Yego, Röhler and Vetter have made us miss a little less the giants of the discipline, Zelezny and Thorkildsen. J. Vetter confirmed his position as second best thrower of all time with a world title obtained with a 89.89 m throw. T. Röhler himself was somewhat below par and ended up fourth behind the two surprising czech athletes J. Vadlejch and P. Frydrych who both thew personal bests at the World's. K. Walcott finished 7th and J. Yego is definitely going through a bad year and 13th place at the Wolrd's. The high level of men's javelin reflects itself in the fact that 13 athletes threw beyond the qualifying distance (and thus gained access to the final). Among them the talented young greek thrower I. Kyriazis who finished at a most honourable 6th place. Perhaps we have found the successor to the great K. Gatsioudis. My only disappointment in this event was the presence of T. Pitkämäki. When is he going to retire? We have seen him more than enough.

J. Vetter, first among a host a great javelin throwers

Hammer throw was a polish affair, Poland winning 4 out of the 6 medals. P. Fajdek won his third consecutive world title, a reassuring result after last year's olympic disaster, where he was unable to make the final. A. Wlodarczyk's was also a third world title but only the second consecutive one. She had obtained a surprise victory in 2009 where she threw 77.96 m, practically the same distance as her 77.90 m winning mark in London. We are far from her 82 plus world record but in any case her dominance in this delicate discipline is absolute. 

N. Thiam being congratulated by N. Visser

Combined events were as always a privileged moment on the Championships. N. Thiam was everybody's favourite for the women's heptathlon. She won comfortably despite an excellent performance by C. Schäfer. (They had finished in the same order in Götzis were Thiam became the third all-time performer with 7013 points). The three wonderwomen from Holland met with various fates in the World's. A. Vetter, thanks to a massive 58.41 throw in the javelin repelled the assaults of Y. Rodriguez and K. Johnson-Thompson obtaining the bronze medal. N. Visser finished 7th, the same position she obtained in the 100 m hurdles final. Unfortunately N. Broersen dropped out due to injury after the long jump, but even her first day was somewhat below par. I was expecting I. Dadic to obtain something better than a 6th place but the level of the competition was so high that she had to break her own national record just to make it to this position.

K. Mayer at the pole vault that might have cased his fall

I wrote last year that K. Mayer is successor of A. Eaton only to have some people voice their doubts. His victory in London will convince even the more sceptical ones. On the other hand his triumph could have turned to a disaster at the pole vault. He decided to start at 5.10 m and could only pass at the third try. I cannot understand why decathletes are doing this to themselves. I wrote a whole article on fouling out in decathlon. Given that they start really feeling the tiredness in the middle of the second day, decathletes should take an easy jump just to make sure they have the necessary points. Mayer should have started at 4.90 m maximum (and given that even 5.30 m proved to be too high, a 4.70 m jump wouldn't have been too timid). Fortunately for Mayer all turned out for the best for him and he could enjoy his first global title. D. Warner, ex world vice-champion was not in great shape and finished 5th. The two medals went to R. Freimuth and K. Kazmirek from Germany while in the 4th position we have a new-comer from Estonia, J. Oiglane. I'll keep an eye on him. Looking at the top decathletes of the competition I noticed a prevalence of jumper-throwers: Mayer (1st), Freimuth (2nd), Kazmirek (3rd), Oiglane (4th) Felix (7th), Helcelet (8th). The discus, that had been the downfall of J. Ureña (9th in London with a personal best of 8125) at last year's Europeans, made two victims in London: double ex-world champion T. Hardee (but he already had a 0 due to a fall in the 110 m hurdles) and the second (after K. Felix) grenadian talent L. Victor. African record holder L. Bourrada of Algeria abandoned the competition after the high jump, depriving us of a strong finisher in the 1500 m. M. Dudas and I. Shkurenyev had a fall in the 110 m and were disqualified, being thus forced out of the competition. This is something that I find too harsh. 

Fouling out in hurdles is a point where I am at odds with the current rules. Suppose somebody falls in the hurdles race of a combined event, but picks himself up and finishes after having pushed down a hurdle in a non-regulatory way. Why should he be disqualified if he makes the effort of passing all remaining hurdles normally and crosses the finishing line? Suppose he can run the 110 m in 14.50 s for slightly over 900 points and after a fall manages to finish in 18 seconds, which gives a bit more than 500 points. Isn't the 400 point loss penalty enough? Why go all the way to disqualification? Just as we have special rules for combined events concerning false starts and wind speed, we should have had also special, more clement, rules for the hurdles race.

All in all London World’s were bizarre championships. Many favourites failed, outsiders won, not a single performance came close to a world record, men’s sprint is following the trend set by the long jump. (This last statement, in case you have missed my previous posts, is referring to the fact that men’s long jump has been stagnant for years). I did enjoy following the competition but I am also a bit worried about the general down-turn. We have to wait till the Tokyo, 2020, Olympics before drawing conclusions, but one has the feeling that world athletics are entering a crisis.

The one thing I hated about these championships was the “Authorised Neutral Athlete” moniker. For me that was a shameful, hypocritical thing. The AN athletes are russian. Once they were allowed to participate they should have been able to represent their country. Depriving them of their national anthem (as in the case of Lasitskene) or simply their flag is, to my eyes, totally unacceptable. 

In last year’s Europeans’ report I had voiced my objection over the participation  of Y. Stepanova and the fact that qualification criteria were not applied in her case. Fortunately, she did not force her presence in this year’s World’s. Speaking about criteria I was unable to find the ones that govern the participation of athletes who enter under the banner of the “Athlete Refugee Team”. Don’t get me wrong on this! I do not object the existence of such a team, since it is due to the sad state of our civilisation. However I think that refuge athletes must participate under strict, elitist, criteria like everybody else.

02 September, 2017

A bizarre championship. First part: track events.

Let me give my opinion on Bolt right away so that we can move on to more interesting things. Two years ago in my report on the 2015 World Championships I had written

"Perhaps the most important conclusion one can draw from the 2015 World's is that U. Bolt is the best sprinter ever. In fact, I was convinced about this even before the championships." 

I still stand by this statement. To my eyes Bolt is always the greatest. That said I am convinced that he shouldn't have run an individual race in this championship. He could have participated only in the relay just as he had done three years at the Commonwealth Games, probably anchoring the jamaican relay to one last gold medal. Instead of this he opted for the 100 m, where he managed to fumble his start three races in a row with, as a consequence, a stinging defeat. Despite a great race at the semi-final (or because of this effort) the Bolt who presented himself at the 4x100 m final was not the familiar sprint superhero. We all know how that ended. I don't know about you but I'm afraid I'll miss his antics. 

A sad end for Bolt's career

OK. Forget the men's 100 m. At least the 200 m was interesting in the sense that the winner, R. Guliyev, was totally unexpected, something reminiscing of Kenteris' victory in the 2000, Sydney, Olympics. (They ran also in exactly the same time, 20.09 s, at 17 years of separation). But, to be fair Guliyev is an excellent sprinter. With this year's best of 9.97 s, he is one of the rare sub-10 white performers. And I did like the fact that he first put the flag of Azerbaijan upon his shoulders and only later the turkish one. Pre-race favourites Van Niekerk and Makwala paled into insignificance although the former did save the silver medal. The one athlete who did impress me was J. Richards (bronze medal) who went on to win gold with the Trinidad & Tobago 4x400 m team.

Men's 200 m finish

The women's sprint races were more interesting, and by far, than the men's ones. For a few seconds I was hoping that M.-J. TaLou, one of the two ivorian sprinters that I admire, was going to win. But then T. Bowie with a perfectly-timed dip clinched the gold medal. (M. Ahouré, my second ivorian favourite, barely lost the bronze medal to D. Schippers). 

Bowie's dive earned her the gold medal.

The huge surprise was the fifth place of the pre-race favourite E. Thompson. (In particular since she had dominated her semi-final in a time better than that of the winner of the final). The 200 m was again a silver race for TaLou. This time she did dip on time but Schippers was faster over the last meters and renewed her world champion title. S. Miller (one of the pre-race favourites) had a great finish but had to content herself with a third place.

TaLou went home with two silver medals

Speaking of S. Miller, I will not forget the drama of women's 400 m. MIller went out way too fast and she was left without reserves with 30 m to go. The way was clear for A. Felix, but she could only grab the bronze medal, losing not only to P. Francis but also to the most impressive 19-year old bahraini S.E. Naser. I was particularly glad that one athlete I am following closely, K. Mupopo of Zambia, did make it to the final this time.

MIller freezing up with just 30 m to go

In the absence of Makwala I was expecting a heated contest between W. Van Niekerk and S. Gardiner (who had run an impressive 43.89 s in the semi-final). Gardiner did enter the final stretch ahead of Van Niekerk but the latter managed to catch up finishing in a relaxed way (which did disappoint some spectators who were expecting another feat by the talented south-african sprinter). But Van Niekerk was saving forces for the yet to be contested 200 m, where, as we saw, he did not shine. 

If there is a lesson to be learned by the (relative) failures of Van Niekerk and Miller this is that a 200-400 m double is a very risky enterprise. A. Felix has also gone for a double in the past without success. Speaking of Felix I must say that she is a great athlete (I was ecstatic when I first saw her fluid style of running) but I find that there is too big a marketing campaign around her name. Of her 6 olympic gold medals only one is won in an individual race. The tally is four out of 11 for her world champion titles. Still she has been among the top world sprinters for over 15 years and this, undeniably, merits respect.

Should I say anything about women's 800 m? I prefer not. (But, rest assured, I am going to write the article I am planning for quite some time now on Semenya). Better discuss the men's race. It was major surprise. After all P.A. Bosse qualified for the final on the basis of time having arrived third in his semi. In the final his opponents spent their energy trying to hinder each other (Amos, Bett and Aman I am looking at you). Bosse attacked with 250 m to go and managed to surprise everybody, including himself. (Look at the photo below, where he cannot yet believe he is the winner). The one who was really surprised was Kszczot who has already seen Bosse, in previous races, attack early only to yield on the final straight. He was convinced that his superior finish would make short shrift of the frenchman but this time Bosse was really the capo.

Bosse cannot yet believe that he won the race

Men's 1500 m saw the defeat of the triple world champion A. Kiprop. Still Kenya managed to grab the two highest post on the podium with E. Manangoi and T. Cheruyiot, the bronze medal going to a member of the Ingerbrigsten clan, Filip, the surprise european champion of last year. Women's 1500 m reserved two surprises. The biggest one (at least for myself) is that Semenya did not win (but I am convinced that she is throwing some races so as to avoid a huge outcry). The second was the disappearance of G. Dibaba. Since she had comfortably won her semi I was expecting her to play some role in the final. However she faded to last place fuelling more doubts about her extraterrestrial world record. One year after Rio, F. Kipyegon added the world gold to her olympic one.

Men's 5000 m was a great race and one which, after so many years, did not finish with M. Farah victorious. With one lap to go the three ethiopians moved ahead and bracketed Farah. But what did make the difference was Chelimo (running for the US) who, just when Farah was going to unleash his sprint, blocked him to the inside track. So Farah had to wait for an opening and when one presented itself, when Kejelcha moved to the right, it was too late. M. Edris could not be caught. The rest is history. And Farah's biggest disappointment.

Farah's post-race statement

Although with one silver and one gold (won over 10000 m with his usual, devastating sprint) Farah did much better than Bolt. Speaking of the 10 km, the one athlete that did impress me was J. Cheptegei of Uganda. Perhaps we have here the successor of Farah at the top of distance running hierarchy.

Ayana and Dibaba after the 10 km double

A. Ayana obliterated once again the opposition in the women's 10000 m. In fact the really interesting part of the race was (far) behind her in the battle of T. Dibaba and the kenyans for the remaining medals which ended with Dibaba winning silver and A. Tirop bronze. And after having dominated the 10 km race Ayana, went on to lose the 5000 m just as she did last year in the Olympics. When H. Obiri launched her sprint with 300 m to go Ayana did not react in the least. I wouldn't like to enter here into conspiracy-like theories but I do find this way of Ayana of losing over the 5 km somewhat bizarre. Still we should not forget that Obiri was already silver medalist over the same distance at the Rio Olympics.

Obiri celebrating her victory over the 5 km

Both high-hurdle races were superb. O. McLeod confirmed his supremacy over the 110 m. He took he lead from the start and while S. Shubenkov managed to catch-up around the 8th hurdle  Mcleod's superior speed did make the difference leading to a clean win. A. Meritt and G. Darien have been contending for third place throughout the race but a series of technical mistakes lead to both of them losing the bronze medal to B. Baji. The women's race signalled the come-back fo S. Pearson. With her usual explosive start she took command of the race and kept it till the finishing line. World record holder K. Harrison confirmed what I have been suspecting for some time now: she is not a winner. She was just behind Pearson all the way to the 8th hurdle and still she managed to go back home empty handed. I was also very happy with the participation of N. Visser in the final. After finishing 7th on the heptathlon she obtained the same place in the hurdles, another proof, if ever there were a need thereof, that a woman can shine both in heptathlon and in an individual event.

The superb come back of Pearson

An ex combined event specialist won the men's low hurdles. In both my reports on the Rio Olympics and the Amsterdam Europeans I had written about K. Warholm saying that I was going to keep an eye on him. Well, I didn't have to wait for too long. Running in the same, semi-suicidal, tactics Warholm obtained the world title this year. And he is just starting. Another athlete who did impress me was the qatari, ex-mauritanian, A. Samba. He was just behind Warholm, running in excellent style when he stumbled coming out from the last hurdle and dropped out of the medal race. (And let us not forget the best performer of the year K. McMaster of the British Virgin Islands, who was disqualified in the quarter finals).

Warholm surpised everybody with his victory

Both pre-race favourites, olympic champion D. Muhammad and world champion Z. Hejnova, were beaten in the women low-hurdle race. Muhammad ran too fast over the first part of the race and could not resist to the sprint of K. Carter who, running in the 9th lane without visual contact with the other hurdlers, managed to set her own pace and still have reserves left in the end.

Women's 3000 m steeple was somewhat of a surprise with two americans claiming the first two places. Well, to be fair, the winner E. Coburn, was olympic bronze medalist last year, so she was logically among the favourites. A somewhat bigger surprise was the silver medal of C. Frerichs, who was just 11th at Rio. H. Jepkemoi, Rio silver medalist and 2015 world champion had to content herself with a bronze medal, while the gold medalist and world record holder, R. Jebet, could only place 5th with a mediocre, for her, time. But the probably most "interesting" moment of the race was at the beginning of the race when B. Chepkoech who was leading at that moment "forgot" the water jump and had to backtrack losing precious ground. She ended up finishing fourth and your guess is as good as mine as to what she could have done without this blunder.

The moment when Chepkoech forgot the water jump

Men's 3000 m steeple saw the scathing defeat of the great E. Kemboi. (Don't get me wrong: to my eyes he is still the greatest steeplechaser. His defeat in London signals just the end of a career). C. Kipruto won his first world title after the olympic one he obtained last year, in a race where almost everybody was expecting E. Jager to play a more important role. In the end the latter, without forces, obtained the bronze medal thanks to the fact that M. Mekhissi did not realise early enough that Jager was worn out and launched a final sprint a tad too late ending in a frustrating fourth place. (Go watch the last metres of the race in youtubeor the whole race following this link, unless the IAAF has it taken down). Still the athlete I am going to keep an eye on is S. El Bakkali from Morocco, who won silver after having placed fourth in last year's Olympics.

Both women's relays were won by the US team. While there was a comfortable victory in the 4x400 m, in the 4x100, it is the anchor of T. Bowie that made the difference in the end. Men's relays were a totally different business. In the 4x100 m C. Coleman took the relay ahead of N. Mitchell-Blake and he still managed to lose in the end. (The explanations we heard was that Coleman is still young and that he ran too many races during the championships. You can believe it if you wish. And just to put things in perspective, Mitchell-Blake is just two years older than Coleman and the only major competition he has participated in was last year's Olympics). The 4x400 m men's relay was one of the most exciting races in the championships. L. Gordon, of Trinidad & Tobago, with a 44.02 anchor managed to beat F. Kerley, of the US, who could only run in 44.71. (And, as expected, the most impressive runner was J. Richards with a 43.60 split. He is definitely the sprinter to follow).  

Trinidad & Tobago's victory in the 4x400 m

As those who follow my blog know very well,  I don't care at all about race-walking. But I would like to point out here that at long last the 50 km race entered the women's program. So we would have had a perfect men-women parity were it not for the heptathlon which is not on par with men's decathlon. But more on this point in the second part of my report.

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.

PS. Some people are commenting that the sentence I am quoting above does not make much sense. I agree. One should read the whole article. But since I am giving the link that shouldn't be that hard. 

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.