12 April, 2017

The secret weapon of Nike, revealed

In February I published a post on Nike's Breaking2 project that consists in breaking the 2-hour barrier in men's Marathon. I voiced my doubts by wondering whether the project was science or farce. Now it appears that it is essentially shoe technology.

First, let us be fair about Nike. At no point did they pretend that the Breaking2 attempt was going to be one that could lead to a world record to be homologated. So, people did offer speculation about the possible ways to attain the objective: downhill racing (not without disadvantages), wind assistance (how do you control this?), doping (would the athletes risk their career for this?). My take was fresh pacemakers (but if you cannot follow their pace, they are useless). Given that Nike is a shoe manufacturer the most obvious solution could be some very special shoe. It turned out that this was the secret weapon of Nike.

The new shoe of Nike is called Vaporfly Elite.

The official description of the shoe states that Vaporfly features a thick midsole embedded with a stiff carbon-fiber plate which allows the shoe to return about 13 % more energy. Nike claims that the plate saves 4 % of the energy needed to run at a given speed. You can see the curved plate in the scan below.

So now the obvious question is "does Nike cheat by using this shoe?". Ross Tucker at Sportscientists.com does think so. He has an excellent article on the matter. He bases it on two historical cases, the Pistorius blades and the Speedo LZR swimsuit. In the case of Pistorius no action was taken because Pistorius had never been an outstanding runner. Thus the technology that allowed him to run a 45.3 s 400 m was viewed as tolerable. (I have made explicit my thoughts on blade runners and augmented humans in two posts of mine). On the other hand the LZR swimsuit resulted in practically all olympic records being broken in the Beijing, 2008, Olympics. As a consequence it was banned (and dragged down with it even the non-polyurethane-reinforced suits, something that I deplore).

Ross makes some excellent points as to whether the carbon-fiber plate should be banned. First it is clear that Nike themselves are presenting (in their patent application) the insert as a spring plate. Moreover they state explicitly that the foam padding of current shoes returns a very small amount of energy. Ergo, what matters is the plate. What I did like a lot in Ross' presentation was his gradual build up argument. You start with a prototype that offers a very small advantage. People say it's OK, just carbon-fiber and foam, so there is nothing to worry about. Then you work on the prototype and improve it, without making your progress public. Finally you optimise everything and it really works. Suddenly you get a world record and nobody knows if this is an outstanding performance or just technology at work. Ross concludes that "any external device inserted for the purpose of energy return should be banned" adding that "performance evolution should be trusted to have occurred as a result of human physiology".

I do not think that human physiology has changed appreciably over the last century: the human-factor-based progress we have witnessed is due mainly to better nutrition and hygiene, as well as selection among an ever-growing pool of candidates. The evolution of training methods have greatly contributed to improvement of performances. However we should not neglect the fact that technology has been at the service of athletics since the beginning. Better running surfaces and better equipment are essential in the progress over the years.

Having presented these arguments I do not really know where we should draw the line. On the one hand I strongly believe that the material used should not bestow any unfair advantage. But then what about everybody using carbon-fiber-plate fitted shoes? (Unfortunately, Nike are talking about specially adapting the shoes to be used in the Breaking2 attempt for each runner. If so, what about the guy next door? We are back to the unfair advantage argument). On the other hand, if the shoes are allowed and widely used, aren't we going to enter an era of before and after, just as in the case of pole vault? Is this worth it? I seriously doubt it.

For the time being I think that I'll wait patiently for the Breaking2 attempt: it would certainly be exciting to watch a human break the 2 hours Marathon barrier. Still we should not forget that 2 hours are not magical but just a sign of the human obsession with round numbers. 

PS Just not be left by the wayside, Adidas announced that they also had a revolutionary marathon shoe, the adizero Sub2, that would be instrumental in their Sub2 project. It has a special foam, Boost Light, that is supposed to provide 1 % improvement in running energy economy. But at least the Adidas shoe does not have a carbon fiber blade.

01 April, 2017

European Indoors 2017: a championship I did enjoy

When the 2017 European Indoors were approaching I was looking forward to the performances of three athletes: Spanovic, Thiam and Mayer (and I was confident that Stefanidi would just show her superior class and win her discipline). I was not disappointed. There was also a very nice surprise in the person of L. Muir but more on this point later.

I. Spanovic, flying in an all 7+ m contest

Spanovic was really the queen of these championships. Her winning mark of 7.24 m is the third all-time best indoors (only Drechsler with 7.37 m and Chistyakova with 7.30 m have done better, in the 80s) and compared to the best outdoors performances the only better one in the last decade are B. Reese's 7.31 m and 7.25 m in 2016 and 2013 respectively. In fact all the attempts of Spanovic valid and foul equally were beyond 7 m, including her last one measured at 6.73 m. In fact where Spanovic has undoubtedly progressed these last months was the landing in the sandpit where she had a tendency to lie back and lose precious centimetres. This is what happened in her last attempt (bad habits have a tendency to come back and bite you) and since that was the last jump she decided to celebrate her victory by lying all the way on her back in the sandpit shaving at least 30 cm from her performance. Speaking of the women's long jump, I was a  little bit disappointed by J. Sawyers and her 5th place. But to be fair, she did jump 6.67 m and the level of the competition was very, very high.

Even the last jump of Spanovic was an over 7 m one

Thiam won the women's heptathlon hands down but after the 4th event it was clear that the world record was beyond her reach. Had she jumped at her personal indoor best of 6.51 m she would have to run the 800 m at her outdoor best of 2:16.54 in order to beat the WR with 5020 points. However her 6.37 m deprived her of that hope and thus she just jogged through the 800 m having secured the victory. Thiam would have placed 2nd in the high jump, had she participated in the individual event. I hope to see her one day jumping over 2 m. Of the three dutch brilliant heptathletes only N. Broersen participated at the heptathlon finishing 5th while N. Visser ran the 60 m hurdles placing 7th in the final while A. Vetter did not compete this winter. 

N. Thiam together with I. Dadic and G. Zsivoczky-Farkas

Speaking of combined events I must say that I am particularly happy with K. Mayer's victory and european record. When in my last year's olympic report I wrote that I consider Mayer the true successor to Eaton some people considered this an exaggeration. After having seen Mayer's performance in Belgrade they are now eating crow. I said it already: Mayer is a jumper-thrower and, while he may be not as fast a runner like, say, Eaton or Warner, he has the perfect profile for a decathlete. And at 25 he is still young for a decathlete. Barring injuries  we can safely expect a 9000+ performance from Mayer. The men's heptathlon was the occasion for J. Ureña to redeem himself. If you follow my blog you will certainly remember that Ureña fouled out in the decathlon discus at the 2016 Europeans losing is chances for a medal and, what is even worse, failing to qualify for the Rio Olympics. This time Ureña finished second after an exemplary competition. I will keep an eye open for him this summer at the London World's. A sad moment of men's heptathlon was the finish of the 1000 m when M. Dudas stepped out of the track and fell down while he was fighting for the bronze medal. Had he ran at his personal best he would have made this medal. All in all I find that qualifying 16 athletes for the heptathlon was inconsiderate on behalf of European Athletics. It led to a pole vault competition that took hours and then the athletes had to present themselves for the 1000 m within barely half an hour. A more conservative field of 12 would have been definitely better.

K. Mayer, the world's best decathlete today

K. Stefanidi showed her great class in the women's pole vault. Having missed once at the opening height of 4.55 m she was been led by L. Ryzih and thus from 4.65 m onwards she decided to bide her time till 4.80 m where Ryzih missed and Stefanidi passed at the first try. After that the competition became a formality with Stefanidi passing 4.85 m and Ryzih missing at that height. A. Bengtsson was third on count-back (together with M. Kylypko) but I find her 4.55 m performance somewhat disappointing. By now she should be a 4.80 plus jumper rather than having difficulties with a mere 4.60 m.

K. Stafanidi, adding one more gold medal to her collection

Men's pole vault saw the victory of P. Lisek. This was expected given that Lisek has recently the club of the over-6ers. However his victory was not as easy as one would have predicted since K. Filippidis jumped a national record of 5.85 m for silver and P. Wojciechowski a season's best 5.85 m for bronze. E. Karalis, the world youth record holder, did participate (at just 17 years of age) at his first competition at senior level managing a mere 5.50 m (his personal record from last month being 5.70 m). It goes without saying that this first participation was a precious experience for the young greek champion. I will keep an eye open for him.

E. Karalis, the new greek talent in pole vault

Poland has dominated these indoor championships with no fewer 12 medals 7 of which were gold. They dominated men's middle distances and won both relays. Moreover with K. Bukowiecki they continued the polish tradition in shot put. Bukowiecki a 19 year-old spinner threw a massive 21.97 to win the men's event.  Unfortunately his victory is somewhat tainted by doping allegations. (The matter is quite complicated since the substance detected, higenamine, is not on the WADA list but has a structure very similar to other forbidden substances).

In an article of mine, right after the Olympics, I was writing that while there is a tendency for men shot putters to become spinners no such thing is observed in women. I don't have any explanation for this. Still, the women's event was won by a spinner, A. Marton with a world leading throw of 19.28 m. While this may seem as a comfortable victory, and in fact it was, Marton struggled to reach the final being 8th after the two first throws. A. Skujyte, the decathlon world record holder, pursues her athletics career at 37 years of age and barely missed the shot put final placing 9th at the qualifiers with an excellent throw of 17.37 m.

I. Smalaj, new blodd in the stagnating men's long jump

I admit that I have not remarked the albanian long jumper I. Smajlaj till very recently when he won the 2017 indoor Balkan Games. He did surpass himself at the Europeans winning a first title for his country. Still his performance of 8.08 m, quite a progression for him, is another proof (as if we were needing one) that long jump has gone into depression. There are only 5 performances above 8.50 m since 2010 with the best of them a mere 8.58 m. There are times when one waxes nostalgic of King Carl.

L. Muir, out-distancing her kenyan/turk opponent

L. Muir proved her great talent by winning both 1500  and 3000 m in a masterly way. Her last year's 3:55.22 came as a surprise to me. After all she had never won any major title. But after seeing her dominating the two events the way she did I am convinced now that at long last Europe will be able to compete with Africa over women's middle distances. Y. Can the turkish-kenyan had a taste of this at Belgrade. Speaking of middle distances, I was happy of the performance of S. Ennaoui, an athlete I keep an eye on.

L. Muir, together with S. Ennaoui and K. Klosterhalfen

I was particularly happy with F. Guei's victory in the individual 400 m. She has been for years a superlative relay runner but this time she secured a well-merited individual time. The European indoors were an occasion for me to see for the first time the new sprint talent from Poland E. Swoboda. While clearly inexperienced (she could make the final with the last qualifying time having botched her finish in the semis) she won the bronze medal in a very convincing way. The 2017 Indoors were the occasion for R. Beitia to add a medal to her impressive collection. It was a silver one this time, since the first place went to A. Palsyte who jumped a 2.01 m personal best. In Belgrade we bid our farewell to S. Kallur who made it to the 60 m hurdles final (a final won by C. Roleder with A. Talay losing the first place over the last few metres). Kallur's performances over the last two years is another proof that a comeback in high-level athletics is nigh on impossible. Either you keep going if you have the chance to be injury-free or you quit and that's it.

Floria Guei, dominating the 400 m

I was going to forget the other greek medal at these championships. It was obtained by. V. Papachristou in the triple jump who was third behind K. Gierisch and the 2016 outdoors european champion P. Mamona confirming thus her place among the world's best triple jumpers.

I will wrap up this report with a few remarks. The championships suffered from not up to the task judges. There were moments when the missed starts were wreaking havoc upon the competition (and I do not care if that was a technical problem: we are talking about European Championships here). I am also unhappy about the television coverage. We did not get to see a single jump of the men's pole vault in heptathlon. The participation of african turks was kept at a minimum this time and moreover their performances were rather discreet. Still the problem is there and I very much doubt that the IAAF will address it in a useful way.

Finally I must say clearly that I was shocked seeing D. Klishina participate under the European Athletics flag. She was among the three russian athletes cleared to participate at international competitions. Once she is cleared why can't she participate as russian? I understand that there is a ban not only of doping offenders but also of those who cannot prove their innocence. But going to such extremes as to forbid even the mention of the proper nationality of athletes is something I find intolerable. O tempora! O mores!