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.

01 May, 2017

Mixed relays, hurrah!

I first heard about mixed relays in 1987. But let me give some background first.

While I adore athletics I have been a swimmer for most of my life. My discipline is finswimming and I keep training and even now participating at competitions (for my age group). 

Here's what fiwnswimming looks like

From 1985 till 2001 I was member of the Finswimming commission of the World Confederation for Subaquatic Sports (CMAS; the acronym being based on the french name of the federation). Finswimming is a discipline recognised by the IOC and participating at the World Games. In 1987 we faced a problem at the commission since the International World Games Association had decided to limit the participation per country to 2 male plus 2 female swimmers. This restriction would have had as a consequence to drop the relays from the program. And then the soviet member of the commission made a proposal that I found most original: mixed relays. We did not get to organise those relays since a few weeks later the IWGA upped the participation limit to 4+4 and we went back to a more classic scheme. Still I kept the idea in the back of my mind. Mixed relays made their appearance in finswimming much later where the open water 4x2 km relay became a mixed one. And once classical swimming introduced mixed relays in pool competitions finswimming followed course.

This year, at long last, the IAAF introduced mixed relays in the World Relays competition. The idea is great. The mixed relay was a 4x400 m. Since the order of runners is, obviously, free the possible strategies may vary from team to team. The standard approach is to have men run at the first and fourth relays with women at second and third. That was the strategy adopted by exactly half the finalists. The one adopted by the remaining half was to have men at first and third position and women and second and fourth. I do not know for sure which is best but in any case the fact that different strategies can be used makes for more spectacular and exciting races. If you haven't watched the mixed relay, you can catch it here.

The mixed 4x400 m relay

Just for the fun of it I did a small calculation. I added the times of the men's and women's relays, divided by two and compared it to the time of the mixed relay. Here are the results

half-sum mixed
Bahamas 3:19.89 3:14.62
USA 3:13.25 3:17.29
Jamaica 3:15.68 3:20.26
Poland 3:18.07 3:22.26
Kenya 3:23.74 3:23.79

For three out of five teams the mixed relay did worse than what one would have expected. This is probably due to the effect of cumulative efforts and the accompanying tiredness. Kenya is the only well-balanced team, performing in the mixed relay exactly as one would have predicted. The result of the Bahamas mixed relay is much better than the prediction but then the teams of Bahamas did not make it to the final of the men's and women's events. The women's team opted not to participate at the B final most probably reserving themselves for the mixed event. It seems that the Bahamas put all their eggs in the same basket, the mixed relay one, and that payed out.

Speaking of mixed relays it's the 4x100 m that I would like to see even more than the 4x400 m. The short relay depends crucially on delicately balancing the speeds of the two runners at the exchange of the baton. So, adding the extra difficulty of different top speeds for male and female runners would make this event even more challenging. I cross my fingers for such an event to become part of official competitions. 

Speaking of 4x100 m, enjoy De Grasse 
beating the shit out of Gatlin

The mixed relay came, alas, at a price: the disappearance of the distance medley relay. The latter made a single appearance in the program of the 2015 World relays (replacing most probably the 4x1500 m event). The distance medley was a relay of four different distances: 1200, 400, 800 and 1600 m. In fact medley relays have a long history.  I remember that when I first started interesting myself in Athletics and looked up the greek national records there was one for the swedish relay.  It's a sprint relay with legs of 100, 200, 300 and 400 m. It was part of the program of the, soon to be defunct, U18 World Championships (they will be replaced by continental events after 2017) and it is run from time to time in scandinavian meetings. The swedish relay is not the only sprint medley one. A shorter variation consists in 100, 100, 200 and 400 m legs while the longer one comprises the double distances of the former, namely 200, 200, 400 and 800 m. 

However there exists one variety of medley relay which is famous and frequently run, the Ekiden relay. It originated in Japan and is now part of road events all over the world. There exist many variants of the Ekiden but the classical one is the Ekiden Marathon consisting of legs of 5, 10, 5, 10, 5 and 7.195 km. From 1992 to 1998, ekiden-style, World Road Relay championships were organised by the IAAF. Unfortunately they have gone now the way of the dodo.