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.