15 August, 2017

Disconcerting thoughts

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

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

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

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

Disconcerting thoughts, indeed.

07 August, 2017

The preposterous statement of a greek journalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gatlin paying tribute to Bolt at the end of the final

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

06 August, 2017

The hyperandrogenism plague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

01 August, 2017

The "javelin option" for vertical jumps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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