Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The end of the Ethiopian era?

Apologies for the delay between posts, it's been a crazily busy time for both of us. But we're back, and feature two interesting athletic/running related articles today, now that the IAAF season is well upon us. Also, with the Comrades Ultra-Marathon coming up shortly, check us out for some interesting pre-race science, predictions and the usual post-race fare.

But we begin with one of the more intruiging news events of recent times - the "demise" of Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia. The Olympic and World 10 000 m champion, and 10 time world cross country champion is already among the greatest runners in history, all at the age of only 24.

Yet the last few months have seen nothing but turmoil for the Ethiopian. In a fascinating article, which you can read at the following link:

a Kenyan based newspaper reports that Bekele has lost all his power and no longer has the strength to even "lift up a table". It reports how his younger brother, Tariku, has to plead and co-erce him into training, and the general impression one gets from the article is that his days as a world-class runner are numbered.

The saga begins at the World Cross Country championships in Mombasa, Kenya in March, which Bekele was expected to win comfortably. however, after hitting the lead with about 2 km to go, he slowed, was caught and then failed to finish the race, citing stomach problems and cramp as the reasons for his loss. His defeat was celebrated almost more than a Kenyan victory would have been, such has been his dominance over them since he won his first world title in 2002.

After the race, the news article goes on to say, he struggled with knee injuries, some motivational problems and an apparent loss of power. It concludes that "his turbo seems to have blown".

The 2007 athletics season, then, takes on a new, more interesting appearance, for instead of the usual procession of victories, Bekele will be challenged. He made his first appearance at last week's Hengelo Grand Prix meeting in Holland, in the rarely-run 2 mile event, and won relatively comfortably. His winning time of 8:13 was however achieved against a relatively weak field (the 3000m split was 7:44, not exactly earth-shattering at that level), and did little to either prove or disprove the claims made in the article (though he clearly has more strength than he was letting on - most people who can't lift a table can't run 2 miles in less than 18 minutes, much less 8!).

Only time will tell whether he is able to capture his best form. If he cannot, then it will likely be up to his younger brother Tariku (faster than Keninisa at the same age) to continue the dominance of Ethiopia in the long distance track events (since 1993, only 1 world title over 10000 m has been won by any other nation). It began with Gebrselassie, and was continued by Bekele. The question now is whether it will be another Bekele, the same Bekele, or any one of an 'army' of Kenyans, who are snapping at his heels. Perhaps the biggest impact made by all these developments is that the Kenyans, who once claimed after yet another defeat that Bekele was "unbeatable" are once again hungry and confident, and they will take him on. It will make for exciting racing, at the very least!

As for what the exact problem may be, that's anyone's guess. There have been cases in the past of famous athletes who have just run themselves into oblivion, so to speak. There was the famous race where Alberto Salazar raced himself into unconsciousness, and he never really recovered after that. That was a particularly hot day, as was the race in Kenya where Bekele was finally beaten - perhaps there is some effect of extremely high temperatures on the body's ability to recover?

The UCT Research unit has been looking into symptoms similar to these, in a condition which was originally called FAMS - Fatigued Athlete Myopathic Syndrome. That name was recently changed to ATI (Acquired Training Intolerance), for reasons not worth going into here. Basically, ATI is a condition observed in long distance runners where the athlete just seems to lose the ability to adapt normally to training - excessive fatigue, inability to recover, poor performances, exhaustion etc. are the symptoms. The cause is not known, but the one common feature of these cases is that the athlete exercised with a virus at some stage during their lifetime. So there is a theory that if one trains while ill, it can cause some sort of adaptation or response that affects the body's ability to respond to training in the future. It's possible that Bekele had the same thing - could he have competed in Mombasa or some time before while fighting off the flu, or some other virus? If yes, then perhaps he is one of the candidates for this condition? The answer to that will likely remain unknown, unless I can convince him to come to SA for a check-up! (Seriously, it's being considered).

But until then, watch this space and we'll see what develops!

Bye for now!