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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

2008 Preview: Science of Sport in the year ahead

The Crystal ball post: 2008 in Sport

As mentioned yesterday, today we thought we'd do a post looking at the year of sport that lies ahead. Of course, being an Olympic year, the year is centred around 3 weeks in August in Beijing, and I'm sure that come the Olympic Games, we'll pretty much be doing post after post on the events in Beijing. Even leading into Beijing, there will be a great deal of fascinating science of sport content - the heat, the humidity, the pollution, the training programmes, the tactics...and that's all before the events even take place!

Sports science and the Olympics

The field of Sports Science actually owes quite a lot to the Olympic Games. It was the 1968 Mexico City Olympics that gave sports sciences the public profile that they currently "enjoy", because that was really the first time that elite athletes were put into potentially compromising physiological situations with the extreme altitude. Some of the athletes benefited (think Bob Beamon just about jumping right over the long jump pit!), while others did not (Ron Clarke famously collapsed and had to be hospitalized after the 10000m race).

The profile created by these events happened to co-incide with the massive boom in running in the USA, and the field of applied sports sciences, in the public eye, took root! Let's hope that Beijing 2008 does a similar thing - I am sure it will, and here at the Science of Sport, we'll do our best to dig behind the stories to find it!

But Beijing is one of many events and sports to gaze at through our crystal ball. Here are but a few others...

Marathon running in 2008

The big marathons happen in April, October and November, but all eyes will be on Dubai on January 18, where Haile Gebrselassie runs his first marathon since his world record in Berlin. As is usually the case for Geb, he is talking up his chances of another world record. One wonders whether this is the realistic talk, or whether it's marketing hype to raise the profile of the admittedly publicity-hungry Dubai organizers, who have already thrown a truck load of money at the event. If Geb does succeed, he stands to pocket $1.25 million, which includes a $1 million dollar world record bonus.

My prediction for this race is that he'll run a mid 2:05, blame the weather for the failure to run 2:03 (which may or may not be a valid reason), and then return to the more serious business of preparing for Beijing, where he will aim to cap off his career. It's not that Geb doesn't have this 2:04 in him, but in this year, this Dubai marathon is the odd race out - the middle marathon between achieving a life-long goal in Berlin and achieving an even bigger one in Beijing. So don't expect a world record in Dubai (of course, these may be famous last words...!)

What of the other marathons then?

Well, my favourite runner at the moment is Martin Lel, and he's the man to win in London in April this year, defending the title he won last year, and making it three out of the three in the big races. He takes on a star-studded field in London (minus only Geb), but with 63-second final 400m speed, no one will beat him. As for the time, with so many great runners, don't expect anything faster than 2:06 (still unbelievable). I'd guess 2:07-something, with a serious final 2km.

Unfortunately for Boston, the best of the best are all signed up to race in London, so it's a little difficult to pick the winner there. We'll sit on the fence for now and pick a Kenyan, as runners from that country have won 17 of the last 20 editions of that race!

In the Northern Hemisphere autumn, some big races will suffer as a result of the focus of the world on the Olympic Games. But of the few big names left, let's go with Martin Lel to defend his title in New York, and win the World Marathon Series title. For the women, Gete Wami will have her work cut out to defend her title, with a lot depending on whether she races London. And when it comes to women's marathons, it's all eyes back on Paula Radcliffe, who has her sights set on Beijing. Whether this means she'll avoid any other marathons I don't know. If she runs London, she'll win it, and maybe New York at the end of the year, so I'd predict we'll see Lel and Radcliffe atop the podium twice each this year.

The Olympic Marathon

But again, it's all eyes on Beijing. And the Beijing marathons are the hardest to call. It's too early to know who is even going to run, we only know Geb and Baldini for sure. I'm sure Geb will be the massive favourite before the race, but my personal call here is that if you want to bet on anyone, go with a Kenyan who is now based in Japan, or with a South Korean runner who runs a regular 2:07 to 2:08 time. I don't think that Beijing will be the day for the 2:05 men. It's too hot, too humid and too attritional for the fast men, and so they will have to think long and hard about how they prepare.

You may say that a 2:05 guys are the favourites, regardless of the conditions (after all, they are clearly the best/fastest in the field), but the reality is that the situation is likely to be so harsh and attritional that acclimation, local familiarity and preparation will beat speed and pedigree in Beijing. And I feel that habitual acclimation is the key - guys can spend the month before Beijing in Macau or Osaka all they want, but those who live there year round have the upper hand. So if I were a Kenyan selector, the first name down on my team would be Sammy Wanjiru, who is based in Japan (assuming he wants to run), and second down would be Luke Kibet, who won the World title in Osaka, showing he can handle the conditions. They are my favourites.

On the women's side, I'm afraid it doesn't look good for Paula Radcliffe. As much I would love for her to win the Olympic title, I think that heat and humidity, combined with her size (bigger people are severely disadvantaged in hot conditions) and lack of habitual acclimation means that the smart money must be on either Chunxiu Zhou (London champ in 2007), Mizuki Noguchi (defending Olympic Champ), or Catherine Ndereba. Ndereba showed that she can handle the conditions by winning in Osaka, and has shown the ability to get the preparation right for big races - two golds and a silver in the last three big Championship marathons. So Radcliffe will really have her work cut out. I'll go with the Chinese, with Ndereba picking up a minor medal, although I'd love to see Radcliffe win and will be rooting for her.

As we get closer to the time, though, we'll take a closer look at the heat, the humidity and just who's likely to suffer more, survive better, and why...

Cycling - can the Tour stay drug-free, just this once?

As far as cycling goes, we'll stick to the showpiece event, the Tour de France, and when it comes to the Tour, the only thing we can predict with certainty is that drugs will move the riders out of the headlines, yet again. 2007 was a tumultuous year for cycling, with the media and sponsors eventually exerting their muscle by pulling their money out of the sport. Media in many European countries pulled coverage of the Tour off the airwaves and out of the papers, and sponsors dropped their teams by the dozen! Even Discovery, which boasts the winner of 8 of the last 9 tours, failed to find a sponsor, having NEVER even returned a positive test! The sentiment among sponsors may ultimately rescue the sport, by forcing the hand of the organizers, who, frankly, are complicit in the problem.

2007 was actually one of the more exciting Tour de France races. It has been a long time since we saw the jostling, attacking, defending and racing we saw in this year's race, but unfortunately, it was dominated by the positive test of Vinokourov, and the sacking of Michael Rasmussen by his Rabobank team. It took the gloss of the race, but in truth, the gloss is merely varnish applied to a spoiled, warped, rotting surface anyway. So many big names tested positive, retired under doping clouds, or been suspended in 2007 that it's difficult to watch the sport without enormous scepticism. Let's hope 2008 is not the same, but honestly, I doubt it.

So the certain prediction is that the sport will continue to struggle as it attempts to clean up. The biggest problem facing the sport, incidentally, is denial. I saw an interview with Pat McQuaide, head of the UCI, and he denied that the sport had a doping problem. Well, the sponsors seem to think otherwise. So while the UCI bury their head in the sand (as they've done for years), let's hope the sponsors save the sport, in an indirect way.

Perhaps the biggest non-race related event will be to follow the ongoing Floyd Landis story - having failed in arbitration in the USA, Landis was last heard talking about the CAS in Switzerland, and time will tell. And then the million dollar question - will Lance Armstrong stay out of the doping headlines for another year, or could the Armstrong-doper movement gain more momentum in 2008?

On the racing side, don't back Contador to defend his title in France this year. The smart money, according to the crystal ball, is on Leipheimer. Contador is good for some mountain stages, and some exciting racing, but I think the steadiness of Leipheimer gives him the upper hand. Now that's what you call an "out-there" prediction! I do reserve the right to "forget" everything I've written here, by the way!!! And come July, this becomes history!

NFL - the Patriots go the whole way, unbeaten

As a South African, I realise I'm in the distinct minority when it comes to following the sport of Gridiron, or American Football. It's not big here in South Africa, where we consider it a poor cousin to our sport, rugby (personally, I think the athletes who play in the NFL are exceptional and make rugby's best athletes look average). I must confess that I find the sport fascinating. I have recently made a point of watching the games on ESPN every week, and have been lucky enough to read books written by some of the great NFL coaches - Bill Walsh and the like. And I must say, South African sport can learn from NFL in a big way. In particular, our cricket side should pay close attention to the words of Bill Walsh, who said that the character of the team is the most important thing it can nurture for success (ahead of technical skills), and that this character is determined by the team's leadership - the captain and senior players.

In South Africa, we have an enormous problem with team character (in my opinion) and it stems from the senior players and on-field leadership, which has created the bullies of the cricket world, cricketers who curse when they don't win, abuse the opposition when they do, and who display a decided lack of integrity, respect, fibre and intelligent cricket.

Which brings me to my prediction (or rather I should say "fascination") with NFL's New England Patriots. I watched them overturn a 12-point deficit against the Giants last week to record win number 16 of the season. They broke numerous NFL records in the process, but what has struck me most is the attitude and approach they show towards their own "greatness". It appears to me, as an "ignorant" outsider, that the Patriots have a sense of pride, not arrogance (SA take note) in their achievements, but have remained humble and focused on the goal. Interviews I have seen with Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Bill Bilicek (key players and the coach, by the way, for those who don't follow the game) have impressed me so much for their humility, focus on the team, respect for team mates AND OPPOSITION and their apparent calm as they pursue their place in history. It's a fantastic case study in how to mold, shape and manage a team, and many teams would do well to pay attention, even if they don't appreciate the actual game.

So given this approach, I pick the Patriots to go all the way, and win the Super Bowl come February 3rd. But then again, I'm a South African, so if anyone feels the need to educate me on this one, I'm all ears! But it's more the approach to man-management shown by the head coaches that the sporting world should take note of.

There is more to follow later on, but right now, I'm off for a jog! I'll be back tomorrow to finish off with another look into the crystal ball - still to come, soccer, rugby, and some of the Olympic Track events! Check in then!

Ross

2 Comments:

energetich20 said...

The Patriots will be there for sure. Your comments about team character and sportsmanship is very apt. The NFL really could teach many professional athletes a thing or two.

I am pulling for the Green Bay Packers to at-least make it to the super bowl and hopefully end the New England Juggernaut's streak.

Brett Favre is second only to God here in Wisconsin, and I think he really epitomizes the character and leadership that the NFL has developed. I'd be curious to read what you think of his longevity.

D

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

As always, thanks for participating in our discussions here, Energetich20!

When considering longevity in professional sports, unfortunately my cynical mind immediately turns to performance-enhancing drugs. It is terrible that that is my first though, but even with individual differences it seems improbable that some guys last so long at the top, year after year.

The NFL, like MLB, does not really have very strict testing, although at least they do have some kind of program. Therefore the widespread use of anabolic agents cannot be ruled out.

I read the article that Sports Illustrated ran on him, and on the surface he seems an unlikely doper, but then again we were all suckered by Lance Armstrong and his story (and seemingly genuine personality), only to have many probable allegations surface down the road.

Baseball proved that in the absence of a strict testing program players will abuse the system and use the drugs. Unfortunately the NFL is in a similar position.

Again, I hope he is not using anything because he seems like a very genuine person, and at this point only Favre knows the truth.

However, the Packers have what it takes and could definitely play spoiler to the Pats!

Thanks again for joining in.

Kind Regards,
Jonathan