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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Comrades 2008 and SA athletics

The Comrades 2008 Post-mortem: Russia's ticket to wealth, and the economy of running success

I have no idea what the average salary is in Russia. I'm "reliably" informed by Wikipedia that it's $640 per year. I don't know much about the tyipcal Russian's financial position, other than what I read in the news and Time magazine, and I won't claim to be an expert in Russian-South African relations.

But one thing I do know is that every year in June, a group of Russian athletes come to South Africa, to take on the greatest ultra-marathon in the world, and every year, they leave with their pockets lined with Rands and gold, until the next year. This year, Leonid Shvetsov, courtesy of his second consecutive title and race record, walked away with just a shade under R500,000 ($60,000) for his efforts. That's seven times what the average Russian is earning, and by my calculation, certainly not money to be sneezed at.

It's hard money, sure, because 87 km of racing over that course is no mean feat, but it makes Comrade Shvetsov pretty close to a millionaire thanks to the race.

And that's great - what a pleasure it is to see such a fabulous athlete plying his trade in SA. He's the most majestic, utterly dominant runner the Comrades has seen. He's so dominant, in fact, that unless someone emerges in the next two years, I can see the race losing quite a big following as a result of the predictability of it all.

On the women's side, that happened long ago - the Nurgalieva twins, Olesya and Elena, have also made themselves a fair fortune in SA. Every year they come out here, and invariably, come first and second (usually, Elena is first), and must have made a few million out of the South African ultra-running scene in the last few years.

Where are the SA runners? Gone back to 1970

But this post is not about the contribution South Africa makes to Russia's GDP every June. Rather, it's about the fact that South African runners are not standing in their way. There have, admittedly, been some great triumphs on the "down" run - first Kelehe, then Nhlapo and then Ngomane, who all won the down run, to choruses of praise about the "South African renaissance". Unfortunately, these athletes would never again scale those lofty heights, and much like a gunshot, they eventually dissipate into the night as an ever-softening echo.

But on the whole, ever since the Russians first identified the goldmine that is Comrades, they've plundered the race with little opposition. Part of that is that they bring some magnificent athletes out here - Shvetsov is without doubt the best we've seen, a magnificent runner who has yanked the race into a new level. But a big part is also that South African running is in a steady and uninterrupted state of decline, and the occasional success of a talented runner happens in-spite of, rather than because of, the running system in this country. Sadly, that success provides the excuse to let things slide ("It can't be so bad", they say), and we'll eventually realise that we've slid too far to ever recover.

A cursory glance of the Comrades results since the race began reveals a few startling statistics. Perhaps the worst of these is the following:

In 1977, the race was won by Alan Robb, in a time of 5:47:00. Since that race, the winning time has very, very rarely been slower than 5:40. Perhaps most amazingly, most of those winning times were by South African men!

In other words, between 1977 and 2008, 30 years worth of South African runners have been capable of running 5:40 or faster. One year was an anomaly, when Jetman Msutu won the race in 5:46, but we must remind ourselves that he actually finished second to Charl Mattheus who was later DQ'd for drug use. But on the whole, South Africa's best finisher has run around 5:30 to 5:35, be it Mattheus and Bester in the 1990's, or Fordyce in the 1980's. That time, had it been run yesterday, would have been enough to finish second, and actually make a race out of it. Remember, the second place finisher was Jaroslaw Janicki, fully 14 minutes behind Shvetsov.

Instead, we got a best SA athlete who finished in just under 5:47, the slowest time by an SA runner since 1977, and on a day where the record fell (no excuses from the conditions, then).

How South African athletics pays for mediocrity

The reasons for this startling demise (which is, I might add, present across all running events in SA, not just the ultras) are vast, complex and probably require that we set up a blog all of its own to discuss. But consider for a moment that in the 1980's, SA had faster 10km runners than we do now - the world record is a full minute faster, but we're stuck. We might call it "Why South African running is failing", and spend the next two years discussing it. However, we won't do that to you, but I do just want to make two quick points here.

First of all, there has been a growing trend in recent times to incentivize local athletes by offering a special prize to the first SA runner to finish the race. This gesture, applauded by many as an effective tactic to boost local running and to stimulate interest in the event, is actually, in my opinion, a long term failure strategy, which actually undermines long term growth.

Why? Because it incentivizes mediocrity. It says the following to the typical South African runner: "Don't worry about Leonid Shvetsov and his 5:24 record performances. Don't worry about winning and being excellent, because we'll pay you to run 5:47 and finish 5th".

Any rational athlete, given the choice between an extra 30 minutes of training per day and the option to run a few more races each year is going to respond by saying "Sure, no problem. In 2009, my goal is to run about 5:40, because I've now seen that if I do, I might win a lot of money". Note that they are not aiming for 5:21, or even 5:25, because that is difficult - more training, more suffering. The prize money actually dis-incentivizes excellence.

In this same category are prizes that are awarded to runners who reach landmarks on the course first - the so-called "Hotspot prizes" otherwise known as primes elsewhere. On Sunday, money was awarded, for example, to the first runner to reach halfway and then finish the race. The result was that two athletes broke away and raced each other up to the halfway mark. The "winner", Charles Tjiane, celebrated at the halfway mark, and then soon started walking. One commentator says he wasn't running for that prize, but seriously, how do you go from running 3:00/km, to celebrating, to walking, in the space of kilometers, unless your mental approach is to plunder the "hotspots" and save your energy?

Now, he still walked away with a nice pay-day for their efforts. And best of all, these runners get to race again sooner, because rather than racing 87km, they raced perhaps 50km and then merely finished the race. But they represent two athletes, both with the possible potential to win the race, who have instead sacrificed that possibility in favour of a smaller, but more assured, pay-day (it's assured because Shvetsov and the big guns don't care about it, so don't race for it).

It was then pointed out to me that an athlete who wins three "hotspot" prizes in the race can earn himself R33 000. That is the same prize money as the 5th place finisher in the whole race!

Now, is there not something flawed in that model...?

Wrap-up: More on SA running to come

There's a lot more to be said about SA athletics, but because I know we have an international audience, these kinds of posts will be used sparingly (so don't worry!). But, for those who want to know the key problem in SA running, read this post (SA athletics on Trial), written about a year ago.

But we'll leave it for now, and turn instead to matters of "global importance", like weight loss!

Until next time!

Ross

8 Comments:

Alan Sleath said...

In any Sport you talk about getting the basics right.If you lined up the whole Comrades field over 10kms Shetsov would have won. The man has a pedigree 12th at Athens 2004 Olympic Marathon and if you study all the other Russians you will be suprised at their acomplishments ie Oleg has the world record 100miler on the track.So they use intelligence when the prepare and come from a sound running background and can think on their feet.Willie at aged 44 still got gold now their is a pedigree and experience of years of excelling at all distances.Comrades has brain washed
our talent and instead of guiding them properly(which they cannot do themselves)has exploited them.Only once our runners can understand and think for themselves can we see a difference.I still believe if their was a good enough incentive ie 1000000 dollars you would see top marathon runners excelling ie sub 2hr10min.Shetsovs pb being 2Hrs09min.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Alan,

Thanks for your comment here on The Science of Sport.

I agree with you that runners like Shetsov have superior talent and ability, and indeed that is why we see them winning (and setting records). Research has shown that the runners who are fastest at shorter distances (i.e. 5000 m) are also fastest at longer distances (i.e. 42.2 km and longer).

You make an interesting point about the prize money. I have long though that the next step for races like Two Oceans and Comrades is to start attracting the best marathon runners who are ready to retire from the road circuit, or who are no longer competitive in the big city marathons.

Can you imagine a Comrades field with the likes of Ramaala and Thys running against Tergat and Khannouchi? It would raise the level of the race by leaps and bounds to get world class marathoners competing in SA ultras.

Of course this would require forking out hefty appearance fees, something that I suspect is a foreign concept for the current race organizers.

One issue is that we have likely seen a plateua in the number of runners in these events (Oceans and Comrades). The 2000 races saw a big spike, but when else are we going to see 20,000 runners lining up for Comrades again? Instead 10-12,000 is probably the ceiling. So to grow the race, one must attack it from the other end---enhancing the quality of the elite fields.

Anyway, that is probably the topic of a post by itself, but thanks for the comment!

Kind Regards,
Jonathan

Enda said...

Offering money to best national is an old turkey and here in france is dieing quickly for the same reasons as it should elesewhere, it promotes a mediocraty and also a false satisfaction ie I was the first national but in fact I was 6th behind 5 Kenyans but in some way my sucess was just as good as theres which leads to the belief that to some extent I cannot compete and so dont compete, long live equil treatement and equil compesation;

Enda said...

Giving specific prizes to nationals produces mediocracy and worse a mind set that accecepts its inability to compete but has the financial satisfaction of winning and this quickly becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.

Oliver said...

You say:

"It's hard money, sure, because 87 km of racing over that course is no mean feat, but it makes Comrade Shvetsov pretty close to a millionaire thanks to the race."

Makes for a simplistic reason for the Russian dominance, so how do you explain his wins on the fact that Shvetsov is actually a Medical Doctor residing in the USA?

Based on the carrot theories, Shvetsov wouldn't have much incentive to flog himself at training for a chance at Comrades glory.
He clearly must be a great runner first and foremost, and then love doing what he does, and do it consistently.

I agree with the theories regarding speed over shorter distances making the fastest ultra runners (all things being equal), and the records in 100km etc would still fall a fair bit were there incentives in those championships (rather than the weekend warriors who appear to be the only ones interested or available).

Moreover Shvetsov is not only fast but extremely an extremely consistent racer, from 2nd in '88World Junior Steeple (8:51) to 3 x 2:09, 3 X 2:10 , 6 2:11-2:12 and 1:02 and 1:03 over half marathon.

The scary possibility is that he may be making some easy pickings over distances which as yet are not being raced by others equally consistent, but much faster over those shorter distances.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi everyone

Thanks for the comments, and insights into what is happening in France, Edna

Just to respond to Oliver, good point.

however, what I will say is that our "carrot theory" is not limited solely to financial incentives. There are probably three broad categories of incentives, money is only one of them. The others are social and moral, but for the individual, enjoyment is an incentive. So Shvetsov is a great athlete, who doesn't need the money, but I'd argue that he NEEDS the running for himself, so his carrot is intangible...

Anyway, before this response gets too abstract into economics, I agree that his passion for running, mixed with his extraordinary running ability are the keys to winning. I suspect we have neither in this country, perhaps because we have substituted financial incentives for individual incentives to run?

As for the future of the race, I wonder how fast the entrants will one day be? There are hundreds, thousands, even, of guys with 2:08 speed who might look at the race. The problem is the distance, and whether a guy really wants to sacrifice a whole year for a shot at maybe $30,000? He could be making $10,000 a race with more certainty, four races a year?

But if the prize money keeps growing, who knows? I hope the faster guys do turn to the event eventually, it would be great to see.

Cheers
Ross

Anonymous said...

Part and only part of the problem as I see it is the following. I know a guy who had run a 6:09 comrades. Thats a good time, clearly a runner of some ability. He has however been unable to improve on this or even come close. The simple reason as I see it is that he refuses to build slowly on the time he has laid down. He insists on running the first half of comrades with the likes of kotov , whereas, to improve his time, he needs to analyze how he could have been a better stronger runner on the day of his 6:09, refine his training slighty and then work off that pace in the first half, around 4:10 and I see no reason why he shouldnt run sub 6. From sub 6 you then refine the process further. In this 2008 race,I believe we have gone a step backwards in our struggle to thwart the russians in that the guys are not assessing their capabilities in the current race realistically. We will only beat them if at least one guy believes that he will be capable in two to three years of stepping up and runs the current race realistically and learns all he can. He then possibly runs 10 minuted quicker in the current race, and sets his stall in the following year to again run 10 minuted quicker, until he is knocking on the door. I came in the top 50 in the current race and it saddened me to see some of the high profile walking wounded who threw what could be in a few years time a step back to try and dance with Leonid. In my second race I shouldnt have beaten them. The other point which I agree with is that our guys are too slow. From what I have reliably heard they sacrifice mileage for speed and I believe that above a certain point, mileage is only mental. The unfortunate part about training for speed is that it hurts, more than high miles, but I still believe that on the day you would like to shoot for glory in the comrades, you also need to be in shape, at least now anyway, to run well under 30 minutes for a 10km. There are obvious exceptions but the body type of the typical SA runnner is built for speed and they need to untilize that. Anyway, to sum it up, success in comrades is a process and a strategy, in other words, the thinking mans game, if our guys do not take every opportunity granted to them, such as 2008 comrades, to learn and grow and build their fortress stronger till they are ready to strike for glory, our comrades success will be fleeting and flash in the pan. Anyway, if you look at the top 30, you will see that we assuredly have some amazing talent, hopefully those in the know, whoever they might be, can educate these future prospects on the methodology of past champions(IE Fordyce) and they will go to next years race as thinking runners

Anonymous said...

Part and only part of the problem as I see it is the following. I know a guy who had run a 6:09 comrades. Thats a good time, clearly a runner of some ability. He has however been unable to improve on this or even come close. The simple reason as I see it is that he refuses to build slowly on the time he has laid down. He insists on running the first half of comrades with the likes of kotov , whereas, to improve his time, he needs to analyze how he could have been a better stronger runner on the day of his 6:09, refine his training slighty and then work off that pace in the first half, around 4:10 and I see no reason why he shouldnt run sub 6. From sub 6 you then refine the process further. In this 2008 race,I believe we have gone a step backwards in our struggle to thwart the russians in that the guys are not assessing their capabilities in the current race realistically. We will only beat them if at least one guy believes that he will be capable in two to three years of stepping up and runs the current race realistically and learns all he can. He then possibly runs 10 minuted quicker in the current race, and sets his stall in the following year to again run 10 minuted quicker, until he is knocking on the door. I came in the top 50 in the current race and it saddened me to see some of the high profile walking wounded who threw what could be in a few years time a step back to try and dance with Leonid. In my second race I shouldnt have beaten them. The other point which I agree with is that our guys are too slow. From what I have reliably heard they sacrifice mileage for speed and I believe that above a certain point, mileage is only mental. The unfortunate part about training for speed is that it hurts, more than high miles, but I still believe that on the day you would like to shoot for glory in the comrades, you also need to be in shape, at least now anyway, to run well under 30 minutes for a 10km. There are obvious exceptions but the body type of the typical SA runnner is built for speed and they need to untilize that. Anyway, to sum it up, success in comrades is a process and a strategy, in other words, the thinking mans game, if our guys do not take every opportunity granted to them, such as 2008 comrades, to learn and grow and build their fortress stronger till they are ready to strike for glory, our comrades success will be fleeting and flash in the pan. Anyway, if you look at the top 30, you will see that we assuredly have some amazing talent, hopefully those in the know, whoever they might be, can educate these future prospects on the methodology of past champions(IE Fordyce) and they will go to next years race as thinking runners