Bouncing back: The return of Powell, Fed, and... Lance...!
It's been a week or two of comebacks, and re-incarnations in the world of sport. We look at three of them:
Asafa Powell: Bouncing back from Beijing and entrenching his reputation
First, Asafa Powell bounced back from his disapointing Olympic 5th place to run a scorching series of races. He first ran 9.85 in the pouring rain in England, then won in Lausanne in a PB of 9.72s, and then narrowly lost to Usain Bolt in Brussels (9.83s), before capping it off with a 9.77s and a 9.82s in Rieti, Italy.
Every single one of those times would have won Powell a silver medal in Beijng, where it was probably an even faster track in even better conditions (many of the above times were into head-winds). Yet Powell choked on the biggest stage, and will once again receive the "Choker of the year award" at the end of 2008. How he didn't at least medal in Beijing is incredible, and the problem for Powell is that every single time he steps out onto the track and blasts a sub 9.80s time, he only serves to consolidate this label. His own words were something to the extent that he may not be a Championship runner, which is the first step to defeat - admitting it. There's no reason why he would not be able to produce these performances in the Championships, though he cites fatigue as a reason.
But then, last last week, he ran Brussels on Friday, two races in Rieti on Sunday, and ran them all in 9.83 or faster. At the end of a long season - there's no fatigue there. So Powell has a block and will be the fastest man to NEVER win a major title, unless he figures it out. As it is, he may have missed his chance, because it's not as though a certain Usain Bolt is going to get any slower in the future.
Bounce back number 2: Roger Federer
On the hard-courts of New York, the "Fed-Express" returned to winning ways to "save" a season that would otherwise have seen him miss out on a Grand Slam title for the first time in many years. He won the US Open beating Andy Murray in the final.
As for Rafa Nadal, the number 1 man in the world, he was taken out by Murray in the semi-finals. And when I say "taken out", I mean it in the truest sense. From the first point of the match, through the rain break, and after, Murray demolished Nadal. The reality is that anyone other than Nadal would likely have won about 5 games in the match. It was one of the most lopsided contests I've seen, and how Nadal took it to four sets beats me. Murray was either ridiculously brilliant, or Nadal was very ordinary as an attacking force.
His defence was brilliant, and he was digging a trench about 5 m behind the baseline, chasing from left to right while Murray stood there enjoying target practice. But on attack, Nadal seemed almost impotent. I have to say, even at the Olympic Games, he looked the same - I couldn't believe he beat Djokovic in the semi-finals, because his attacking game was non-existent. It was not the same Nadal as at Wimbledon, who cut off angles, took balls early and dominated play. Nadal seems to be a lot more "conservative" on the hard courts, and I suspect that he needs to learn to flatten out his groundstrokes a little if he wants to challenge on this surface in the future. Because Murray, Djokovic and especially Federer all have more firepower in their arsenal and Nadal's defence, brilliant as it is, won't stand up to that throughout a two-week tournament.
Then again, perhaps it's just fatigue - who could blame him, he's won just about every tournament bar two since April, and so the end of a long season might account for his apparent lack of "potency".
As for Federer, he'll be relieved to have regained some form of ascendancy. Federer has responded brilliantly to the challenges thrown down this year. He's been beaten by "ordinary" opponents (Blake, Stepanek, Karlovic etc.), and annihilated by the top players (Nadal, who crushed him in three sets in Paris, including a 6-0 smashing). Yet he's managed to end on a high note, and should now go on to win another couple on the indoor circuit.
Perhaps. There are still chinks in his armour, and I think the top players recognize this. He'll have his work cut out and unless he learns from this success (which is a very difficult thing to do), he'll find that the gap continues to narrow (and maybe even grows the other way - Nadal is already ahead, Djokovic and Murray are closing). It should make for an interesting 2009, because now there are FOUR great players at the top, assuming Murray can sustain his current level.
The comeback: Lance Armstrong in 2009?
Finally, perhaps the most radical announcment, which, if it had happened five months ago, would have been dismissed as an April Fool's Joke (and not even a good one)! Lance Armstrong is coming out of retirement and will race in the 2009 Tour de France.
I was going to write about this when the story first broke on Tuesday, but resisted the urge out of a nervousness that we'd be falling for what was an elaborate publicity stunt! However, it seems not to be that, although facts have been a little slow to emerge until much more recently.
You can read the news article here and here and and more tongue-in-cheek (quite funny) report here, so we won't give you the details of the plan, but rather give a couple of comments on it.
Firstly, the big question is can he return in good enough condition to WIN the race? Age is of course the big thing against him - the oldest ever winner of the Tour de France was Firmin Lambot, aged 36 - Armstrong will beat that by a year IF he can win the Tour. However, that kind of talk is far too premature, considering a three-year break from the sport entirely. More than likely, he'll return in the spring of 2009 and test his legs and then see if he's in the kind of shape to challenge. One thing I think is sure is that he'll either ride it as a procession (to raise awareness of cancer) or he'll compete at the front - no half measure. And the first two months of 2009 will determine which it is, regardless of the speculation going on now.
The nice thing for Armstrong is that he's in a no-lose situation - if he "fails", then it's fine because no one really expects him to win after that long a break, at that age. He can also say it was never intended to be a winning return, but a crusade to raise cancer awareness. If he wins, well, then his legend is even more established. So it's all about managing expectations, which I suspect he'll do better than most.
The three-year break from cycling, plus the fact that Armstrong missed out two seasons for cancer treatment back in the late 1990's are possible factors that suggest that 37 is not really 37 - his career has been five years "shorter" than it would be for a similarly aged rider without those breaks. That may count in his favour slightly. Then again, if he does return in competitive shape, it will mean that he has managed to stretch a competitive Tour career out over 10 years, which is incredible longevity, regardless of the break. The biggest factor is still that with age, one does lose muscle mass, and the ability to recover after training (which is perhaps the key to success in the Tour - single day races don't have quite the same problem).
Then of course, there is the doping issue, which can't be ommitted from a discussion on Armstrong. Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France Race Director has already emphasized that Armstrong will be subject to exactly the same tests and requirements as any other rider - no surprise there, I'm surprised that the media even reported on it, it would seem that obvious. What will be interesting is to see how it plays out, because there's no doubt that the testing processes and control from authorities is now much tighter than it has ever been, certainly since Armstrong rode off into the sunset after his last triumph in 2005. What impact with that have?
Who knows, it's rank speculation at this stage...it doesn't seem to have affected Astana and Johan Bruyneel, who is the man with the Midas touch when it comes to producing world class cyclists and champions, and the team Armstrong has been linked with. That in itself is cause for suspicion - I dare say it would be possible to build an entire team out of riders who tested positive only AFTER leaving a team managed by Johan Bruyneel. Many were Armstrong's former team-mates, whose performances suffered despite the use of doping products...
All these kinds of debates will start anew as a result of Armstrong's return. He's already pushed the Vuelta Espana off the news pages, and come July 2009, he'll be the big story of the Tour, if he takes to the line. Good for cycling? From a marketing, media, and exposure point of view, yes, absolutely, though one can see how the issue will polarize people who follow the sport, and possibly the peloton.
More comments to follow, I'm sure...
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Thursday, September 11, 2008
Bouncing back: The return of Powell, Fed, and... Lance...!