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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Weekend musings

An interesting read to continue a debate

Well, it was a very busy week last week, and a slow weekend so far. My apologies...

I am off to Dubai on Friday for the Sevens Rugby World Cup, where I will be traveling as a consultant and scientific advisor to the South African Team. Preparation for that trip has taken much of my time.

However, for the "slow weekend", no major opinion piece from me. Rather, there has been quite a lively debate in the comments section of our last post, which was the preview of the Amgen Tour of California (the irony, by the way, of having a cycling race sponsored by a company that makes EPO is quite unescapable. Thanks to Mike for pointing that out!)

There have been some interesting and divided opinions on this matter. Without doubt, one's opinion is very much a function of your starting belief (as most things are, of course). And when that belief does not match the opinions here, what has been frustrating for me personally is that the default response from those who disagree has been to whip out the "stick to science" insult, as though we discard our evidence based analytic approach simply because we express opinions that oppose doping in cycling and on Lance Armstrong's own doping past.

So to confirm what many of you have written - we are not objective about anything we write about, and nor do we intend to be. Just ask Oscar Pistorius, or Gatorade, or Usain Bolt, or Sammy Wanjiru, or Pose runners. Our opinions on all those matters was equally 'black and white' - the evidence demands an opinion in all these cases, including that of Armstrong. But opinion based solely on belief is different from evidence-based opinion, and doesn't, in my opinion, contribute much to the useful debate. It is isolated opinion, and is not what we are about, despite perceptions. Nor is the purpose of this site to sit on the fence and dryly translate science for you - read our Vision and Mission to see what we actually are about.

In any event, in doing some reading on the debate, I came across the following really interesting pieces, which I personally found to be excellent reads:

An excellent viewpoint on the scrapping of the Don Catlin anti-doping programme

The second is the letter below, written by a reader to VeloNews. You can read the original here. It doesn't deal with doping, it doesn't accuse anyone of doing drugs, but just puts out, very eloquently, an opinion on the Armstrong-Kimmage exchange.

Re: The Armstrong/Kimmage exchange

Speaking for myself as one of the many "around the world affected by (cancer)," (In my childhood, cancer claimed my father, and later on, my sister as well.) I hold nothing against Mr. Kimmage for his recent characterization of Mr. Armstrong, and I surely do not appreciate Mr. Armstrong assuming the authority to speak for me — especially with such intolerant, hateful words telling someone that they are "not worth the chair they are sitting on."

Indeed, if even half of what has legitimately been alleged about Armstrong is true — the numerous firsthand accounts and sworn testimony of former teammates and associates, the undisputed test results, his conduct towards those who have spoken out about doping within cycling — then Kimmage's metaphor (and that’s what it was, not any sort of insult to those affected by cancer) is appropriate, perhaps even understated.

Armstrong has never credibly addressed these charges, choosing instead to respond with public displays of hostility that have now descended to the level naked aggression with his brutal verbal assault on the very worth on another human being. However unwittingly, Armstrong makes Kimmage look like a prophet in alleging revenge as the motive for his comeback, since we have just seen the first score being settled.

At least in his exchange with Greg LeMond last September, Armstrong insisted that the press conference would not "go negative" since he meant to "talk about the global cancer campaign, the comeback to cycling, and the credibility in and around that." At that point, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but any "credibility" he could have commanded is now gone, not only as a result of his treatment of Mr. Kimmage, but also his having reneged on a public promise to subject himself to "the most advanced anti-doping program in the world," which would be conducted in a "completely independent" manner because "ultimately…we as fans must get back to enjoying the race and respecting the riders and their performances." (Perhaps the drama of Armstrong’s press-conference "performance" is intended for the public's viewing enjoyment.)

This time, he did not even try to conceal his contempt, which he had the gall to wrap in self-righteous outrage on behalf of those he professes to represent and care about, but whom he is all too willing to exploit for advantage in his personal feuds. Such conduct is beyond the pale from a public spokesperson (even a self-appointed one) for any sort of worthy cause, and it lays bare the dark forces at work in this man – forces that may now be said to constitute an ugly blight not just upon cycling, but the fight against cancer itself.

Charles Howe,
Olmsted Falls, Ohio

Some of the comments in our previous post are also well worth reading, particularly those that disagree, just to get a spectrum of opinions on this one. People obviously feel very strongly about it. And it's no co-incidence that there is a very strong divide in opinions with many on one side of the Atlantic tending to have one opinion, and the majority of those on the other a completely different view (as Ron points out below, the other "watershed" in opinion seems to be the depth of involvement in cycling, which is really interesting - the more involved you are, the less likely you are to buy the media opinion)

That's not a judgment on the people, but rather a comment on the power of the media to mould our opinions. Now you need to ask who is controlling that media? Who is winning the public relations battle? Fueled by Nike, Oakley and the LAF, objective opinions are in short supply here. In the excellent words of bianchigirl, some of the journalism is nothing more than "fawning obsequiousness". I'll take Paul Kimmage's writing any day - it might be as biased as the other side, but it's closer to the truth.

I'm hoping to squeeze in a post on the aging and exercise series this week, time-willing!


Monday, February 16, 2009

Tour of California 2009: The dopers return

Cycling season starts with doping on center stage

This weekend saw the start of the 2009 Amgen Tour of California. It has become a popular local race in California and the USA and with several top pro teams have races in recent editions, it is becoming an event not to be missed by serious teams in the peloton.

However this year it is notable for a slightly different reason. Doping seems to be ever present in cycling, and it seems like you can't talk about the sport without doping being part of the conversation. And so it is with this year's Tour of California, because we are seeing the return to the pro peloton of three cyclists who have been banned over the past four years:

  1. Tyler Hamilton: banned after a positive test for blood doping in the 2004 Vuelta Espana (he raced mostly locally in the USA in the second half of 2007 and last year)
  2. Ivan Basso: banned when he admitted to working with Efumiano Fuentes in Operacion Puerto but never admitted to actually doping
  3. Floyd Landis: banned in 2006 after testing positive for synthetic testosterone
At the pre-race press conference former pro Paul Kimmage posed a really interesting question to Lance Armstrong:
"You've spoken recently about the return of Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis, who have returned after their suspensions, compared to David Millar – that they should be welcomed back like he was. But there was one obvious difference in that Millar admitted his doping whereas these guys have admitted to nothing. What is it about these guys that you seem to admire so much?"
In response Kimmage's character was attacked, as is Armstrong's normal tactic when dealing with these issues. He told Kimmage that he was "not worth the chair he was sitting on" for daring to raise Armstrong's doping past, hiding behind the accusation that Kimmage had somehow offended cancer survivors when he implied that Armstrong was the "cancer of cycling". It was a classic case of shooting the messenger. But Kimmage raises a really important question: "What do we do with these athletes?"
None ever admitted to actually doping, although in two cases (Landis and Hamilton) there is a mountain of physiological evidence against them even though they still to this day vehemently deny they ever did anything wrong. It makes it difficult to reconcile how to view them. Interestingly, Dwain Chambers, of track and field, has been widely cast as a pariah, despite admitting, apologizing, and trying to start afresh. He was quoted recently as saying that he should probably not have confessed. Cycling seems to welcome these men back with open arms.

A first for cycling: The return of the doped contender

This is a new situation in cycling, because although we had the Festina scandal in 1998, the highest profile rider on that team was Richard Virenque, whose claim to fame is winning the climbing classification a total of seven times, before and after 1998. Alex Zulle was 2nd overall in the 1999 Tour, but faded into relative obscurity after that. But now we see a former tour winner (Landis), an heir-apparent to the throne and Giro winner (Basso), and an ambitious 4th place tour finisher (2003) and Olympic gold medalist (Hamilton).

These are not the run-of-the-mill domestiques who have thin palmares and leave the sport without anyone taking notice. Instead these are all high-profile team leaders found guilty of doping. Now they are back, having served their time, so is it then an issue of redemption and forgiveness? Do we wipe the slate clean just because they served their ban? Even though Hamilton and Landis deny to our faces that they ever doped even though the data and evidence say otherwise?

As fans this puts us in a tough position as we try to reconcile how we feel about forgiveness and redemption as we watch these athletes return to the pro peleton. Honestly I am not sure how I feel about this yet and likely will struggle with this issue. On the one hand they did serve their time. . .but on the other hand we listened to them deny any wrong doing again and again when we have seen the evidence against them. And in fact we can put them in the same category of athletes like Marion Jones and Alex Rodriguez. All of them initially denied, denied, denied, even in the face of mounting evidence. Eventually they admitted to doping, but tried to tell us they did not know what they were taking at the time, as if that somehow makes it OK that they doped. So we will watch the Tour of California and the rest of the season with much anticipation as these three make their comebacks.

Doping and the other comeback of 2009

The other comeback story of this year's TOC is of course that of Lance Armstrong. He already raced in the Tour of Down Under in January, but as the TOC is taking place in the USA the hype is considerably higher. Of course it all started last year when he announced his intention to return to competition this year, and the relevance here is that concurrently he announced a one-of-a-kind anti-doping program with none other than Dr. Don Catlin, he of BALCO and THG fame among others. It was intended to show once and for all that he was clean, even though there was no talk of Catlin testing any samples from previous years. Quite how riding clean now has any relevance to riding clean over three years ago is beyond us, but in any case we will never get to see how this plan was meant to work.

Catlin was meant to be Armstrong's personal doping officer, testing Armstrong every three days and publishing the results. However Armstrong announced at the end of last week that in fact Catlin was not going to serve this role, and that many months of negotiations had broken down and the two parties could not reach an agreement. So in fact the announcement of Catlin as chief anti-doping officer was never formalized, even though it was announced way back in September of 2007, and not a single sample was analyzed.

When announcing his comeback, Armstrong insisted that he would not talk about doping this year, saying that "I am not going to tell you how clean I am, and I'm not gonna insinuate how dirty the others are. I'm going to ride my bike and I'm going to spread this message around the world and Don Catlin can tell you if I am clean or not."

Or not - Catlin is no longer part of the equation and Armstrong will be tested by the UCI and Astana's internal anti-doping program run by Rasmus Damsgaard. Armstrong also said that, "By shifting things from Dr. Catlin to Dr. Damsgaard, in conjunction with WADA, USADA, UCI... I still maintain it is the most comprehensive testing programme in the business." Which begs the question----if it is so good then why did he need Catlin in the first place? The original proposal called for testing every three days, but at the pre-race prss conference Armstrong stated that this was not needed given the International Cycling Union's (UCI) biological passport and all of the different testing agencies. . .again, why use Catlin in the first place then?

What is an internal anti-doping program, anyway?

The problem, as we have mentioned here before, with internal anti-doping programs is that the teams still hold all the information. Sooner or later this will lead to a team altering data or failing to report data that might implicate one of their riders---there is too much conflict of interest and therefore too much for a team to gain by witholding or altering information. In fact, I believe, and have it on good authority, that this is already happening, which is not surprising when you consider the massive conflict of interests between team, riders and the "independent" testers. You have riders who are paid to win, team sponsors who will withdraw their money for a positive test, and a situation where doping is crucial but announcing it is business suicide.

And in the case of Astana and Damsgaard it appears that the program lacks any real teeth beyond the UCI testing, anyway. In a Belgian interview Damsgaard stated that "the official anti-doping authority for all the tests I take, that’s the UCI. Thus it follows the customer's requirements. I only get the results after the UCI has received them." This seems to indicate that there is not much of an internal anti-doping program at all, and instead the team has hired an expert to have a look at the data to see if anything looks suspicious. If it does, then what? The poor team manager is now in the position of knowing riders are doping, when he has to produce winning results for sponsors, but sponsors will withdraw their money if riders are found to be doping! It's an impossible dilemma.

So how do these programs function? That is a question that we would love to know the answer to. Regardless, if anyone is asking our advice we propose a wiki approach where data is collected published by a third party for anyone and everyone to see---that includes the UCI, the teams, the athletes, and of course the fans like us.

In the mean time, enjoy the Tour of California! The course this year is a good one with plently of climbs including one on the final day that hopefully promises some fireworks and maybe even a new leader/winner on the final stage.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Exercise, aging and humour

Who says you lose speed with age? 72-year old granny runs down a teenage hand-bag thief

No, this is not Part 3 of the series I started last week on Exercise and Aging. But, it was too good an opportunity to pass up, because it fits so well, and makes the perfect "weekend interlude".

You can read the story here. It describes how 72-year Jean Hirst of Derbyshire, England, ran down a 15-year bag thief when she tried to make off with Mrs Hirst's handbag.

In the article it describes how the thief had a head start, but Mrs Hirst says she covered 70 yards in about 15 seconds and the girl, with a look of "sheer amazement" on her face, was forced to throw the bag aside when Mrs Hirst was within two strides of her in order to escape!

A big thumbs up for Mrs Hirst for turning back the clock - she was a junior sprint champion at 17.

And I'm guessing that the 15-year old "failed" bag thief is not a prospective London 2012 runner. Thumbs down for stealing from an apparently helpless pensioner, and also for letting that head start slip!

A repeat performance - England has some sprint talent (in the over-65 category)

Amazingly enough, it turns out that this is NOT THE FIRST such occurrence in England - either England has the fastest pensioners in the world, or the slowest teenagers, because in doing a bit of research after receving the story from Jim Ferstle (thanks as always, Jim!), I found this story from October 2008:

Granny Janet Lane runs teenager to ground over snatched pension

Same situation, except Mrs Lane was 68, and the theives were boys. Incredibly, Mrs Lane ran them down despite wearing sandals. She had been a cross-country champion back in 1953, and had apparently kept herself in shape ever since!

So another thumbs up for Janet Lane! And another thumbs down for those British teenagers - lacking morals, as well as fast twitch muscle fibers!

Last word is a quote by Jean Hirst:

I didn't think of my safety, but I did pay for it a little the next day. I was covered in aches and pains and my daughter turned to me and said it was because I didn't warm up properly.

Have a great weekend, and join me for the rest of the series on Aging next week!


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Exercise and aging Part 2

Exercise and aging: Growing old gracefully, with speed!

Yesterday we began a series on exercise and aging by looking at the world records across the age categories. To remind you, here's the graph minus the notes from yesterday:

I've indicated the records for 30 years, 50 years and 72 years, just to illustrate the main point of today's post. You can work out who holds the 30-year old record if you want (hint: He is one of only four people to break his own world record, and he ran for a country not of his birth). The 50-year old is Titus Mamabolo (a South African - our only record holder these days), and the 72-year old is Ed Whitlock of yesterday's post.

But the point that I alluded to yesterday is that there is a flaw in using this graph (or the relationship) to project what your own time will be at age Y based on your time aged X.

That's because the graph you see above is made up of perhaps 50 different runners, and each one has an entirely different trend in performance over the years. The individual running 2:05:38 will NOT be running 2:19:29 at 50, and will NOT run 2:59 at the age of 72. We know this because it hasn't happened on a single occasion in all the age-group records that one individual holds records more than 9 years apart. Ed Whitlock, who we introduced yesterday, and will feature again the future, is the holder of the most records - he owns 8 age-records, all in a batch.

A window of performance? Depends on the performance...

This seems to suggest that individuals have a narrow "window" during which they are able to excel. Bear in mind that "excel" in this case means running faster than any person in history! That's a tough bar to set, so I must make the allowance that the "window" becomes much longer when you start to lower the performance level slightly. That is, someone who is running at say 80% of the world record pace can probably much more accurately work out how their performances should change over time (which is why those calculators that predict your age-equivalent times do have some merit)

Of course, people tend to over-value those equations and formulas that work out what your time at the age of say 60 would be equivalent to if you were 30. While interesting, such predictions can't really be used as "instructive" or to judge your current performance, because you're on your own journey, and the changes over time can't really be accounted for unless you do a massive study that looks at say 500 individuals over the course of 60 years and plots the average decay in performance (and, to the best of my knowledge, that hasn't been done).

The reasons for the decline - age physiology

So now we get to the reasons for the decline. And this is relatively well-known physiology, which I promised yesterday that I'd avoid spending too much time on. However, it's important to understand as we move forward, because the next step will be too look at "Chronological Age vs. Running Age", and so we need to understand Chronological age.

So what can you expect as you get older? (That feels very morbid as I type it..., sorry)

Aging affects numerous physiological systems, including the neuromuscular, hormonal, respiratory, cardiovascular and metabolic systems.

Lean muscle mass and age

Perhaps the most widely known and significant changes that occur with aging are those that affect the muscle, and happen in part because the levels of hormones like testosterone and growth hormone fall over the years. Testosterone is the one everyone knows about because dopers use it so often, and as any body-builder will tell you, is anabolic (as opposed to catabolic), because it builds up tissues in response to stress, and is responsible for muscle growth and development after training.

Testosterone levels peak during adolescence and early adulthood, but somewhere between 30 and 40 years of age, begin to decline progressively. As a result, lean muscle mass declines by as much as 30% between 25 (when peak muscle mass occurs) and 70 years of age. This reduction involves decreases in the total number of muscle fibers and a decrease in the size of the fibers. At the same time, oxidative damage causes further reductions in muscle mass, as does a decline in the number of motor neurons that provide neural “nourishment” to the muscle fibers.

The net effect of the reduction in muscle mass is a loss of muscle strength – as much as 2% per year, so that by the age of 70, strength is reduced by up to 40%, though this depends on the individual and also their activity levels. Training helps prevent these reductions, which is good news, and is the part of the equation that you can control.

One of the more obvious, and upsetting consequences of this change is that your metabolic rate slows down, and so you start to gain weight (fat mass, that is). The common misperception that "muscle turns into fat" is actually the storage of fat that is partly caused by a loss of muscle thanks to aging. It's not that muscle is converted to fat, but rather that fat now tends to be deposited much more easily. If you don't adjust your diet, "middle age spread" is the result!

Injury and adaptation

One of the more frustrating aspects of aging (and the reason you've probably been the butt of some jokes from friends) is that your ability to recover from training is reduced. Pretty much all "moving parts" don't quite recover from sessions the day before, and your body’s ability to adapt to the stress of training is also reduced. You can no longer repair damage by laying down stronger muscle fibers in response to training. One of the big benefits of taking testosterone is that it aids recovery, allowing harder training. Aging is effectively "reverse doping", since testosterone is reduced, and training can't be done to the same level as before. One of the first things people will notice is that they wake up stiff and commonly jokingly say "I must be getting old". Exactly!

Other hormonal changes further contribute to this adaptation barrier – the production of growth hormone decreases steadily from the age of 10, just after puberty, which has much the same effect as the fall in testosterone, as well as some other effects on metabolism. Growth hormone has even been called the “anti-aging” hormone, a popular choice among the Hollywood elite to retain their celebrity looks! We'll return to this hormone again in the future...(thanks to Peter for his input on that one)

Other aging effects

There is also a decrease in the number of capillaries to each muscle fiber, which means that valuable energy and oxygen delivery to muscles is compromised. Stroke volume (the amount pumped per contraction) and heart rate also fall over time, meaning less blood can be pumped to the body as cardiac output falls. Respiratory muscles get weaker, and the resistance in the airways rises, which makes breathing harder work. The ability to get valuable oxygen out of the air into the blood and to the muscles is reduced, not a great outcome for a marathon runners! It doesn't take a degree in exercise physiology to appreciate how these changes in the heart and lungs would make running or any other endurance activity much more difficult.

Inside the muscle, proteins that are important to assist with metabolism are not produced in the same quantities – you therefore become less effective at producing ATP to power muscle contraction. The muscle’s capacity to store and release energy changes with age – less glucose and glycogen can be stored, and the muscle becomes less sensitive to hormones that normally drive metabolism, like adrenaline.

Changes in women - even more pronounced

In women, hormonal changes have even more dramatic effects – menopause and the associated hormonal changes are responsible for many effects, perhaps the most relevant for running being a decrease in bone mineral density that predisposes women to the development of osteopenia, which is a precursor to the more serious osteoporosis, where the risk of fractures is greatly increased.

Here, the excellent news is that running (and other exercise), because it is a weight-bearing exercise, is one of the most effective means of preventing osteoporosis, because it helps elevate the bone mineral density at a young age so that the inevitable age-induced decline does not have potentially disastrous consequences.

The same goes for all the other changes - the body ages, this is as inevitable as death and taxes (as the saying goes). However, regular exercise slows down the rate of decline in many of these systems, or at least reduces the impact of the change. The result is that regardless of what you've read in this post, and the fact that you may be bemoaning lost youth (don't worry, I am too!), if you continue to exercise now, then you'll reap the benefits, in spite of your natural battle against father time!

Chronological age vs running age

Well done if you've managed to read this far. This was a "textbook" physiology post, not my favourite kind, but hopefully I've skimmed through all the important systems and how the years affect them. If you're a scholar or student who just happens to be doing an assignment on this topic, then you're in luck (Please feel free to donate to us through our PayPal link! And don't forget to reference everything you say!)

However, this is all a precursor to the more juicy and exciting discussion to come, probably next week. That's when we'll start looking at the impact of many years of running as compared to many years of living. There is evidence that running age is just as important as chronological age in determining running performance, and that the two interact to properly explain what you will have experienced. And the notion of a "window" of opportunity seems to be borne out.

So let's tackle that next week, when we're all three days older. Hope this was instructive and not too morbid!


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Exercise and aging Part 1

One for the ages: A series on aging and exercise performance

Well, it's been a while since I've had time to lift my head and do any kind of series on exercise physiology, having instead been confined (happily, I might add) to current affairs in the world of sports science and management.

However, this past week, the following story caught my eye:

60 year old runner from Japan run 2:36:30

It is the story of 60 year-old Yoshihisa Hosaka, who broke an 18-year old record for runners aged 60 in the Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon. It is one of many stories of remarkable running feats in the aged population, I'm sure that you have many as you read this.

However, it inspired a series I've been meaning to tackle for a long time, and will now finally get around to doing: The effect of aging on running.

What I will try to AVOID in this series is the overdone discussion of the physiology of aging. That's been done many times - you can, for example, find a decent presentation on it here, courtesy John Puxty of Queens University. There are many other similar sites and books, so we won't simply repeat what is already known.

Obviously, it is important, and will come up as the explanation for what is observed, but I'm more interested in digging into the issue a little more and discussing why some older runners keep running fast, and why others can't. What is it that allows Yoshihisa Hosaka to run a 2:36 marathon, or Ed Whitlock (see his story below) to run a sub-3 hour marathon at the age of 70? And why do 999 out of the other 1000 runners struggle to keep running, let alone break 3 hours?

These are the more fascinating questions regarding aging and exercise. Unfortunately, they are unanswerable, so that leaves much room for speculation and theorizing. Fortunately, that's always fun, so this should lend itself to great discussion! It also lends itself to fascinating case studies of extra-ordinary runners, so let's see what can be dug up!

Aging and performance

To begin with, it will help to understand just what the impact of aging on performance is. And for that, we look at the world records for the marathon by age, which are shown in the graph below:

In green at the bottom, I've oversimplified the analysis by showing the percentage decrease over the decades from 30 to 40, 40 to 50, 50 to 60 and 60 to 70. It's clearly not a linear decline, and it's "cheating" to break the curve down into four linear blocks. A more detailed statistical analysis is needed, but for now I just want to make the point that the decline accelerates as you move further and further along. One would expect this kind of pattern, because as we age, performance is one of many variables than changes, and factors not related to exercise start to "filter" out the eligible population towards the right of the graph. By the time you get to the 80s, the main determinant of sports performance is health (which may be related to nature as well as nurture!).

There are some fascinating people represented by those blue diamonds. Over the course of the next few posts, I'll pick up on some of those people, but for today, two stand out.

First, there is Luciano Acquarone, the world record holder at 59 years (2:39:13), and the FORMER record holder at 60 (2:38:15 - his record was broken in Japan), who I have highlighted in red on the graph.

The reason he is fascinating is not only because he was clearly a great 60 year old runner. What intrigues me most about him is that he doesn't hold any other records beyond 60. So what, you say? Well, take the case of Ed Whitlock, who I've also highlighted. Whitlock is a Canadian runner who began his record spree at 68, and holds every record between 68 and 76, with the exception of the 71 year record. Whitlock was the first man over 70 to crack 3 hours for the marathon. We'll discuss him in more detail in the future.

What jumps out at me is that Whitlock is "only" 8 years older than Acquarone, yet in those 8 years, there is a 20 minute difference in performance. Which means that Acquarone has "lost" 20 minutes, a much larger gap than would be expected according to the traditional decline in performance.

Again, one swallow doesn't make a summer, and I'm not basing my point on those two men only. In fact, if you go down the list of names, you'll find at least half a dozen occasions where an athlete features in a batch, holding three or four world records, and then suddenly disappears. Perhaps he stopped running, lost form, picked up injuries. That's not vitally important right now. What is important is the interpretation, because what this means is that the ability to sustain great performances, even relative ones, is limited, and a great runner at 60 is not necessarily a great runner at 63! Too many factors intervene, and that makes interpretation of "aging physiology very difficult" (and that is why I'm so keen to avoid the usual, classic discussion of aging and physiology - it's insufficient to explain this interesting stuff!)

A lesson from the elites and conventional wisdom

Ages hit the headlines last year as well, and it wasn't because a 60-year old produced a 2:36 performance. Rather, it was because the two greatest marathon runners in the world at the moment lie on quite opposite ends of the age spectrum, at least according to conventional wisdom.

Haile Gebrselassie is 34 years old, and since he turned 32, he has run the three fastest marathons in history. This 'hat-trick' of sub 2:05 performances comes as the latest achievement in a career that has really been going since 1993, when he won world junior titles over 5,000 and 10,000m. A 19 year career at the elite level (I'm not even counting his debut marathon at 16, since he wasn't elite then). His longevity is remarkable, given that "conventional wisdom" suggests that most elite runners have perhaps ten great marathons in them, and only five to six years of elite running.

Sammy Wanjiru, on the other hand, is an "infant", having begun his marathon career at the age of 21. And while his career has a long way to go to match the career of Gebrselassie, he is, in my opinion, the current number 1, with a 2:05 clocking in London, and perhaps the greatest marathon ever run in Beijing's heat - a 2:06:32. He bucks "conventional wisdom" by producing those performances despite being "too young".

Conventional wisdom - let's set it aside

And herein lies the problem with conventional wisdom - it's often wrong. To take two men and use them as proof of the wide age at which marathon success can occur is obviously misleading. But it's equally wrong to suggest that there is a narrow window and a 'limited lifespan' of a distance runner (or any other sport, for that matter), because for every rule, there are exceptions (often, there are many).

And so what we'll see in this series is that there is no formula, no known way to predict sports longevity, and athletes who defy nature and aging to keep producing as they get older. But equally, there are cases that prove the point and confirm the "wisdom". So we are best off leaving that conventional wisdom behind, and just accepting that for every point made, there is a counter-point, and too many individuals to account for.

The problem with science that way is that it often "discriminates" against these outliers, individuals who disprove the textbook physiology. That's because science generalizes, and averages data, and we scientists love to work out an equation to predict a decline in performance over time.

However, in this case, that predicted decline is based on perhaps 50 DIFFERENT INDIVIDUALS, and you'd be completely incorrect to assume that age causes a decline in performance that is predicted by the equation X. It doesn't work that way.

So join us for a series that looks at some rather unusual individuals, with some lessons (hopefully) for all of us!


P.S. Don't forget to use the links below to send this post to friends who might be interested...Digg, Facebook, email...invite everyone!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Doping, management and inquisitions

A-Rod hits the bottom, Sevens Rugby hits the USA and Carl Lewis hits out at track and field

It's been a pretty controversial last 48 hours for US sport, with the revelations that Alex Rodriguez, the owner of baseball's richest ever contract ($275 million over 10 years with the Yankees) has admitted to using steroids during a period from 2001 to 2003. It means that one of baseball's great heros is now tainted with the same brush that has affected McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, Clemens and dozens of others, with the prospect of another 104 names to be released in the next few days.

All in all, baseball's credibility is fast disappearing, as can be seen by the headlines in the papers in response to A-Rod's confession: "A-roid", "Cheat", "Deception" are some of the common words. The strange thing about this is that Rodriguez is breaking the mould somewhat by confessing (having initially denied it, accordingto the script these guys read from). Some commentators have suggested that by confessiong, Rodriguez will escape the same kind of fallout that has affected McGwire and Bonds (who is facing jail-time). Honesty will see him rise above this, they say.

I don't believe him. I have watched the interview with Peter Gammons of ESPN, and it seems to me that he is playing what has now become the classic game of admitting to part, but not all of the allegations, once you've been caught red-handed. It's a case of say something to pacify the wolves at your door, but say only enough to keep them quiet. Marion Jones turned this deception into an art form when she admitted to doping but thinking in was flaxseed oil. A-Rod seems, to me at least, to be taking a similar approach. "To be quite honest I don't know exactly what substance I was guilty of using" were his words in response to the question about which substances he had used.

It seems to me, based on numerous cases in the last few years, that elite athletes are capable of lying without the slightest sign of deception. Rodriguez himself outright denied steroid use in 2007 in a 60 Minutes interview with Katie Couric. "I've never felt overmatched on the baseball field. I've always been a very strong, dominant position. And I felt that if I did my work since I was, you know, a rookie back in Seattle, I didn't have a problem competing at any level. So, no." His justification was at least original, convincing himself that he was worthy of his place among baseball's stars without steroids.

However, hindsight betrays his deception, and renders that apparently sincere answer a complete farce. The problem, then, for any newly-confessed doper, is that having weaved complex lies before, they now expect to be believed for their honesty? Perhaps I'm less trusting than most, but it feels as though we've heard "Wolf" too often and so Rodriguez's latest interview "confession" doesn't work for me.

Interestingly, his performances during his doping years (assuming we believe that he suddenly stopped doping, despite having some of the best success of his career, and moving to the Yankees where the pressure would be even greater than it was in Texas) were quite a bit better than in the other ten years of his career. According to ESPN, he hit 52 Home-runs a season while using steroids compared to 39.2 without, and 131.7 RBI per season compared to 119 when not using steroids. More detailed statistics would be insightful, perhaps they'll materialize in coming days.

All in all, I feel there's more to come, particularly for baseball. Perhaps A-Rod, by virtue of the "wholesome" interview he gave, will be passed over, and certainly, he has avoided the fate of Barry Bonds. But he's the latest in a long line of "symptoms" for baseball, though the underlying cause remains untreated (and is perhaps untreatable).

Sevens Rugby: A game and a website worth checking

On a more positive note (uplifting, that is, not doping positive), if you're a fan of Sevens rugby, then you'll appreciate the qualities of the game. Even if you're not a fan of rugby, Sevens brings a dimension to the sport that attracts the "non-purists", which is its most valuable (and potentially profitable) quality. The game has taken off in the smaller nations, because it gives them an opportunity to match the traditional powerhouses far more than would be the case in the 15-man version of the game.

Just this past weekend in Wellington, the USA beat Fiji, Wales beat New Zealand, Argentina beat England and Kenya beat South Africa. Such upsets are relatively common, and highlight the growth and relative competitive balance in the game. That competitive balance does not exist in the 15-man game, where the outcome of all but about six possible matches is known before the kickoff.

What will be interesting in the future is whether the game grows faster than the 15-man game, particularly in the lucrative Gulf region. You'll recall a post we did a month ago looking at how the Gulf region (Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Dubai) have pumped enormous money into bringing sport to the region. The world's richest golf tournaments, marathons, tennis exhibitions, Formula 1 races are but a few of the sports they have attracted. And Sevens rugby, faster, more competitive, and more exciting, looms as a possible "product" for the region. If it were possible, I'd be buying shares in Sevens rugby.

Onto a more personal involvement with Sevens, I've been fortunate enough to have been involved with the SA Sevens Team (currently number 1 in the world rankings, long may it continue) thanks to the vision of Paul Treu, the coach. I'll be going to the World Cup in Dubai in the first week of March, and the Hong Kong Tournament at the end of March.

Paul Treu, the youngest coach on the circuit, is also one of the smartest, and most savvy. He recently started up his own website, to which I contribute from time to time. My latest article can be read here - a commentary on sporting success and failure. For Sevens fans, the site is well worth following.

This week sees the Sevens Series visit the USA, and so if you're in the San Diego area, this is your chance to check out my post first-hand. The action happens at PETCO Park, starting Saturday. It's the last tournament before the World Cup in Dubai, and following on from Wellington, should be a great battle. So if you're in the San Diego area, make a plan to join the 50,000 other expected fans there (and drop us your feedback if you do!).

Track and field in the USA under fire

The Beijing Olympic Games were a low point for US track and field. They came up against an extra-ordinary athlete in Usain Bolt, and short of producing three world records, they were never going to win gold medals anyway. On the women's side, it was more of the same as Jamaica took three of the four sprint medals, Great Britain the other, and the USA claimed only the gold of LaShawn Merritt in the 400m.

To cap it off, both teams dropped the relay baton in the 4 x 100m. In response, the USATF Chief Executive Doug Logan called for the analysis and a nine-person task team led by Carl Lewis got to work. Their report was released yesterday, and among other criticisms, cites excessive travel by athletes, poor planning, a lack of professionalism among athletes, "chaos" in the national organization's relay program and a "culture of mistrust" among athletes and coaches as reasons for the disappointing performances.

So widespread are the reported problems that to enact the recommendations will require bylaw changes. They include the creation of a general manager for the organization's high-performance division; the development and support of high-performance training centers across the nation; shorter Olympic trials; specific criteria for athletes to compete as professionals; a comprehensive plan for winning 30 medals at the 2012 Summer Games; the creation of an organized athletes union; and more stringent standards for reinstatement after doping bans.

Is the criticism justified? As I said upfront, Bolt was never going to be beaten unless the USA managed to produce three world records in the short sprints. The relay failure certainly warrants mention, and the report calls for the termination of an expensive relay development programme. I don't know the ins and outs of this programme, but it seems to me that relay success requires finding four or five very fast sprinters (a separate system), combined with a week's worth of decent practice. No programme required...?

On the note of the trials, there is some physiological justification. As an outsider, the proximity of the US trials, combined with the very 'black and white' criteria for the selection of the team means that the season peak is stretched, possibly beyond what is achievable. This was the same as the swimming debate for the USA, since many of their best swimmers seemed tired by the time they got to Beijing.

The same may have happened to the athletes. To force an athlete to peak for the trials (which they have to do in order to qualify, especially in the sprints) and then to hold that for the Olympics a few months later is a physiological challenge, perhaps an impossible one.

A comparison with South Africa

In terms of the management structures that were so heavily criticized, my interpretation is based on my own experiences here in South Africa. It is interesting that the report's recommendations are very much in line with what was suggested in a report developed for SA sport in 2007. It too called for professionalization, high performance centres, and funding for sports science. Sadly, government have stumbled through implementation and ended up making a bad situation worse, so it's always interesting to read other nation's responses to similar situations.

The problem with strategic recommendations made by these reports is always implementation. Often, the organization charged with executing the strategy will attempt to do so within their current structures. The nature of such reports, however, is transformational, in that they often call for radical overhauls of the existing system and structures. So you have a Catch 22 situation, where the incumbents are asked to overhaul a system they're tightly embedded in, and they inevitably fail. It needs a transformational implementation, which is why execution lets them down. It will be interesting to see if the USA make these changes. South African didn't -the same people tried to execute the new strategy without the required change in support, and so given that they'd steered the sport into the abyss to begin with, they were always going to fail. It was a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

On the note of South Africa...

If the USA felt that they had a poor Olympic Games, consider that South Africa won only one medal in TOTAL. Yet to date, the only sports code that has commissioned an enquiry into what went wrong is swimming. The government blustered and huffed and puffed and did nothing else, other than butcher the proposal they were given thanks to the personal egos and incentives of people within the system who prefer to wallow in mediocrity than to fix the situation. Then, on the other end of the extreme, certain academics and scientists undermined the hope of improvement through their refusal to collaborate with one another out of personal vendettas and, once again, insecurity.

We were inches away from negotiating a collaborative agreement for a sports federation that would have seen the athletes benefit. That was thanks to the vision and security of those in charge of the two respective institutions, who actually dared to collaborate and listen to others. Then a huge ego intervened and expertise was gagged, blacklisted and sidelined. So while the USA has problems with its systems, and hopefully can redeem the situation, if it's any consolation, South Africa will not pose a threat to any of your medal chances in 2012. We are a nation full of world-leaders in their own Universities, people who love to be the king or queen of their own sandpit while the athletes around them suffer thanks to their own inabilities.

Last word goes to Logan, the CEO of US Track and Field:

"Change never comes out of a climate of comfort. This report has and will produce a significant amount of discomfort. . . . At the end of the day, this is the only way this institution will be able to . . . realize its potential."


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Cyclist dies in sleep

Belgian cyclist dies in sleep during Tour of Qatar

Sad news from the world of professional sports today is that a young Belgian cyclist, Frederiek Nolf, has died during his sleep between the fourth and fifth stages of the Tour of Qatar, currently underway.

Nolf, aged only 21 (and five days from his 22nd birthday), was a member of the Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator team, which has now pulled out of the event, with the day's stage being shortened and neutralised to an uncontested 40km ride.

Cause of death speculation

Sadly, for cycling, the speculation has already begun that this is drug-related death, partly because of the reputation of the sport and the historical precedent for this type of event among cyclists. At this early stage, the ASO (the Tour's organizers) couldn't even confirm the death, and so discussing a cause is very, very premature.

However, a few people emailed me the story this morning with the very obvious implication that this was yet another in a long series of sudden deaths in fit and healthy athletes. In the 1990s, there was a spate of sudden deaths, at least a dozen, where fit amateur and professional cyclists died in their sleep. That negative publicity was at least part of the reason for the clamping down on EPO use, which was rampant at the time.

It brings to mind one of the most fascinating quotes I've ever come across in a cycling book - it was in the book "The death of Marco Pantani" by Matt Rendell, in which a story is recounted of how in the 1990's, with EPO use rampant, the cyclists would set their heart rate monitors to sound an alarm if their heart rate dropped below a certain level. On hearing the alarm, the cyclists would have to wake up, get the bike out and spend 10 minutes on the rollers, in their hotel rooms, just to jump start the circulation.

In the words of one cyclist: "During the day we live to ride, and at night, we ride to stay alive". Quite chilling, and I must confess that these were the first thoughts that went through my head upon reading of the death of Nolf.

However, and this is very important, such speculation doesn't provide answers, only more questions. There are some other reasons why cyclists might be predisposed to sudden death - riding at high intensities when carrying viral infections (as pro athletes tend to do) is one of them. And, as Ryan Shay, and a number of other high profile cases have shown recently, sudden death is a tragic, but not completely uncommon event. There are reports that Nolf's cardiogram was normal, but even that is not a guarantee of health, because those tests can often miss the quite rare conditions that cause sudden death in athletes.

So let's see what unfolds, and whether any answers emerge. In the meantime, a sad day for cycling and those who knew Nolf.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Federer and Phelps

Life in a fishbowl: Phelps and Federer under the sports marketing and performance magnifying glass

It's been a bad couple of days for two of sport's greatest superstars. Last night I was watching Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn on ESPN (great shows - if anyone in South African broadcasting is reading this, you should make a point to watch them and learn what expert sports analysts should be like - informed, fluent in English, and opinionated), and the topics of conversation included:
1. The Superbowl (what a game, incredible)
2. Michael Phelps for his marijuana-smoking bong photo (see below)
3. Roger Federer for his tears on the podium after the Aussie Open final

There's little I can contribute to the Superbowl discussion, because it's so heavily analyzed and discussed by experts in the USA, so I'll leave it at my description of an incredible game, the Steelers effectively winning the match twice after a brilliant comeback by Arizona. It was, to use a cliche that is overused, a pity that one team had to lose, because both were excellent. In the end, however, the officiating played more of a role than it should have, but the lack of discipline, particularly by the Cardinals, was costly. Still, incredible plays.

However, on the Phelps and Federer matters, there is more to say. And while they may not be scientific insights and analysis, they are sports management and marketing matters, and that's the other half of my area of specialisation, so here are a few takes on those issues, starting with Roger Federer's tears.

Tears of a champion

Roger Federer is well-known for crying on the podium, but usually it's as the winner. On Sunday, he was the loser, beaten by Nadal for the third straight Grand Slam final, in an epic match, and it was all too much. He was unable to complete his speech the first time around, but came back later to acknowledge Nadal's efforts and the crowd. The internet chat rooms have been buzzing with hate speech, eulogies and apologists for Federer, with just as many supporting him as condemning his tears as those of a bad loser. People's emotions clearly tend to run away with them, as they did for Federer on Sunday.

My take is that Federer's tears are a symptom of what may go on to become a very deep problem for him. The pressure and the stakes are clearly now so high, and the whole world has seen that. Displays of negative emotion are generally not encouraged in sport, because they provide the opposition with a weak spot to be exploited, and that fact would not have gone unnoticed. Federer is now there to be beaten, and as I discuss below, Nadal has put Federer into a position where about five or six other guys will now be aiming for him.
That said, part of Federer's appeal is his human-ness, and I certainly wouldn't criticize him for it. Some have said that he is self-indulgent and only concerned with himself, which is a little harsh. What I will say is that for the last year or so, every time Federer speaks, he comes across as very defensive, because he's had to justify why he is no longer so dominant. So he's in a difficult situation, but his handling of it has not been, in my opinion, what it might have been.

Federer's "kingdom" and the over-inflation of status

He has continued to defend himself, talk himself up and build pressure for himself, and it often seems that he has accept the role created for him by the media as the "custodian" of the sport, and that he now has this enormous responsibility to defend his kingdom. It's quite ridiculous, actually, because he's just a tennis player (a great one, at that), but his own positioning seems to have caught up with him, and his tears may be a sign that this "kingdom" has changed and he's trying very hard not to believe it. Eventually, the facade cracks and Sunday night is the result.

Nadal's gesture of consoling Federer on the podium was one of the greatest I've seen in sport. Nadal is a champion, intelligent, brave, talented, humble and mentally unbreakable. Federer, however, does not seem to have many of those qualities. He is a champion and gentleman, of that there is no doubt. But some of his decisions, his tactical play, his statements, come across as arrogant and indulgent, and may well be part of the crack that Nadal exposed on Sunday. And I do believe he'll go on to surpass Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles. About a year ago, it seemed he might run away with it, and possibly get to 20. That no longer seems possible, with Nadal now, in my opinion, the undisputed number 1.

Federer's mental block

Federer has now lost 12 times out of 18 matches against Nadal. Admittedly, many of them are on clay, where everyone loses to Rafa pretty much 100% of the time. But for Federer, the signs are very worrying indeed. Everyone on the internet is saying that he has this mental block against Nadal, and I certainly wouldn't dispute that - in the final set on Sunday, he just melted down completely and handed the victory to Nadal. So I think it's certainly true.

However, as I tried to point out in my post match analysis, Federer's problems are much deeper than a mental barrier against Nadal. There is also a technical issue with Nadal, in the forehand vs backhand match up (which I discussed yesterday), and a question of fitness and ability. Let's not forget that Nadal was 2 sets up in Wimbledon and it actually looked like he would win in straight sets until the rain intervened. He also murdered Federer on clay in Paris last year, and in this final, he came in with 314 minutes of tennis in his legs. That must have had an effect. Yet he was still able to win the match.

Federer's real challenge is about to come from everyone else, NOT Nadal

The point is, the odds are stacked against Federer moving forward. But here's the thing no one has really commented on. I believe that Federer's biggest problem in the future is not going to be Nadal, but rather a cluster of players who have now been shown the way to beat him. Remember that last year Federer lost against a host of players who he had previously been unbeatable against. And since his crown slipped, a number of players have narrowed the gap - Murray, Djokovic, Tsonga, even Monfils and Verdasco are now in striking distance.

And so Federer's biggest danger is that he used to be the untouchable, now he is one of the many great players in the bunch, and Nadal has been the catalyst who has closed that gap and led the way for everyone else. Let's not forget, for example, that Andy Murray was the form player before the Open, and he beat Federer in three out of their last four matches. Federer would struggle to beat Murray right now. So too, Tsonga, Verdasco, Gilles Simon, and Djokovic all have their sights set on a target that is infinitely closer, and getting closer all the time.

What's next for Federer?

There are a few hardcourt tournaments in the USA, where I'm sure he'll feature as always. But we'll get a really good indication of the changing dynamics, because those tournaments are likely to be very closely contested, with about five or six players all with equal chances of winning. I think it will be very open, and even Nadal might battle to win those tournaments.

Then we go to the red clay of Europe, and Nadal's strongest part of the year. His game is perfect for the clay, whereas on the hardcourts, I still think he has a sub-optimal game. That's another reason why Federer will win another Slam, unless Nadal can adapt his game on the hard surface. Clay, however, is another matter, and if Nadal stays healthy, he should win a few tournaments. For Federer, unfortunately, the timing could not be worse, because he'll only have his confidence further undermined as the very definite second-stringer for those two months.

Then we move to Wimbledon, and by then, we'll have a much clearer picture of how the sport is going. By then, I think that we might have found that Murray and Djokovic have closed Federer down even more, and Federer will have not one, but three challengers for that Wimbledon title.

Should be a fascinating season. But one thing is for sure - Nadal is now the man to beat.

Michael Phelps: Regrettable behaviour with potentially enormous consequences

For those who may have missed it, Michael Phelps, he of 8 gold medal fame from Beijing, was caught on camera smoking from a water pipe (bong) that is usually used for smoking marijuana. The story was published in News of the World (a UK tabloid), with the photo apparently taken at the University of South Carolina. In response, Phelps yesterday issued the following statement:

I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again.
The problem for Phelps is that this has already happened before - at the age of 19, just after the 2004 Athens Olympics, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and made similar comments about his irresponsibility and his commitment to change his behaviour. Back then, he was fined $250, did some community service work including talks to school kids about the danger of drink-driving, and the story went away pretty quickly.

The implications: Is it that bad, or is it worse?

This time, it might be a little different. He was famous in 2004, having just won 6 gold in Athens. But post-Beijing, he is THE superstar. And most importantly, the sponsors have come onboard since Beijing, recognizing his transcendant value in sports. This kind of publicity is enormously damaging. In Hollywood, they say that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Unfortunately, in sport, that's not true, particularly when you're the All-American, wholesome athlete whose success is built on your reputation for hard-work, discipline and excellence.

Part of me therefore thinks this kind of behaviour is "normal", though wrong, and it does seem a little hypocritical to condemn him for it. He was not competing, he'd just come off what must have been years of dedicated training, and having cilmbed a higher Olympic summit than any other athlete in HISTORY, he may be forgiven for letting himself go a little (note that I'm not condoning his behaviour, which was wrong and stupid, as it would be for everyone else. All I'm suggesting is that it's being hyped up to create controversy that really should only be mild).

It's also hypocritical because dozens of other sportsmen and women engage in this kind of behaviour all the time. There are widely reported and substantiated stories of cyclists at parties using potbelge, a concoction of heroin, cocaine, caffeine, amphetamines and other analgesics. Athletes have even written autobiographies of their wild partying after big events, and been celebrated for them. I've hosted world-class athletes (at Olympic Champion level) who swing wildly between extra-ordinary discipline during training and exception lack of discipline away from it. It seems to me that athletes have personalities that lend themselves to the extremes of both training and wild, "irresponsible" behaviour. So certainly, Phelps is being held to a different standard here.

Endorsement 101 and consequence

That is the result of his exception profile and the fact that his endorsements are really based on his discipline, success, excellence, purity and work ethic. When a company makes a decision to endorse an athlete, they do so with a very specific strategic purpose. Endorsement is part of promotion, which is an element of the marketing mix, which is itself driven by the company strategy. So you have to appreciate how a company views an endorsement from a strategic standpoint. Part of it is brand awareness - just put your brand in people's minds and they'll buy it. But the best kinds of endorsements have a strategic element, and endorsement does not actually work all that well unless the brand and the athlete can craft some kind of "synergy" in the form of a strategic fit.

Nike's endorsement of Tiger Woods works because Tiger appeals to the masses, is a world-class performer and relates so well to the market Nike are targeting. He communicates the values of the brand simply by being himself and winning. Nike are hoping that you make associations with their product based on his behaviour. It's a tenuous link, but works well in some instances. There is also the obvious product integration, in that people will buy Nike gear because they idolize Tiger. Tiger therefore pushes Nike gear, and tells people what it means. Nike chose him for those reasons and anyone else, or any other behaviour, would not fit with their strategic intentions.

(Just as an aside, sometimes endorsements are absolutely ridiculous. In South Africa, we have a cricketer who endorses a skin care range called Sanex. They make shampoos, deodorants and soaps, and we see adverts of this player in the shower, using the shampoo, with the message that our skin must perform as well as the player. The funniest thing of all is that this player is himself losing his hair, and so the company are promoting shampoos with an agent who is slowly going bald. I'm sure they see value in it though - for them, it's nothing more than exposure and brand awareness)

For Phelps, those fits are often not as simple (as they are not for many athletes). How, for example, does Phelps communicate Mazda (one of his endorsers - he is the face of Mazda)? He could do this through his performances (allowing Mazda to leverage the association by promoting the world-class performance of their cars in conjuction with his, much as Rolex does for Tiger), but that's about it. When he then tarnishes his own image with this party lifestyle, Mazda's value is reduced. He devalues their brand and as a result, his own (and vice-versa, since the endorsement is an equal partnership or marriage)

Also, Phelps is only the biggest thing is sport every four years, at the Olympics. Swimming is, sadly, nothing like golf or basketball. LeBron James gets $90 million from Nike, but he is in the media every year, for 7 or 8 months a year. And he's pushing basketball shoes, not swimming costumes, which are obviously a much less sought after product. So Phelps' endorsement value is tenuous at best, and away from the pool, he has to compensate for that apparent marketing weakness. Being caught smoking and partying is not the way to do it. So unfortunately for Phelps, he's probably reduced his potential quite a bit as a result. Other than that, I feel that people are hyping this up far too much.

The tabloid media

Without wanting to condone Phelps' behaviour further, one thing I must point out is the absolutely disgraceful coverage provided by News of the World in their story. Those who know the tabloid media will of course not be surprised, but the gutter media in this article is really disgraceful. Quotes by people saying that Phelps "out of control from the moment he got there.“If he continues to party like that I’d be amazed if he ever won any more medals again” were a feature of the article.

They also make a point to harp on the doping issue, because cannabis is banned during competition. What they fail to point out is that Phelps was not competing and cannot be banned for an out-of-competition test for this substance. The IOC have since confirmed that, and the paper will have known it, yet they deliberately emphasized doping, casting doubt on Phelps' legality as an athlete (effectively implying that he is a doper). If it was up to me, tabloid journalists would be deported to salt mines and kept there forever...

In any event, a bad couple of days for two of sport's superstars.

Both will pull through, they'll emerge on the other side and keep winning and one day this article will seem over-hyped itself.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Australian Open Final analysis

Miracle in Melbourne: Epic victory for Nadal

Well, considering that I've now looked at tennis in my last two posts, it seemed appropriate to complete the analysis by discussing the Men's final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. So that was my plan all along, and then came the final...after witnessing the greatest Australian Open match between Nadal and Verdasco the other day, it was fitting that Australia would see its greatest final ever as well.

An epic, gigantic match between the game's two dominant players, and in the end it was Rafael Nadal who came out on top, though there were times during the match where he was hanging on by a tennis racquet string.

It took 4 hours and 23 minutes. It took Nadal's game-time over a 48 hour period to an astonishing 9 hours 37 minutes, but he took his first Grand Slam title on hard-courts and has now beaten Federer in their last three Grand Slam finals - the murder of Roland Garros, the epic "greatest game ever at Wimbledon", and now this. A bitter pill for Federer, but more on that later...

The warrior's main weapon in his mind

Much is made of Nadal's power, his speed, his dogged defence, his fighting spirit. And when you're playing your second five set match in three days, you need all that. But what commentators don't speak about is Nadal's intelligence.

Nadal is the world number one. There's no doubt about it, not anymore. And all those characteristics that you associate with Nadal are important to him. But in my opinion, the thing that makes him number one, the key, indispensable ingredient in his game is his intelligence and thought.

The following is quote from his coach and uncle, Toni, take from a Time Magazine article:

"Federer is too good. Rafael must play like himself, but better, less spin, quicker points." But how can federer be too good when Rafael is ranked No. 1? "There is a difference between who is better and who knows more," says Toni. "Better now is Rafael, he is No. 1 in the ranking. But who has the best game? Federer."

I find that an amazing quote, because it reveals a little about the thinking and planning that has gone into how a player with "inferior" ability has climbed to surpass the apparently better player. And yes, there's gamesmanship and there's the meaningless rhetoric we often hear from sports people, but this seems to me a genuine quote that implies that Nadal has worked out his strengths, Federer's weakness and he's gone about working out the game specifically to win. And that's intelligence.

Reading between the lines, what it says is that Federer is not as smart, and has not figured out how his superior game can be turned into a winning one. And then I remembered that way back in June of 2007, I did an analysis of the French Open Final where Nadal beat Federer for the second time.

It was quite clear back then that Federer hadn't really worked out a plan for Nadal back then. The big problem he has, of course, is that Nadal's bread and butter shot is the heavily topspun forehand which zones in on Federer's backhand. Federer has always tried hard to topspin it back, which is an incredibly difficult shot when the ball is often kicking up to at least shoulder height. Little has changed, and the dominating, posturing Federer who blew Del Potro and Roddick off the court was nowhere to be seen in this final, subdued by Nadal's smarter, heavier hitting and never-say-die attitude.

In today's final, it was interesting to notice that for the first two sets Nadal used the same tactic, and I'd estimate that 75% of his shots were hit to Federer's backhand. Federer actually coped remarkably well with it, though he was forced into fairly regular errors. Unfortunately, the official match statistics don't provide any clarity on this because they don't report how many of Federer's errors were off the backhand side. I'd estimate that Nadal earned himself about 40 points this way. Nadal won the first set with a break in the 12th game, and looked in total control at the start of the second set. But Federer is too good to just be blown away and he came back with his most dominant set of the match. At this stage, it was still Nadal's forehand vs Federer's backhand.

This was the pattern until about mid-way through the third set, which is when Nadal's body started to give him problems. He called for the trainer twice, for massages during changeovers, and said afterwards that he was starting to tighten up. The tournament organizers hopefully have received the message that you can't schedule the two semi-finals on different days - Nadal came into this match with 5 hours of tennis only 48 hours early. Federer had 72 hours to recover from a 3 set match. It was a crazy inequality, and only Nadal's fitness and a change in tactics midway through the third set saw him stay in the game until the end. Let's hope common sense changes the programme next year.

A change in tactics - beware the wounded

Mid-way through the third set, there was a noticeable change in the game, as Nadal started going for shots far more. It was a long-awaited shift in attitude, because Nadal had previously been sitting back and defending for his life. There was one game in particular, at 1-1 in the third set, where Nadal started to break the shackles of his own defensive mindedness. He was 40-0 down on Federer's serve, and the next two points, he really went for broke, winning both with winners. He still lost the game, but it was a defining moment, in my view, because it represented the emergence of Nadal's offensive side.

From that point, Nadal was far more aggressive. He went closer to the lines, his backhand cross-court was incredible, flat and direct, and it won him dozens of points either directly through winners or by forcing Federer about 4 m off court. It was that shot alone that kept him in the match, especially in that third set, which he won in a tie-break having been hanging on for dear life all the way through it. How Nadal won the set is beyond me - he saw off about 10 break points, and was surviving until the very last.

The fourth set went Federer's way in what was a wildly swinging match where the bookies' odds changed almost hourly, as though the two men were on opposite ends of a see-saw.

The fifth set - a one-sided anticlimax

Then came the fifth, and the most lopsided set of the whole match. I don't know whether perhaps Federer's resistance was finally broken, the result of Nadal's relentless hammering away at him. But he fell apart in the fifth, making 14 unforced errors, including a whole cluster of them in the fifth, sixth and eighth games. Those errors, especially on the forehand side, gave the victory to Nadal.

It was, ultimately, an anticlimax in the final set. Nadal won 16 out of 19 points on his own serve, Federer won 11 out of 24 on his. It was a set that stood out in this match where everything else had been so tight.

On victory (off a Federer forehand error), Nadal collapsed to the ground as he won his first hardcourt title. I still don't think he's figured out his best game on this surface - he needs to be more aggressive, cut angles down and flatten his own shots out more often, but he's improving all the time and now that he has one Slam, he looks a good bet to win more. He and coach Toni are reportedly working on this flatter, more aggressive game, and so it can only get better for Nadal.

As for Federer, anyone who saw the post-match presentations will know just what this defeat meant. It was astonishing to see such a "hardened" and experienced professional break down and this defeat will have hurt Federer like no other.

However, this is pro sport, where you earn victory and sympathy is in short-supply. And I just don't think that Federer has thought his game through and most especially, Nadal's. He may believe he didn't serve well enough (which is true), we may like to attribute the result to Nadal's fighting spirit, but ultimately, I believe this win comes down to mental strength, both in terms of Nadal's belief, but also his ability to change the game, to apply his skills, and to out-think (and out-execute) Roger Federer.

Unfortunately, it doesn't get better for Federer, because next up is the French Open, and Nadal's game needs no changing at all for the red clay - it's already perfect.