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Thursday, April 08, 2010

On the horizon - the marathon season

The marathon season begins.  And some random musings on Semenya, TV production, and Boat race

The week has flown by, and the first big marathons of 2010 are nearly upon us.  It kicks off in Europe in Rotterdam and Paris this weekend, and then jumps across the Atlantic for Boston next week, before returning to London for what is an outrageous field on April 25th.

Last year, Rotterdam produced the fastest times of all the marathons, right the way to the end of 2010.  Duncan Kibet and James Kwambai raced their way to a 2:04:27 sprint finish.

I'd be surprised if the same happened this year (though wouldn't rule it out, given the way marathon running has gone recently).  Rather, London promises to produce the fastest and most competitive marathon, at least until later this year when Berlin should provide a challenge to the time, if not the competitiveness of London.

Consider London's field so far:  Martin Lel (my personal favourite a few years ago when he was unbeatable), Sammy Wanjiru (the current number 1, and last year's champion), Tsegay Kebede (last year's number 2 to Wanjiru, and a fast winner in Fukuoka), Duncan Kibet (he of the 2:04:27 time last year, but disappointing since), Jaouad Gharib (perennial podium finisher in major marathons), and Abel Kirui (2:05:04 marathon best).

All told, there are six men with times under 2:06, multiple Major marathon winners, the fastest man from 2009, the best racers from 2009.  Oh, and not to mention, perhaps the name with the most intrigue of all - Zersenay Tadese.  He debuted in London last year, but failed to finish.  He recently ran a 58:23 half marathon world record, and his credentials point to a fearsome marathon.  Whether that 58:23 is too close to London is the big question - we've seen other top marathon performances follow on after 61 minute half-marathons, and so has Tadese done the necessary marathon specific training on route to the 58:23?  The answer will be known on April 25th

It's an incredible field, and makes London the much-anticipated finale of the Spring season.   The other races should be equally intriguing!  We haven't forgotten them, and we'll be bringing the usual analysis of the televised races to you as soon as possible after the race (or live, during them, in some cases).  Sadly, Rotterdam is not shown on SA TV, but you can check out the elite men's preview courtesy LetsRun.com.

Paris to follow!

Semenya announces her return

The other big news this week is the continuing drama of Caster Semenya, who, having held a press conference which was basically to force the IAAF's hand last week, this week gave them a good reason not to delay any further - she announced that she will return to competition on June 24th in a relatively small race in Spain.  The IAAF are now compelled to make a call when they promised to (at last).

Semenya has certainly gone on the "offensive" recently, driven along by the legal firm that is backing her.  She (or rather, they) have made numerous statements, the latest being one in which they have told a South African news channel that her medical team has looked at her results and their own tests and concluded that "she was clear to compete".

I think we can safely say that this is not the case - it's the same spin the same lawfirm used for Pistorius two years ago.  If it were a "clear" case, the IAAF would have rushed to make this announcement and allow her to run.  Let's be clear here - the IAAF want this issue to disappear, to be resolved.  It has caused them enormous problems, and they would love nothing more than to reach a verdict and get on with things.  If those tests did show she was "clear", then the IAAF would have celebrated back in August.

They didn't.  The tests clearly showed some major issues, and those need to be resolved.  The reality is that the IAAF are not exclusively Semenya-oriented, as much as we seem to believe this here in SA.  Every other 800m athlete also deserves their consideration and so their decision has to factor in equality and fairness of competition for ALL women 800m runners (not to mention the precedents set by the case).  The implications of a "clear case" for Semenya, without any medical intervention, will be profound for the sport.  It will turn the women's 800m event into a procession for the next ten years, unless some medical resolution is also found. Whereas one athlete is now disgruntled, hundreds will be (with reasonable grounds, it must be said).  If that is to be the case, then so be it, but the lawyers are doing no favours to the sport with their PR campaign that oversimplifies the issue.

Many outsiders involved in the sport are of the opinion that she should not be running against women.  And while their opinion may be "under-informed" in terms of their medical knowledge of the complexity of intersex conditions, their intuition should not simply be dismissed.  Sometimes, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book Blink, those who are experts and know the most have the least chance of reaching an accurate decision.

One thing that is certain is that the lawyers are introducing a complexity that has not been seen in cases like this.  That's not necessarily all bad - the rights of the individual can't be walked all over.  But this is the same law firm that got Oscar Pistorius cleared despite no evidence that didn't suggest he had a large advantage.  And the latest statement smacks of the same PR spin as we saw when Pistorius went on the public relations offensive.  That ultimately resulted in him being cleared, and it does seem that Semenya will run again.  The IAAF are extremely unlikely to ban her completely.

The issue then is whether she has some kind of medical treatment, either surgical or chemical, to attempt to reduce the levels of testosterone that may be providing an advantage.  We may not know that answer, but will have her performances as a barometer to speculate.

University Boat Race - SABC, Supersport, were you watching?

And then finally, last Saturday saw the 156th Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.  It was the light blues of Cambridge who triumphed this year, after two consecutive losses to Oxford.

But what I wanted to comment on is the outstanding package put together for television.  It's polished, professional, knowledgeable, understated, and world-class, and makes the Boat Race one of the best sports events to watch on television.

There is a SMALL team of EXPERT commentators, who are also well trained and led by a professional media anchor (please note, SABC, that you don't need to have nine commentators on rotation, and you also don't need to talk all the time.  Viewers are not complete imbeciles who need meaningless waffle thrown their way to pass the time.  Sometimes, the pictures tell the story just fine).

The use of graphics is also intelligent and meaningful, and data (which need not require an advanced degree to understand) can actually enhance the package.  And most importantly, the commentators are experts.  There is a difference between knowing the sport and understanding the sport, and too often, commentary is done by those who merely know things.  The Boat race has insight, and it raises the package to a level that is suddenly compelling, even for people who haven't rowed or watched it before.

It should provide a model for the preparation and packaging of all endurance sports on television.  Hopefully the SABC in particular were paying attention - you'll have similar opportunities to learn when the London Marathon is shown on April 25.

The reason I raise this is that poor TV quality of sport is a major issue of mine, because it undermines endurance sport and kills off its chances of growth (sponsors and viewers are not attracted to mediocrity, it turns out).  If the sport of running, for example, is to survive in what is now an entertainment industry, then the standard has to be perfection, not mediocrity.

Below is a clip from the 2003 Boat Race - one of the great finishes and one of the great sporting events that I have seen!  If I had to compile a top ten list, this event would be in it!



Mel Harbour said...

Hi guys,

The universal view from the rowing community on the TV coverage this year was that it was awful! Commentators who didn't really know what they were talking about, camera work that missed all the key action, and graphics that just obscured what was really going on!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Mel

Thanks for the mail! Amazing!

I really didn't think it was any different to previous years. The one thing I did notice is that they didn't have the range of cameras as in previous years.

Also the microphones on the coxes were missing.

So maybe there were differences. I didn't find that they detracted though. I found the graphics pretty interesting - maybe as an outsider, who doesn't know the race and route, perhaps?

Or maybe my frame of reference is road running, where the coverage is a hundred times worse!

Any other thoughts?

Best TV coverage of a sports event?


Mel Harbour said...

Hi Ross,

To be a bit more specific about some of the things that were pretty poor about it:

* The build up (on the BBC) was pretty irrelevant and rubbish.
* As far as the race goes, what the umpire is saying and doing (in terms of waving his flag) his critically important. If you can't see/hear that, you've got no idea what's actually happening in terms of the steering. But they showed us almost none of that.
* The 'technical' commentator, Dan Topolski is firmly Oxford biased, and isn't usually much good at actually conveying anything useful in terms of the rowing technique being observed. For instance, in the commentary, at around Hammersmith Bridge, he's busy saying how strong and good Oxford look, yet towards the end, he's busy claiming that he thought they were starting to fall apart there. Can't have it both ways! :-)
* There's obviously a significant paralax issue with filming a rowing race. One of the best cameras for actually showing the relative positions of the two crews are the ones above the coxes. Yet they barely used them!

The audio from the coxes is tricky. A couple of years ago, they cut to the audio, only to have the cox (a friend of mine) immediately tell his crew to "f**k them". Interesting that if you actually hear it in context, the cox is merely repeating what the strokeman just told him to say, but still. There should be no reason why they can't run the audio on a short delay.

The BBC also used Steve Redgrave quite a bit, who is far from the biggest Boat Race supporter...


Mel Harbour said...


I've got a couple of other rowing related things I wouldn't mind running past you - any chance you could drop me an email - I don't have your address?


Oliver said...

[i]"Sadly, Rotterdam is not shown on SA TV.."
"If the sport of running, for example, is to survive in what is now an entertainment industry, then the standard has to be perfection, not mediocrity."[/i]

Be thankful for small mercies.

Here in Oz we don't get any overseas running live on telly, and rarely a highlights package...no Oxford-Cambridge too btw.
We get an hour live of City to Surf fun run, with the pre race etc just about enough time to catch a glimpse of the winners...but much of the various sunday strollers and comic hero impersonators. Usually hosted by channel 10 funny weatherman and an incvessantly chatting ex runner...because yes my friends, running in Oz is a joke.

When I come back to SA I am still amazed at the amount of runners, the quality of fields and the support that telly gives it...what did you get the other day at Two Oceans...8 hours live coverage,21,000 runners, complianty authorities and a great supportive and patient community.

Try closing some roads here for your so called sport.

Hey sometimes you have be away from somewhere to appreciate what you had.

Now what can I watch tonight? Continuous replays of last week's rugbly league, Aussie rules, rugby union or some classic Packer series cricket....decisions , decisions.

Maybe someone will host a pirated video stream of London so we are able to watch here...hopefully my ADSL holds up.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Mel

Thanks for the follow up!

Interesting points. I had a feeling the cox microphones had something to do with the language used. I'm working with the SA Sevens rugby team, and they often have microphones in the team talk at half-time, and they always are very sure to warn coaches about their language before the tournaments! So I figured as much.

I don't know why the cameras would change, or why they wouldn't get more umpire involvement. That would help a lot, you're right.

Anyway, always interesting to learn. I wonder what the thought processes are of the people putting the show together? Do they seek the wider input of people who will be critical, and how do they benchmark their production, against what? I still think the boat race coverage is among the best I've seen, but seems there is much room for improvement there too!

Re my email address - sportsscientists@gmail.com

Look forward to chatting!


Oliver said...

BTW...still...I am salivating at the prospects of London.

Even if I have to track it on internet I will still be following.

Awesome field including all my favourite marathoners..Mr Gebreselassie take note, come and play with the boys sometime.

Sigmund1 said...

I think another example of horrendous TV coverage is the Time trials in cycling. Instead of giving us usefull split times, and using the splits to build the suspense they have a camera continuously on one or two cyclists.

Now I am a big cyclign fan and think it is quite intersting to study Cancellaras technique but 45 min of watching the same cyclists spin pedals is like watching the grass grow.

They should have taken a page from the playbook of cross coountry skiing in the old days. Since it was impossible to follow the skiers into the woods they would have fixed cameras on the splits and then showing the times of the relevant competitors building suspense as to whether the next skier would pass in time to reach his/her objectives.This made for some legendary coverage, and would have made TT quite intersting.

oliver said...

Hey..after posting last night I saw a "marathon" on aussie tv...

...ok it was the 'marathon' that the biggest loser contestants were doing, and even if not live, that's more than we have had in a while.

Sorry Ross, just stirring at your continual criticism of SA sports etc...ok I know I am not there to live and experience it, but hey even if you do get "Parrott-fashion" commentary, running in SA does have a high profile because of TV support.


Anonymous said...

Excellent views as always, Ross. Keep up the great work.
Best, Clinton

Anonymous said...

Whilst the boat race coverage is well rounded, I would disagree that it is ideal. Coverage of the actual race could have been much improved with some more close up shots of the rowing, for those with some knowledge of the sport to appreciate. Whilst shots of who is leading the race are important, I think in a 16-20 minute race there is plenty of time for both.

DrTim said...

Hi Ross,

Alas I am having to pull out of the London marathon. Tore the distal end of my plantar fascia ligament on my left foot during my last interval session. Quite sad. Was heading for a good time. :)

Any good advice / sites you can give to aid recovery of PF tears, not the hell end like everything I have found so far???


DrTim said...

That was supposed to be not the 'heel' end ... Freudian slip :)

Mister Suss said...

"Sometimes, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book Blink, those who are experts and know the most have the least chance of reaching an accurate decision."

Just wanted to point out that Blink does not show this. The people he uses as examples -- Tommy Hoving (incidentally, a friend of my family), the marriage/divorce researcher -- are often experts' experts, people who have spent decades thinking about an analyzing the subjects on which they make "snap" decisions in Blink.

Also, Gladwell very often has no idea what the !#@$ he's talking about. Staying with Blink, when you get to someone like Ekman, the lie detector guy, you've basically come across true crap presented as amazing truth.

Sorry to be so anal/off-topic/obnoxious but Gladwell pushes my rant button like none other.

roland said...


I thought it was the most amazing race but the coverage wasn't that great. Cambridge's courage and determination were inspirational and i think the commentary and short build up captured the excitement and nervous energy very well

But a couple of annoying things in the video coverage:
I dont know if you noticed the muted drum beat they added when the camera zoomed close up?

Also the graphics showing the race progress and measurements weren't as good as in previous years

Also would've like the full broadcast which they did last year with more of the rower bios. I was pretty hacked off that supersport didn't switch to the live feed at the scheduled time... after looking forward to the race for weeks. instead we were treated to an even more obscure showing of chess-boxing!

Roland (rower)

Anonymous said...

Excellent views as always, Ross. Keep up the great work.
Best, Clinton