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!