Sports variety – tennis insights, athletics anticipation and Caster Semenya viewpoints
It’s been a frantic few weeks in the world of sport. Sadly, our schedules have prevented us from doing it justice! I am now in the UK for two weeks, and likely to have as little time, but while I had a moment on a flight, I thought I’d recap on some of the bigger sports events of late, and some sports science/management issues that struck me.
Tennis – the red clay and Nadal back on top and finally, some analysis using technology
The clay-court tennis season is building to its usual Roland Garros climax, and it has been a return to 2008 in the men’s game. Rafael Nadal had a relatively poor season in 2009. His year began unraveling in Madrid last year, where he lost convincingly to Roger Federer before going on to lose for the first time ever in Paris. This year, there was to be no repeat, as he beat Federer in straight sets to win in Madrid, becoming the first man to win three consecutive Masters Series events (having won Monte Carlo and Rome earlier this year).
What I found most interesting was an analysis shown during the final using tennis’ Hawkeye system. It showed where Nadal’s groundstrokes were landing in Federer’s half of the court, and where Federer was standing when hitting his strokes in return. This is data that is obtained from the Hawkeye system, and it is an illustration of just how powerful this technology could be if it was used to enhance the viewing experience.
Alas, this was the only time I’ve seen such an analysis, and what it showed was a comparison of Nadal’s shot depth in 2009, when he was beaten by Federer, and 2010, when he won at the same event. To sum up, in 2009, 32% of Nadal’s shots were landing inside the service box. As a result of this lack of depth to Nadal’s shots, Federer was hitting most of his shots from on or inside the baseline. Jump to 2010, and only 18% of Nadal’s shots were landing inside the service area, and Federer was playing from 1m behind the baseline, and up to 3 m behind the baseline at least a third of the time.
Was this a difference caused by Nadal’s relative fitness levels (last year his knee problem was hampering his mobility and power), or was it that Federer was either more negative or off his game on the day? Nadal has certainly worked on his game – I often felt (guided by good commentary, I must admit) that Nadal had a problem of going for too much topspin, which tended to drag the ball down short. He also fell into defensive play easily, especially in pressure situations. This year, there has been a clear effort to play more directly and maintain the depth, and perhaps this is responsible for the shift in Sunday’s final.
You’d need more data to investigate this fully, but I found the analysis fascinating. I wish it were done more. I actually emailed the company Hawkeye last year to ask whether I could obtain some of the data, I offered to analyze it for them. They wrote back to say they don’t keep it. Which is clearly not true, given what they showed on Sunday. Their lack of vision of their own potential is tennis fans’ loss.
Athletics – Diamond league kicks off
On a more positive note regarding broadcast and sport, the Diamond League began in Doha last week, and the TV package was definitely improved. Shorter, fewer breaks, and very helpfully, real-time graphics showing who was in the groups of the middle-distance races made watching it more interesting. Particularly for those who don’t follow the sport, watching middle and long-distance events can be daunting, but to “personalize” the athletes, simply by flashing up graphics of where they are in the race at say 1,000m helps a great deal. It’s a simple thing, but hopefully a sign of more to come.
On the track, the action was hot. So were conditions – up above 30 degrees, but the performances didn’t seem too affected. Eliud Kipchoge produced a 12:51.21 over 5,000m, maybe the most impressive performance, given the heat. David Rudisha of Kenya continued to show impressive form, running a 1:43.00 in the 800m for men. On the other end of the distance spectrum, Asafa Powell was impressive in his heat (9.75s) and the final (9.81s with a very poor start) to win the men’s 100m. Powell was impressive, but I was struck by what I felt was a peculiar running style. He seemed to really be reaching out for the landing in front of him. Imagine a horse doing dressage and kicking out in front and you have the idea. Maybe Powell has analyzed Bolt’s 100m races, and noted that Bolt takes 41 steps while everyone else was taking 44, and he has developed a plan to increase his stride length! I’m being partly facetious here, but certainly Powell does seem to have changed something mechanically. His hamstring contraction at the end of the float phase and during the first moments of ground contact must be enormously powerful to the leg back before toe-off. Or am I alone in noticing this?
Powell’s performance was followed only 2 days later by a Tyson Gay 19.41 s world record in the rarely run 200m straight race in Manchester. Reports are that Gay ran the 100m from 50m to 150m of the race in 8.72 seconds, which is about as fast as Bolt when he broke the 150m record last year. Gay also broke 45 seconds for 400m recently, becoming the first man in history to crack 10 seconds for the 100m, 20 seconds for the 200m and 45 seconds over 400m, and he is clearly in great shape at the start of 2010.
The third member, and the most illustrious of this sprinting triumvirate, Usain Bolt, is in action tomorrow. He has already reportedly run a 8.79 s relay leg (reportedly) and so all three big guns seem ready to fire this year! Already, only a few weeks in, and 2010 is looking like a magnificent year for sprinting!
Caster Semenya – Tim Noakes’ view
On another athletics note, the Caster Semenya story is drifting slowly and mercilessly towards its own climax. First, Lamine Diack, President of the IAAF, announced that results were certain to be released by the end of June (this was not news as much as it was confirmation of what has been said for a while now).
And then just this last weekend, Prof Tim Noakes, who I have the highest respect for as my PhD supervisor and now employer, was reported to have said that Semenya was the victim of an “image management campaign”, and that she should be allowed to compete since her advantage did not make her as fast as men.
He was quoted as saying “As many as eight intersex women may have been expelled from athletics in the past and I gather that they were warned that if they made a fuss, they would be exposed. So it seems it's not about athletic advantage, it's about keeping the Olympics free of unwanted complications. It sends the message that women must do what men say and if the eight athletes had to be sacrificed, so be it, which I find very disturbing,"
He goes on to say “My view is that Caster Semenya should be allowed to run. She is not running as fast as men nor is she running as fast as some other women. If she was running 1:41, then we would have a problem. There are some genetic variants allowed in sport. I would argue, for example, that Usain Bolt is genetically different. If these genetic variants are linked to gender, then so be it”.
I agree with Noakes on the image management issue and that athletes may have been threatened before. The management of the whole intersex issue has been an absolute disaster for sports authorities. There is without doubt an agenda to keep the image of the sport “clean” (whatever that means – it’s open to interpretation). Whether it is driven by male chauvinism, financial pressure, archaic thinking, I don’t know. I would say, somewhat in defence of the IAAF and IOC, that if they did not act, then they would undoubtedly face objections to Semenya’s participation, and many (possibly most) would come from women. So the IAAF, as the custodian of the sport, is in a difficult situation, where they have to act on behalf all parties, and from this perspective, it is very much about athletic advantage because that would be the basis for the challenges and complaints by others. As many would be unhappy with inaction as are currently unhappy, though for different reasons, which some will disregard as trivial.
As for the second issue, Semenya’s eligibility to compete, I have already written a great deal on this topic, in particular the argument that any genetic advantage that Semenya possesses is analogous to that possessed by an Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. To read that post, click here. My position is that the two are dissimilar because we don’t compete in categories of fast-twitch fiber or enzyme type or lung volume or foot size (or whatever you believe makes Bolt and Phelps the world record holders). We do however compete as males and females, and thus the distinction between the two should be defended. A genetic advantage that pushes an individual from one category into another is not the same as one which moves an individual up or down within the same category.
Consider basketball. People are largely born to play it, because if you’re 1.70m tall, your chances are slim. But we don’t compete in categories of height, and so within the “open population”, we accept that height is advantageous. If we had a category for under 1.70m, then the line would have be enforced, and a genetic “abnormality” causing someone to be tall would exclude them from competing at the lower level. The same goes for male and female.
So I respectfully disagree with the assertion that gender variants linked to gender are acceptable. And this is fine, because everyone is entitled to a position and I certainly don’t think that Prof Noakes is wrong. This is not a matter for which there is overwhelming proof (even the PIstorius controversy has mountains of proof compared to this). Nor is his opinion an isolated one – many will agree with it. I just don’t see the issue that way.
I also would not agree that there is no problem with her participating, just because she is running slower than 1:41 (which is the men’s record, by the way). My position here is that she runs against women, and so whether an advantage pushes her into the men’s range is irrelevant. The issue is that it pushes her out of the women’s range, and well into a higher percentile of men’s performance than women can achieve, without suspicious circumstances.
As for not running faster than some other women, if you look at the history of women’s 800m running, and you see some of the women who have run 1:54 or faster, you’ll appreciate that only women with massive amounts of testosterone (that is, dopers) get to those levels. I am sure Prof Noakes and I will debate this one in due course, and I look forward to it! We’ve discussed it before, and so I wasn’t surprised by the quotes, just as I’m sure he knows my views. This kind of debate is the fuel of research, after all. I suspect the difference in opinion is because I am coming from an athletics paradigm, where he is speaking from outside it. Nevertheless, an intriguing viewpoint.
As I said upfront, I’m in London, with the SA Sevens team for the last two events of the International Rugby Board Sevens Series. At some point, when the science and sports world is a little quiet, I will look at the commercial failures of rugby to capitalize on the Sevens product, and what a shame it is that the Unions and the International body have failed to recognize that they posses rugby’s equivalent of 20-over cricket. It would revolutionize the game, but for the lack of desire and vision of those driving it forward commercially. Meanwhile, the 15-man version of rugby is suffering through a recession of interest and money, based on TV figures and financial reports, as clutter and competition detract from rugby’s following everywhere but in the UK and South Africa.
Failure to act may bring to those exactly what is deserved for inaction, but that is for another day, another post, on the management of sport.
There’s the FIFA 2010 World Cup to look forward to – 24 days to go, and much science to be discussed there. Plus, with the Diamond League now on the go, athletics will take centre stage!
Apologies again for the snippets today, but hopefully one of the three stones hits a bird!
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Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Sports variety – tennis insights, athletics anticipation and Caster Semenya viewpoints