Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

800m: Caster Semenya & Robby Andrews

800 m musings - Caster Semenya, Robby Andrews and contrasting pacing strategies

Thanks all for the huge response to the previous post on barefoot running.  I can think of only one other topic that has produced the kind of discussion we've seen in the last few days, and those were our posts on Caster Semenya, who I discuss a little more below.

Some of the comments and discussion on the barefoot running issue were extremely enlightening and if you're eager to learn even more, then going through that discussion is as enlightening as any article, so thanks again and do take time to browse the discussion if you haven't already - we'll outsource it as a post all by itself!

800m - Caster Semenya's performances under the spotlight

Today though, I wanted to discuss the 800m event, specifically to highlight two really great talking points in the last week or so, beginning with Caster Semenya.

Semenya was always going to be one of the most scrutinized athletes in the world, her return to competition after a gender controversy bringing human interest, athletic interest, and scientific interest angles.

Ours is all three, but primarily the scientific and athletic, and so we've been watching closely to see how she performs now that she's had a full off-season to prepare and build to competitive shape.  Her comeback was actually in 2010, and she even won a few races in Europe, but that season was hampered by sporadic training caused by injury and the doubts over whether she would be able to compete.  The same can't be said now - she's known since this time last year that she would be eligible to run.

So her 2011 performances were always going to be the subject of discussion.  This situation became inevitable when Semenya, her lawyers and the IAAF decided that no public announcement of what happened in the aftermath of Berlin would be made.  The result was that the whole world knew there was a question mark, but it was followed by speculation and assumption, rather than an answer, even a basic one.

Speculation no matter what the result - the catch-22 for Semenya

As a result, every race for Semenya would be followed by one of two responses.  Either she would win convincingly, and the world's athletics followers would say "She has an unfair advantage, they obviously didn't change anything, and now thanks to her lawyers, no other women can even compete".  Or, if she didn't win her races, the world would say "This proves that she must have had surgery or treatment".   A catch-22 for Semenya.

But now a third response has appeared - she doesn't win, and everyone says she is losing on purpose.  And that's been the case after her first two races - the came second in Eugene a week ago, and third in Oslo on Thursday, and the talk on athletics websites is that she is deliberately losing races so as to avoid attention and further discrimination. 

No matter how you look at it, it's an impossible situation to be in.  And from the observer point of view, it's similarly difficult.  It would be great to just leave it alone and let her run, but the way things unfolded, that is basically impossible, because people want to know that they are watching a fair race, a competitive event.

So the current speculation was inevitable and this was exactly the reason we argued many times that she (through her lawyers) needed to make some kind of statement to at least assure people that something had changed.  Not the full medical details, those are hers and should be confidential.  But something along the lines of "I have worked with the IAAF and a team of medical professionals over the last six months, and all parties are satisfied with the resolution and progress, and that I can now compete fairly as a female.  I look forward to running and and competing again".

The IAAF could have made a similar statement, supporting that their experts were confident that she no longer had an unfair advantage, and perhaps some of the speculation would have been dealt with.  It would not have removed doubt or controversy, but at least there wouldn't be a shadow hanging over every performance, doubt that she's cheating by running too SLOWLY when she could dominate the event.  And if you think this is an isolated opinion, it's not, I suspect many people are wondering "why is that athlete wearing red trying NOT to win?"

I don't know the answer to this - I would find it difficult to believe that any athlete would deliberately finish second when they could win by a small margin (in a relatively slow time of 1:58.xx too - it's not as though she'd be running 1:54 to win every race).  And to finish third when they could finish second?  I find it difficult to believe, so I'd almost want to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Also, I'm not sure she or her team is that calculating, but perhaps I'm naive.  She is currently 4 seconds off her best, around 3.5%, which is a big distance off your best.  But that could mean one of three things - training hasn't gone well, she's running slowly on purpose, or she had treatment and the 1:54 from 2009 is now never going to be possible.

Also, I've seen her race BEFORE the controversy, and she looked pretty much the same as she does now, even when losing.  For example, in her World Junior Championships in Poland in 2008, she finished 7th in her heat, and looked much the same as she does now.  It may be that she just looks like that, that she never seems to be straining - short, chopped stride, no major upper body rotation - it would easily look like someone wasn't working hard enough.

But, then I see her race in Eugene and Oslo, and I can appreciate what people are saying - she led for 700m in Oslo and then in the final straight, just seemed to coast through to a third place finish.

But, you can see for yourselves if you haven't already.

First, here is the race in Oslo:

And here is the race in Poland, 2008.  As an aside, note the difference in her physical development from 2008 to when she won the World Title in 2009 in Berlin.  Truth is, if it hadn't been for controversies about gender, there'd have been a lot of people speculation about doping, such is the cynical age of elite sport we live in.

Your thoughts?  No matter what one believe, it's a difficult situation - the more I've written about this, and spoken about it, the more I've realized the problem of intersex conditions in sport is basically insoluble - there's no solution to satisfy everyone.  Of course, Semenya's case was handled so poorly and unfairly for her, and her response to it has been admirable.  But for the sport, the questions have to be asked.

Robby Andrews - great finish, interesting contrast in pacing

On a more racing-specific note, here is a fantastic men's 800m from the NCAA championships over the weekend.  It's fast, and competitive, one of the better finishes you'll see in an 800m race.  Watch the clip before reading on, spoilers to follow!

So the interesting thing for me is the pacing strategy - I'm biased, but I read quite a bit into it!  And the guy who ends up second, Charles Jock, runs a first 400m in 49.85s.  Super quick, and followed by a second lap in 54.90s.

Now that's a huge positive split - 5 seconds, which I don't believe is optimal.  Robby Andrews, who catches him, runs the first lap in a low 51s, which means his second lap is around 53.5 seconds.  That's a far more reasonable balance to the race, much more in line with how the best 800m performances have been recorded.

But the point I'd make is that Robby Andrews' super quick finish (which is amazing, don't get me wrong) only appears that fast because the rest of the field was far too fast early on.  To give you more numbers, Jock was recorded at 1:17.1 at 600m.  That means after a first lap of 49.85s, his next 200m took 27.3s. And his final 200m took 29.65s - he was getting progressively slower.

So was Andrews, to be honest, and it's a safe bet that Andrews was a little quicker than 27s to the 600m mark.  But then Andrews finishes with a final 200m of about 26.5 seconds (assuming he's ± 1 second down on Jock at 600m), compared to Jock's final 200m of around 27.65 seconds.

In other words, Andrews just slowed down the least, and that one second gap which looked so enormous at 200m to go, was overcome as a result of a better overall pacing strategy, combined with a huge slow down for the rest of the field.

Pacing strategy is not a precise science, at least with the knowledge we currently have.  But a + 5 second differential in an 800m suggests to me too fast a first lap, whereas the + 2 for Andrews is a much more controlled, and probably closer to optimal, performance.

But a great race, nevertheless.  Can Andrews go faster?  Probably.  Can Charles Jock?  Definitely, because he should have a big improvement there if he gets the pace right!

But more on pacing in the series coming up when I'll share the video of my presentation on the subject from the recent ACSM!

Enjoy the Diamond League!