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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Berlin 2011: Inside Makau's 2:03:38 World Record

Inside Makau's world record

Patrick Makau has broken Haile Gebrselassie's 3-year old world record with a sensational run in Berlin, clocking 2:03:38.  You can read my real-time comments and thoughts at the live post I did during the race, but below is a more detailed look at Makau compared to that 2008 record of Geb's also in Berlin.

The graph below compares the 5km splits for Makau's 2:03:38, to those in the previous record of 2:03:59.  It's an ideal comparison because it's the same course and very similar race situations with an organized attempt, pacemakers etc.

The red line shows Gebrselassie's 5km splits, the green line Makau's.  Below each marker is the cumulative time gap between Geb and Makau in seconds.  And at the top are the times for the individual segments, with the 2011 vs 2008 gap for that segment beneath it.

Makau's is a world record that was clearly established from 10km to 35km, whereas Gebrselassie owed his to a very fast final 20km.  He got faster and faster from 25km onwards, whereas Makau put himself in an excellent position by halfway, blew the race wide open with an incredible sixth interval of 14:20 (25 to 30km), and then hung on to the finish.  

The precision of pacing

The first point about looking at pace is to emphasize just how incredibly precise one has to be to run at this level and to beat a world record.  Consider for example that we're celebrating Makau today because he broke the record by a fairly large margin - it was 21 seconds.  Geb had broken it by 29 and 27 seconds in his two records, respectively.

In fact, in the last seven records, the margin of record-breaking has been 23 seconds, 4 seconds, 43 seconds, 29 seconds, 27 seconds and now 21 seconds.  The point is - world records don't get "smashed" anymore.  And 21 seconds over 42 km, you can work out pretty easily is 0.5 seconds per kilometer and thus only 2.5 seconds over each 5km interval.  I think it's safe to say that any runner who goes out and runs 2 sec/km faster than a world record is heading for a major meltdown!

That's amazing precision, and should be borne in mind when considering the splits, because the elite field are on a razor's edge, and so particularly the first half has to be very accurately paced.  Today, the first half was run just under one second per kilometer faster than the previous record, and it was consistently paced up to halfway.  There was talk of it being too fast, but in the end, it was a sustainable pace...just...and so very good to begin with.

Makau's race - building a 'buffer' and hanging on 

The dashed line in the graph above shows the required pace per 5 km segment to match the world record - it's 14:41.5 per 5km.  Today, Makau was faster than this all the way to 20km, building up a 'reserve' so that by 20km, his time of 58:30 put him on course for a 2:03:25.  Also, up to this point, the pace had been very consistent - those "bumps" you see in the first half represent a range of only 1 second per kilometer, and the field was always faster than the required pace.

The comparison to Gebrselassie in 2008 is also interesting.  The opening 10km was basically the same - 29:17 for Makau vs 29:12 for Geb.  Then, from 10km to 20km, Makau began building his buffer - had there been a "virtual Gebrselassie" on the road, Makau would have been pulling further and further away from him.  

A 14:34 and a 14:39 put Makau up by 12 seconds and then 20 seconds at 20km.  He'd have been over 100m ahead of Gebrselassie at halfway.  At this stage, the commentators were talking about it as being "suicidal", which it certainly was not.  It was fast, but the way the race was to unfold (hindsight is wonderful!), this was actually very solid pace setting, because the race was pretty much on course for a mid 2:03:20 from the outset.

Makau's surge

Then things started to open up.  The race fragmented after halfway - a group of 11 was cut very quickly, and soon it was Makau, Geb and about three pacemakers.  I'm not 100% sure what happened at around 27km, but it was here that Makau made what would be the race's decisive surge.  He went to the front, Gebrselassie stepped off the road just after 27km and Makau just kept going.

He hit 25km in 1:13:18, fully 47 seconds ahead of what Gebrselassie had done in 2008.  That segment, covered in 14:20, was easily the fastest of any of the three world records set in Berlin since 2007.  It was a huge surge, and to put into context what Makau was doing, Geb, despite stopping, was 1:10 down at that stage.  That means that Geb was only 23 seconds slower than he'd been on route to his world record, but now found himself trailing by over a minute (and he'd stopped, of course).

The question now was not so much whether Makau could sustain the pace, but rather whether that surge would cost him?  He had built up such a buffer that he could afford to run the final 10km in 29:49, which was much slower than anything they'd been producing up to that point.

Hanging on, holding pace and running alone  

The next 5km were actually the most significant period for the record - having surged at 14:20 pace, it was here that we'd see a substantial drop-off if there was going to be one.  Makau was now all alone, just the clock and the race car for company.  But he held it together enough to run a 14:38 for the segment.  That was actually quicker than Geb over the same interval in 2008, and meant that Makau extended his "lead" over the virtual Gebrselassie to 49 seconds (as seen on the graph).

Now, with only 7km to, only a massive blowout would cost Makau the record, and the question was whether he'd hold that pace, and break the record by over 45 seconds, or whether he'd come back slightly.  But the world record was now pencilled in.

The answer was that he would pay for the early pace, but only a little.  His final 5km segment, from 35 to 40km was easily the slowest of his race, but it was still 14:59.  Compare Makau's line to that of Gebrselassie, who built from halfway to get faster and faster when he broke 2:04 in 2008.  Makau's graph is "going the wrong" way, but not quickly enough to save the record.

The result of Makau's slowing, however, was that suddenly, that gap of 49 seconds to Gebreselassie in 2008 was cut to 19 seconds.  However, there were only 2.2km remaining, and the pace he needed to run to match the record was now 3:04/km, so his "fatigue" was not costing him enough to save the record.  Also, Gebrselassie had slowed significantly in his final 2.2km back in 2008 as well, so Makau just had to hang on and claim the record.

At 37.2km, with 5km to, I timed Makau as needing to run 15:20 for the final 5km, and it was clear that though he was fighting by this point, he wasn't going to implode to that extent!  The 6:23 for the final 2.2km was in fact similar to Gebrselassie in 2008 (6:25) and it gave Makau the record by 21 seconds.

Optimal pacing?

The first half was run in 61:45, the second in 61:53.  That's near enough even pace (you'd be picky to argue over 8 seconds), but the two halves were constructed very differently - look at the green line in the chart to see that.  Of course, the theoretically perfect race is exactly even, no variation, but you never see that.  Makau was definitely more variable than Gebrselassie in 2008, but that's largely because of the 14:20 he put in just after halfway, and the fact that he slowed to a 14:59 at the end.

The most striking difference between Makau 2011 and Gebrselassie 2008 is the shape of the curve over the second half.  You can see this in the graph very clearly - Gebrselassie got faster and faster after halfway, Makau was up-and-down.  Again, this was the result of his 14:20 and the 14:59 that it 'cost' later.  

The first 20km were a talking point during the race - it was considered too fast to sustain, but in the end, it was pretty precise, based on the halves.  All in all, I'd say it was very well paced, from a global perspective.  But a more conservative sixth interval (25km to 30km) might have left Makau with a bit more for the final 10km, and that may have helped him a few seconds faster.

Future of marathon running - 2:02:59 looms

But really, that's all we're talking, a few seconds.  And it's hard to fault Makau for this performance, which is simply exceptional.  It means that we've seen three performances under 2:04 this year alone, though of course two of them came on the Boston course, which was massively wind-aided this year (and won't stand, though not for that reason!)

Makau is now the marathon king, with three wins in five starts.  It's actually extra-ordinary to think of what Kenya in particular have in the marathon.  Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop were the Boston runners who nearly broke 2:03, and then Abel Kirui dominated the World Championship marathon in Daegu with the kind of performance that would suggest that he's capable of something very close to 2:04 as well.  This record, exceptional as it is, may not have too long a shelf-life!

As always, attention will now turn to the limits for marathon running and people will start talking about sub-2 hour clockings.  That's a little premature - if each record lasts say 3 years (because weather and pacing can undermine even the most gifted athlete), and if the times improve by around 20 seconds per record, we'll be commenting on another eleven world records and will be waiting until 2044 for that to happen.  If it happens at all.  That kind of speculation is always fun though.

It certainly seems as though it's a matter of time before 2:03 is challenged, perhaps a decade or so, if the next generation are as exceptional as the current one.  If it happens, we'll be on it!


Berlin Marathon 2011: Live

Berlin 2011: Magnificent Makau 2:03:38!

Patrick Makau has broken the world marathon record.  He raced to a 2:03:38 on the streets of Berlin, breaking Gebrselassie's world record by 21 seconds.  It was a terrible day for the Ethiopian emperor - he stepped off the road soon after Makau launched a big surge at around 27km, and while he did resume running, he was not a factor and it seems that he bailed some time later.

The questions will begin again - it is Geb's second DNF if two marathons, after New York.  On that occasion, he retired, and questions will now be asked again.  It's a sad way to go if it's true - two DNFs and the loss of his world record.

But today, it was Makau all the way.  Below are the splits (for the men - I lost track of the women's race as the men's world record became more and more apparent), and my comments as the race unfolded.

For a more detailed breakdown of the race, including a comparison between Makau 2011 and Gebrselassie 2008, click here

But briefly, halfway was reached in 61:45, which projects a 2:03:30, and that was more or less the pace from the start.  Makau and Geb were in the group, 11 strong, until around 25km when things began to fragment.  That's when Makau, perhaps sensing a weakness is Geb, pushed the pace, and under the pressure of his surge, Gebrselassie stepped off the road.  He seemed to be clutching his stomach - it was either a stitch, stomach cramp, or maybe asthma.  We'll find out later.

But the pace of the Makau surge was brutal - 14:20 for the 5km segment from 25km to 30km, and that's what took Makau from being in with a shout to having a real shot at it.  He did pay for that surge later in the race, and when we compare the splits later, you'll see that Makau got slower and slower from that point onwards.

But he had enough of a 'buffer' in hand - he was 49 seconds ahead of Gebrselassie's time at the same point in the 2008 record, and 45 seconds ahead of the pace required to break the 2:03:59.  So even though Makau did slow over the final 5km in particular, he had the record in the bag, and went on to break it by 21 seconds.

That's the short version - below is my coverage of the race as it unfolded, and here is the more detailed breakdown for those interested.

And thanks for following our live coverage of the race!


Men                                                                  Women

5km - 14:36 (2:03:13 pace)                           5km - 16:37 (2:20:14)
10km - 29:17 (2:03:34)                                  10km - 33:16 (2:20:22)
15km - 43:51 (2:03:21)                                   15km - 49:50 (2:20:11)
20km - 58:30 (2:03:25)                                 20km - 1:06:32 (2:20:22)
Half-marathon - 61:43 (2:03:26)                Half-marathon - 1:10:11 (2:20:22)
25km - 1:13:18 (2:03:43)                               25km - 1:23:15 (2:20:31)
30km - 1:27:38 (2:03:15)                                
35km - 1:42:16 (2:03:17)                              
40km - 1:57:15 (3:03:41)                          
Finish - 2:03:38                                                Finish - 2:19:44

Apologies - in all the drama of the men's world record, I missed a few women's splits, and the truth is, Kiplagat was just churning out consistent kilometers.  I'll see if I can update the splits later.

The men's race deserves more analysis, and so I'll have a closer look at that in a follow-up post


Comments in reverse order - most recent at the top




Makau has done it, he has held on to break the world record by 21 seconds!  That was a hard effort at the end, Makau was fighting over the final 5km but he did it, and did it in style.  Even vaulted the advertising wedges in the finish straight to do it!

More analysis to come, including a comparison of this race with Geb's 2008 record.  Check in shortly!


Makau is hanging on to world record pace - the last 5km was run in 14:59, and Makau only needed to run 15:20 to get this record.  So he is on course for a 2:03:41.  He has slowed slightly - the last interval was easily the slowest of the race!  But he has a buffer of sorts, and the last 2.2km are a race against the clock!

In 2008, Geb reached 40km in 1:57:34.  Makau reached it 19 seconds faster (1:57:15).  But remember, he was 49 seconds ahead at 35km, and so he is "losing ground" to the virtual figure of Gebrselassie on the road!

6 minutes of running is all that stands between him and the WR.  It's going to be a great finish!


Makau is still on course for a big world record.  It's looking more and more like he is not just going to edge it, he is going to smash this record!  He's looking at a sub-2:03:30 time, and this is history in the making!

5km to go, and Makau needs to run it in 15:20, this is a world record on the way!


Makau is on course for the world record!

Makau is out on his own now - it's a tough, tough ask to race the final 10km at world record pace.  You'll recall that Gebrselassie had James Kwambai with him in 2008.  The time at 35km is 1:42:16.  In 2008, Geb covered it in 1:43:05.

So Makau is still ahead, and he is holding onto the pace he needs.  To put it into context: At 30km, Makau was 47 seconds ahead of Gebrselassie's split from 2008 (1:27:38 for Makau vs 1:28:25 for Geb).  Now he is 49 seconds ahead, and so the world record is on!  Makau has run these 5km as fast as Geb did in 2008 (14:38)!  But the section 35km to 40km is where Geb really picked it up 3 years ago!  Does he have enough in reserve to do this?  Fascinating finish in prospect!


With 10km to go, Makau needs to run 29:49 to break 2:04 and the world record.  It's definitely on, the only question is how Makau recovers on the run from that 14:20, and whether those first 20km were just too quick?


It's Makau's race now - he's out in front with two pace-makers for company, probably over a minute clear of Gebrselassie.  The last 5km were run in 14:20, which is incredible - that was the acceleration that pulled Makau clear of Gebrselassie, just before the Ethiopian stepped off track.  That was very, very quick and now the race, and possibly the World Record's, is Makau's to chase.  His projected time at 30km, by the way, is 2:03:15.

The big question is what the surge takes out - Makau now has to consolidate - it may be "only" 12km to go, but the potential for time losses here are enormous.  He needs to run just inside 3 min/km to get that world record.  That is definitely doable, and this could be a great race to the line against the clock!

Gebrselassie is up and running again.  One of the pacemakers has dropped back and is now pulling him again.  He seems to making ground on those runners between himself and Makau.  He is 1:10 down on Makau, and we'll check that again at 35km to see if Geb has really recovered.  Quite extra-ordinary developments with Geb stepping off the road and now seemingly back, running still well under 2:04:30 pace!


Gebrselassie has STOPPED!  He was dropped by Makau and he has stepped off the road, clutching his stomach, bending over and cearly in trouble!  Maybe asthma - he seemed to gesture that he was unable to brath.  Either that or a stomach problem.  Cramp/stitch maybe.  He is crouched over.  Now he is back running again, but he's lost big ground.  What a great pity!

Gebrselassie is now running again, and doesn't seem to be going too slowly.  It is very peculiar because he really did look to be in trouble there.  He was either struggling for breath, or had some kind of cramping or stitch pain.  But to reverse that and resume racing a minute later...very interesting.  We'll get you a split of the gap shortly, and keep an eye on it.


The men have now begun to slow - the last 5km were run in 14:48.  It's the first time that a 5km split has been outside of the pace required for a world record (that's 14:41, by the way).  The projected time is now 2:03:43.  However, I can tell you that if they maintain the 14:48 pace for the rest of this race, they will finish in 2:04:12.

The TV coverage keeps flashing a projected finish time of 2:03:05, which is never going to happen.  not sure where that projection comes from.  Makau and Geb playing games shadowing one another!  A taste of things to come?  The last 10km might be very slow if they start racing and playing tactical battles

On the women's side, no change.  Kiplagat ran the last 5km in 16:43.


The men's halfway split is 61:43.  Easy maths - it projects a 2:03:26.  The world record is now a definite possibility (it was at the start, of course).  The key will be after 30km, when most of those pace-makers drop out, and we're left with Makau and Gebrselassie.  Then we'll see if the early pace is costly.  If the pace is going to drop, it's going to be 25km to 40km.  Fascinating race developing though - the possibility of Geb vs Makau needing a 29-min final 10km to break the WR is mouth-watering.

Kiplagat has reached halfway in 1:10:11, 19 seconds ahead of Radcliffe.  If both keep going at this pace, they'll run 2:20:22 and 2:21:10 respectively.  That's probably a "par" for Radcliffe, given the build-up and hear she has had.  For Kiplagat, it's a good comeback after failing to finish Boston.


Still no sign of slowing - after hitting 15km 12 seconds faster than the WR split from 2008, they ran a 2:58 and a 2:55.  So not surprisingly, they hit 20km in 58:30 . The 2008 split at 20km was 58:50, so they're 20 seconds ahead of that.  That's a big improvement - it projects a 35 seconds breaking of the world record.  The last 5km, incidentally, were done in 14:39, so they're holding faster than WR pace.  Every split so far has been faster than the WR pace.  It's still an 11-man group.

Kiplagat has continued to roll - 16:42 for the last 5km, so a small slowing in the pace.  She is 17 seconds ahead of Radcliffe, who has now dropped back to around 17 min/5km pace.  Unless there's a dramatic change of fortunes for one (or both), the women's race is developing into a victory for Kiplagat by just over a minute.  She's on for a 2:20:22 still.


The men have actually sped up on the last interval - 14:34 giving them a 43:51 at 15km.  For comparison's sake, when Geb broke the world record in 2008, he hit 15km in 44:03.  They're actually saying that they ran the 15th kilometer in 2:45, which is unbelievably fast.  I'm more inclined to call that an error in the distance markings than a real time!  But it's very fast.  It now projects 2:03:21, so they're setting up an incredible day.  Or a big meltdown over the final 10km!

On the women's side - a big development - Kiplagat is nine seconds ahead at 15km.  Radcliffe has dropped off the pace somewhat.  Kiplagat has run with amazing precision.  The last 5km were 16:34, for a 15km split of 49:50.  Radcliffe came through in 49:59, so that's interesting.  Kiplagat meanwhile, has produced splits of 16:37, 16:39 and 16:34, and she's on course for a 2:20:11.  Will keep an eye on Radcliffe to see if she's going back, or holding that gap.

10km situation

The men have hit 10km in 29:17, so that's 14:41 for the last 5km.  The projected time now is 2:03:34.  There are still 11 men there, five of them pace-makers.  The other four (excluding Geb and Makau) are running many minutes faster than their bests, so that group could get very thin very quickly once the pace-makers start dropping off.

The commentators are saying that it's unusual for Gebrselassie to misjudge the pace.  I remember the Dubai race a few years ago where he went through 10km in a mid-28 time, projecting 2:02.  And I think the same happened the next year.  So it's not entirely unusual.

In the women's race, Radcliffe and Kiplagat have already opened up a sizeable lead over Mikitenko.  Their 10km split was 33:16, a last 5km of 16:39, so they're rolling along at the same pace.  Projects a 2:20:22.

5km reached

The men hit 5km in 14:36.  That's 2:03:13 pace, so fast, but that's normal for the first split.  There are eleven men in the lead group, five of them pace-makers. Gebrselassie and Makau are there.  They've requested 62 minutes to halfway, so if they get that, they'll be on course for a world record, and a race between Makau and Gebrselassie at that pace will be fascinating.  Early days yet.

Nice slow-motion shot of the elite runners feet landing - notice how they're heel-striking?  Gebrselassie in the yellow shoes - used to be a very clear forefoot striker on track.  It's a quick transition to mid-foot though, so the definition of "heel-strike" is disputable.  Flat at best.  But it sure isn't a fore-foot strike...

The women are on course for a 2:20:14 at 5km - 16:37.  The split was Kiplagat's, with Radcliffe listed at the same time.  So far no coverage of that race.

Shots of Geb training in Ethiopia now.  Nice touch for the human side of the race.


They're saying there are 30 pace-makers in the race today.  Not all for the elite men, but for various groups.  Of course, the build-up to this race included discussion of the role of pace-makers given the IAAF's recent decision that they will not recognize women's records set in mixed races, because this allows women to be paced by men.

I appreciate the reason for this, but I can't help feeling that if men are able to be paced to 30 or 35km, then women should receive at least the same benefit.  Of course, women's running lacks the depth of the men's race, and so they can't find six or seven women to get to 30km in the 1:40 required for a 2:20 marathon.  So women are either advantaged (by having men as pace-makers all the way to the finish), or disadvantaged (by having no pace-makers, or pace-makers to only halfway, for example).  There doesn't seem to be a middle ground.

But there's no question that the men get a large benefit - when the current record was broken by Gebrselassie, he was surrounded by men for 30km and then had Kwambai for "company" over the final 10km.  It's impossible to quantify the advantage this would provide, but it's fair to assume that it does help for a variety of reasons, both physiological and psychological.

To me, the best solution would be to allow men to do a pace-maker job for women, but only up to 30km.  Enforce something similar to the Ironman triathlons, where there is a "no drafting" rule that prevents athletes from riding in groups.  Why not have a rule that says after 30km, any men who are pace-making for women must drop back by a minimum of 50m?  They can still finish, but may no longer support and set the pace for the women.  Seems like the most reasonable compromise, given that it is a tricky situation, where either of the current situations creates advantages and disadvantages.

Anyway, enough of that, the race is about to start...

Sunday, September 04, 2011

IAAF World Champs: 800m women, questions but few answers

Women's 800m: Savinova pips Semenya

The women's 800m event deserves a post all of its own.  I'll post on the rest of the day's action a little later, but the women's 800m gold has just been won, and it wasn't Caster Semenya winning it.  Instead, it was Mariya Savinova of Russia who won in a very quick 1:55.87, edging Semenya in the final 50m.  Semenya ran 1:56.35, easily the fastest time she has done since her Berlin triumph two years ago, when the controversy began, and Janeth Jepkosgei took bronze, reward for her efforts in setting the race up with a very fast first lap.

The race was an intriguing tactical one - Janeth Jepkosgei took the pace out hard (26.61s first 200m), and led through the bell in 55.86s, with Semenya in fifth and Savinova sixth, about 5m behind.  Savinova had clearly decided that she would mark Semenya the whole way, and as Semenya made her move down the backstraight, she followed.  600m was reached in 1:26.07, a 30-second interval for Jepkosgei, probably half a second quicker for Semenya, who was on the shoulder of the leaders and poised to move clear.

Coming off the final bend, Semenya had taken the lead, and it looked like a dead certainty that she would run away from the field.  Given the fast pace up to 600m, a repeat or even an improvement of the 1:55.45 of Berlin looked on the cards.  But Savinova held her, and with 50m to go, began to close the 3m gap that she'd held her at down the back straight.  In the final, 20m, Semenya faded and Savinova come through to win gold.

Caster Semenya - the questions will continue

Semenya again looked very relaxed, casual even, when being passed for gold in the final 20m, and I am sure that there will once again be suspicions that she "lost deliberately".  In the aftermath of her semi-final, where she looked completely dominant, that theme began to reappear, with chat forums resonating with the theory that Semenya had been losing races on purpose this season to keep the attention off her.

I am sure that the questions will continue, and Semenya will again be labeled as either a cheat (if she wins), or a 'fixer' (when she loses, as people suggest, on purpose).  I think both are slightly unfair accusations, and require some clarification and context.  Certainly, she is not a cheat - she may well have had an advantage as a result of whatever intersex condition may have led to increased testosterone levels, but that's not the same as cheating.  So again, I'd caution against "personalizing" the debate, making it about Semenya.  It's not too different from Pistorius case, actually - it's not a question of cheating, but is a question of unfair advantage.  And that's certainly a valid concern, which is why the post-Berlin process happened.

In Semenya's case, and I've written this before, I am fairly certain that in the aftermath of Berlin, she did receive some medical treatment.  There is no other explanation for the length of time that it took to clear her to run.  A legal issue would have taken weeks, maybe a few months, but to miss nearly a year can only be explained if there was medical intervention that required observation.  Also, if you look at the IAAF's latest position stand on intersex conditions, they have clearly learned from the Semenya experience, and it's no co-incidence that the statement includes mention of correcting testosterone to normal female levels.  The IAAF, I think, knew that they had to intervene, and I believe they did, setting a precedent that they then wrote into future policy.

So I'm confident in saying that there was chemical treatment to reduce the testosterone levels.  That would also explain the injury problems, the inconsistencies, and the relatively poorer performances in the last twelve months.  If that is the case, then people can of course still object to Semenya's participation on the grounds that she has "historical" advantage because of the shape of the skeleton etc.  But I believe that most advantages would diminish soon, and certainly will over more time.

My opinion is that if her testosterone levels have been within the normal range for six months, and continue to stay there, then I'd be satisfied that the advantage is no longer of concern for competition.  She would be at the extreme in certain respects, but not threatening to cross the 'line' we draw to make the distinction between male and female competition.  Of course, when she runs 1:56.35, less than a second slower than the Berlin time, people will question the effectiveness of the treatment, and that will be an interesting debate to follow in coming weeks.

Monitoring of an intervention?

The big question, however, is monitoring of those levels.  The irony is that if Semenya has received chemical treatment, then she may be one of the only athletes in the world who is required to use drugs.  And failure to use the drugs (dope) would be the problem.  If Semenya's participation is dependent on lowering the testosterone levels, then ensuring the effectiveness is crucial.

Now I don't know how this has been monitored.  Is it possible that Semenya can stop medication and return to the Berlin situation?  I don't know enough about the process, how long the treatment would last or how effective it might be (will make some enquiries with endocrinologists) and so I'll steer clear of speculating on that detail. But I believe that if the testosterone levels were raised (which is a near certainty), then the right thing was done in reducing them, and I have no objections to Semenya's participation, providing it is monitored regularly.

Semenya's racing strategy

As for the theory that Semenya is running slowly on purpose, I can appreciate why people think that, because certainly, I can't think of many athletes who look as casual as Semenya in any race situation - it is so startling how she seems to "jog" when others are failing.  But I see it differently.  There are far better ways to win a silver medal, lose a race and divert attention of yourself than what Semenya did today.  If she was deliberately trying NOT to win, then it would be far easier to come through late, especially in a race like today's where early pace is fast and the gaps are large.   Would a late charge from sixth to second (possible if you watch the race) not divert attention more than a fade into silver?  But instead, Semenya attacked the race with 250m to go, assumed the lead, ran in front for the world to see, and looked to be going away before losing gold.

That's a sure way to attract attention, not to deflect it, (for proof of this, see the forums which are already buzzing with allegations of "tanking on purpose").  I remain unconvinced about this deliberate loss argument.  I think it more likely that Semenya is just a runner who always looks casual, regardless of race situation or effort.  Back in 2008, at the World Junior Championships in Poland, Semenya finished seventh in her heat and looked the same as she did today - she seems not to have it in her style to lose form and look like she is straining.  It may be the shape of her skeleton, the large upper body and that she seems to 'lope', and I think this is more likely than the theory that she hit the front, opened up a lead in the final 50m of the World Champs, and then decided to lose the race on purpose from there.

The lack of transparency

In all this, the biggest issue has been the lack of transparency and the secrecy.  The initial leak was of course wrong, and Semenya should never have been subjected to public speculation about her biological sex.  But once out, once the world knew there was a problem, it was critical to resolve the situation, or at least reassure people that something had been done to ensure fair competition (even if that meant announcing that there was no advantage to begin with - people wouldn't have believed it, but it would be something).

That was, of course, Semenya's prerogative.  The IAAF could not announce that there was a condition and that it had been treated, because the medical information belongs to the patient.  So I felt from the outset that Semenya needed to disclose something.  Not the full details, not a complete description, but something to assure people that her participation had been cleared and perhaps that she would continue to co-operate with the authorities in the future.  Maybe even release testosterone level results today, in the same way that some cyclists have taken to making public their blood data as part of the biological passport system.

The problem we have now is that everyone knows half the story, and in the absence of facts, they will create the other half!  And, whether the result of being misinformed, ignorant or hostile, the blanks that are filled in will almost always be worse than the reality.  The end result is that Semenya loses either way, and the only way I can see this being overcome is to control the information herself.

But instead of truth, what we have is a shroud of secrecy, mostly from Semenya's management.  Her management team have made some extra-ordinary statements, including one that she was going to win the double in Daegu, even though she was not even entered into the 1500m.  They have asked for millions for sponsorship back here in South Africa.  They also hinted recently that she would be asking for money to give interviews to the media, which is astonishing.

You can't blame Semenya for her mistrust of the media, but the moronic press releases made by her PR and management teams defy belief, and only serve to heighten the focus (and negative attention) on her.  She'll find a great deal of sympathy (as she should) for her character in continuing the sport, for her resolve, which has been incredible.  But she'll also face a great deal of hostility because of how little people know about the science and the process involved.

And she can control the flow of that information, including the public perception, by talking about it.  Again, cycling has set the precedent that cyclists sometimes disclose their blood data, and Semenya could do the same.  She'll never win everyone over, but I think many will accept what has happened as the best possible resolution, provided they know it.  As it stands now, few people will because they simply don't know.

On that note, it was very good to see the smiles and interaction with her fellow competitors after this race.  It's easy to be a good sport when you're winning, but even Savinova seemed more amiable than her previous comments might have suggested.  These are good signs, not proof, but hopefully a sign that among fellow athletes, things are returning to normal.

An insoluble problem?

Ultimately, Semenya's situation asks questions for which there may be no answer.  I compared it earlier to the Pistorius case, but in truth, it's even more complex, because a) there is less scientific evidence available to quantify the Semenya advantage than for Pistorius' advantage and b) there seems to have been some treatment to correct the possible advantage.  If that has happened, and the process has been followed, then what next?  Either it didn't work, or it should be accepted.  Key there is simply disclosing it, and if that were to happen, I'd encourage people to accept the treatment and the IAAF decision.   As it stands, we don't know, so how can anyone be asked be blindly accept it?

If there was no treatment, or if the treatment has not been monitored properly, well, that's a different situation, and goes all the way back to 2009 and the debates we had about eligibility at the time.  And so I'd also love for there to be some kind of disclosure so that people at least know that this has happened (if it has, of course).  And finally, I'd hope that Semenya opens up, maybe that someone saves her from her own management team, and maybe even uses this as an opportunity to inform and educate.  Full transparency, testosterone levels, the truth.


Thursday, September 01, 2011

IAAF World Champs: USA's hat-trick on a day of surprises

IAAF World Champs report Day 6:  The USA claim three on a day of surprises

Six finals, and four nations won medals today, as the USA delivered a hat-trick of titles in what was a day of mild (and big) surprises.

The USA's medals came in the form of Jesse Williams in the high jump (least surprising - he was the world leader after all), Lashinda Demus in the 400m hurdles (mildly surprising, though she was second in Berlin and is a class act, always competitive), and then Jennifer Barringer-Simpson, in the biggest surprise of all, in the women's 1500m in a very peculiar race.

Also claiming gold were Ezekiel Kemboi of Kenya (Steeplechase), Dai Greene of Great Britain (400m hurdles) and Olha Saladuha of Ukraine in the triple-jump.

A short summary of the track finals is below, along with YouTube clips of some, for those who missed them!

Kemboi explodes, celebrates and entertains for Kenya's fourth gold

Ezekiel Kemboi of Kenya defended his 3000m steeplechase world title with an incredible explosion of speed in the final 200m, opening up such a huge lead that he actually won the race in lane 7 by the end.  The sprint was on after a slow race, yet Kemboi got so far clear that he had time to celebrate pretty much from the final barrier, and drifted out into lane 7 doing so!  Brimin Kipruto got silver, holding off a fasting finishing Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad on the line.

This was always going to be a fascinating race.  Earlier in the year, France's Benabbad had delivered a huge warning to Kenya that their dominance in the Steeplechase would be challenged in a big way in Daegu, when he ran away from a strong field, including Kemboi, to win the Paris Diamond League event.  On that occasion, Benabbad ran 8:02, and won by five seconds from Kemboi, and it was a performance that gave the Daegu final an added dimension - not only would it see great competition, but it might bring out a great tactical battle.

Kenya, of course, had four athletes in the race, by virtue of the fact that Kemboi was defending champion.  The other was Brimin Kipruto, who had missed the world record by 1/100th of a second earlier this season, having been led by Paul Koech in a great Diamond League race in Monaco.  Koech had been left out of this race, and so it was expected to be a Kipruto-Kemboi battle against Benabbad.  And given Benabbad's great finish in that Paris race (he put five seconds on the field in the final lap), I fully expected Kenya to send one of their two "lesser" runners out and make this a super fast race, given that Kipruto and Kemboi had run 7:55 or faster earlier this year.

That didn't happen. Then again, Bennabad didn't seem to be quite as strong as he had been in Paris, because he ran the whole race about 5m off the Kenyans, never in among them, which was surprising.  The early pace was set by Ramolefi, but it was slow - 2:47 to the first kilometer.  That was followed by 2:46, by which time the east Africans (three Kenyans and two Ugandans) were in front, and Benabbad and Tahri, also of France, just behind.  Down the back-straight, it was Kemboi and Kipruto who went clear, and only a massive late charge by Bennabad got him bronze, and in truth, he nearly caught Kipruto from behind (when you watch the video below, look at how far behind Benabbad is coming into the final straight, and watch how close he comes to catching Kipruto - he makes up about 2 seconds in 80m!  That kind of speed was however "wasted", and Benabbad, in my opinion, ran a strange race to allow that gap to appear in the first place.  I was surprised that he wasn't more attentive throughout the race, given his Paris victory and his obvious speed)

But Kemboi was untouchable today.  He was beaten into second by Kipruto in that Monaco race, running 7:55.76, but this was a championship race, and he has been remarkable in medal races in the last eight years.  Here is the list of performances:  2nd in 2003 World Champs, 1st 2004 Olympics, 2nd 2005 World Champs, 1st 2006 Commonwealth Games, 2nd 2007 World Champs, 1st 2009 World Champs and 2nd 2010 Commonwealth Games.  The only blemish was a 7th in Beijing, but other than that, Kemboi has been a 'guaranteed' silver or gold!

The video below shows the final 500m and watch for the Kemboi kick as they clear the third-last barrier at the end of the back straight.  It's so good, as mentioned, that he had time to start celebrating after the final jump, 50m from the line.  He danced over the line, and continued to celebrate, stripping off the vest and dancing, perhaps the Kenyan equivalent of Usain Bolt's "chicken dance" from Beijing!  Kemboi is a great entertainer, the sport needs it.  In all, it was a magnificent performance - that final 200m was as impressive a sprint as anything I've seen.

In case you missed it, here is a clip (not English, but the quality is the best I could find on YouTube now).  It really is worth a watch.

Jennifer Barringer-Simpson wins the 1500m title

The biggest surprise came from Jenny Barringer Simpson, who won gold in the women's 1500m in what was a strange race for a number of reasons.  For one, none of the favourites came through.  A fall with 550m unfortunately took out one of those favourites, Morgan Uceny of the USA.  Even more strange was that the big favourite, Maryan Jamal of Bahrain, began drifting away from the front of the race as early as 450m to go, was completely out of contention with 250m to go, and trailed in last place, fully 17 seconds behind the winner.  And yes, she shut down once out of contention, but her "challenge" was notable because, well, it was completely non-existent in the final 300m (she was seemingly bumped with about 450m to go, and perhaps that affected her finish.  She certainly has developed a habit of producing massively inconsistent performances though)

The USA would have had high hopes for this race, but most of them were with Uceny, who had been winning Diamond League races this season.  Barringer-Simpson was, not to be unkind, "the other American", though her 1500m credentials are impressive, including a sub-4 PB back in 2009.  It's jsut that she hadn't really showed that kind of form this year.  And so when Uceny went down in a pretty spectacular tumble with 550m to go, it seemed that the USA's chances took a drastic turn for the worse.

Not according to Barringer-Simpson - she ran a perfect race, always in contention, avoiding the barging and congestion that comes with a slow pace.  She moved out into lane two with about 150m to run, and as the final straight unfolded, she was right there, with clear track in front of her, and she took advantage.  Hannah England was a strong (and delightedly surprised) second, and Natalia Rodriguez of Spain (another pre-race favourite) faded somewhat having led into the final straight to come third.

In the end, the pace was slow, which made it all the more peculiar.  The first lap was 68.78, followed by a 65.16, leading to the congestion that would ultimately end Uceny's challenge in the fall.  The pace was ramped up with 500m to go, when Rodriguez went to the front.  She led through the bell, and all the way to about 40m to go, when Barringer-Simpson swept by. 

The final 300m were covered in about 46s, which is fast, but not spectacular - final laps of under 60 seconds have been run before (sub 45s for final 300m), off more or less the same pace.  But in the end, it was a race of attrition, a wide open race to begin with, that opened up repeatedly during the final, and Barringer-Simpson was there, deservedly, to move through and claim gold.  The race is below if you missed it

Men's 400m hurdles - Dai Greene for Great Britain

Great Britain have had a good, though perhaps slightly disappointing World Champs until tonight.  They would have been very positive about their chances for gold with Jessica Ennis in the heptathlon and Mo Farah in the 10,000m, but ended up with silver instead.

Tonight would have rectified their predictions somewhat - first came Hannah England's silver in the 1500m (surely an unexpected medal), and then Dai Greene delivered by claiming the men's 400m hurdles gold with a storming final 80m.  It's perhaps not a huge surprise - Greene was always going to be in contention, and looked strong in the semi-finals, but he was not an overwhelming favourite.  He beat Javier Culson into silver, while LJ van Zyl of South Africa claimed bronze, holding off a fast finishing Felix Sanchez.  Bershawn Jackson and Angelo Taylor finished sixth and seventh, which is significant because it's the first World Championships since 2001 where a medal has not gone to the USA in the event.  Greene's medal also has historical significance - it's the first medal for GBR in the event since 1991!

The time was also relatively slow - 48.27s.  There was some wind, of course, but it's interesting to note that this was the slowest winning time in the 400m hurdles in the history of the World Championships, dating back to 1983.  The 400m hurdles has been this way all season, in fact - since LJ van Zyl's world leader back in April, very few sub-48s performances have been seen.  Like the women's 1500m, the 400m hurdles is wide open leading into London.

Women's 400m hurdles - Demus runs a perfect race

"Slow" is not a word you'd use to describe the women's 400m hurdles final.  In fact, it was the third fastest race in history, as Lashinda Demus of the USA picked up the gold with a brilliant 52.47 performance, holding off Melaine Walker, the Jamaican defending champion who started out in Lane 8 as a result of her relatively poor semi-final performance.

Walker had a great race, actually, running a season's best of 52.73s (anything sub-53s is rare - only 15 women in history have done it), but Demus was just better.  They raced into the final hurdle together, Demus slightly ahead, but Demus had the stride pattern perfect, hit the hurdle at speed, and extended the margin to win, improving on her silver from Berlin two years ago.  The race is below