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Sunday, July 29, 2012

London 2012: Day 1 thoughts

Day 1 thoughts: Phelps vs Lochte R1, cycling coverage and SA's first gold?

I wait three years and 50 weeks for these next two weeks - the Olympics are the highlight of the sporting calendar, and I can't think of a better platform to showcase not only the human spirit and the most talented athletes in the world, but also the science of performance.

I gave a presentation at the Sports Science Institute yesterday, which I'll put up soon (check in on Monday for installment #1), where I tried to describe how it's the margins between winning and losing, between gold and silver, between legends and other elites that is most fascinating to me.  The Olympic Games are the microscope that allows us to see those margins.  The "space between" is where I find fascination in sport (credit to Dave Matthews), and Olympic Games give plenty of opportunities to go there!

So for the next two weeks, join me for a look at the day's action, both in review and preview, as I look at some of the interesting aspects, scientific and management related, of London 2012.

The place to follow it is either on Twitter or on our Facebook page - that's where the regular updates and quick thoughts will go out.  When there's anything to say in a hurry, that's where it will be said, so if you haven't followed yet, jump over now for ongoing comment.

Then I'll do my best to get some quick thoughts on the site daily, when work allows!

Let's start that now, with three quick thoughts on Day 1:

1.  Phelps vs Lochte: The duel that nearly didn't happen, and then the duel that, well...didn't

The hype around day 1 was the anticipated battle between Phelps and Lochte in the 400m IM.  In the end, Lochte dominated and Phelps just didn't "arrive" that the biggest news was not the win for Lochte but the failure to medal for Phelps.

Phelps only qualified in 8th place for the final, a mere 0.07s away from missing it altogether.  Once there, he got lane 8, which meant the head-to-head was now more like two separate races, with Lochte racing out of Lane 3.

Phelps was never in it - his strongest leg, the butterfly, was the first sign that things were not right, as he ended it in third place, behind Lochte and early leader Chad le Clos of South Africa.  Phelps fell further and further back over the backstroke and breaststroke legs, and turning for the final 100m freestyle leg, found himself in fourth, out of the medals.

With 50m to go, he was 0.4s behind Japan's Hagino, but even here, a "normal" day would have seen Phelps at least claw his way back onto the podium, and possibly even into second (the gap to Perreira was 1.3s. By this stage, Lochte was way gone, fully four seconds ahead).  However, even that was not to be, and Phelps finished outside the medals in an Olympic Games for the first time since his debut as a 15-year old in Sydney.

Just an early observation on this performance:

Almost exactly a month ago, Lochte narrowly beat Phelps in the US Trials in Omaha.  Here are those performances:

Lochte 4:07.06 vs Phelps 4:07.89

In London today, Lochte swims 4:05.18, an improvement of 1.88s.  Phelps?  He does a 4:09.28, slower by 1.39s.  That's a 3.27s swing in a month.

Now, this may be an off day - it happens.  But that trend, where one is getting faster, the other slower, is the kind of thing that really worries a swimmer and a coach, because it may be a sign of something else.  We won't know whether that is the case or not until another event or two has been swum.  It will be interesting to see whether Phelps can bounce back and return to his US Trials form (which would indicate that the 400IM was just a horrible, once-off day to write-off), or whether this decline (about -0.6% which is big for this level of athlete) continues, suggesting something else is amiss.

Watch this space - events 2 to 6 will tell the story.

2.  Men's cycling road race

The men's cycling road race was won, surprisingly, by Alexander Vinokourov.  There is much to be said about it, but others will say it better than I can.  Truth be told, I didn't watch too much of it, though as you will know if you watched it, that probably wouldn't have helped anyway!  There was as much talk of the poor quality of the broadcast as there was of the actual result, which saw pre-race favourite Mark Cavendish's hopes of home-gold disappointingly disappear as Sky...I mean, Team GB...failed to close down a break and deliver their self-proclaimed unbeatable sprinter to the line.

The BBC even expressed their frustration at the TV coverage, even placing blame, because it turns out that the Olympic broadcast is outsourced to the Olympic Broadcasting Services, which was described by @inrng as "a cosy company with monopoly TV rights granted by IOC. Directors include ex-UCI boss Hein Verbruggen".

The problem today, apparently, was a technical one where the GPS data was not provided and so there were no time-gaps available for commentators or viewers to understand how the race was unfolding.  This is of course a significant part of following the race, and when a break is clear, and the favourite is in the main group chasing, the frustration was overwhelming at times.

I felt that the lack of information was one of many aspects that could be improved, including the commentary.  All round, the standard was not what a regular cycling watcher would have been accustomed to from events like the Tour de France (any ASO event, in fact).  And perhaps more unfortunately, it was certainly not good enough to turn a newcomer to the sport of cycling into a fan!  It was a race that had drama and intrigue, but it was missed entirely as a result of the lack of information.

Ultimately, while the broadcaster is responsible for the failure, accountability rests with numerous bodies, including the UCI.  The broadcast deals for these global sports events is always a nightmare of contracts and kickbacks and networks and relationships (having worked in sports sponsorship and media rights for a while, I know it's a minefield...), but the necessity of getting it right cannot be over-stated.  The opportunity to get the sport to a global audience on the Olympic platform is just too big to 'mess up' with poor coverage.

And so in an ideal world, what should happen is that the broadcaster, even if it is the "cosy" OBS, should be benchmarking coverage against the best standard in the world, the Tour de France.  If that means paying the relevant people to assist, then it must be done.  If that means that additional costs are incurred, then the UCI should be willing to contribute to offsetting them, because it's their "product" that is effectively on the shelf.  Ultimately, politics gets in the way, and the serious fan, as well as the casual observer, pay for it. 

Oh, and there was a bike race, won perhaps unpopularly by Vinokourov.  As I said, others have written the story, and so if you missed it, three pieces here:
My three final thoughts:
  1. If you are GB, you cannot expect rival teams to help and then criticize for not helping because a) you've claimed for weeks that you have an unbeatable sprinter.  Why would any other team help you deliver him to the line?  Besides, this is not even true - Eisel was riding as a GB member most of the day; and b) having dominated the Tour de France just a week ago (different name, same team - that was the whole idea behind Sky, right?), who wants to help you win another major title?
  2. Smaller teams and no race radio means less control, and that means more exciting racing.  It's a blue-print for GC Tours in future, perhaps?
  3. Vinokourov will be an unpopular champ because of his doping past, and his lack of repentance for it.  That's fair enough.  I'm all for second chances, but I like to see some admission, some acknowledgement and some action to show that you're not simply re-running the same script the second time around, and refusing to discuss the past with denials and stony silences.  Everyone deserves the benefit of some doubt, but it's a two-way street, this trust thing, and there's not much of it left for some athletes.  In any event, gold is awarded, race over.  Insert joke about waiting for doping control here...
3.  South Africa's first gold medal looms tomorrow

And finally, for local followers here in South Africa.  Cameron van der Burgh was always going to be South Africa's best chance of a medal, and it seems we may not need to wait too long to win it this time around.  It also seems like a very likely gold, thanks to a brilliant swim in the 100m breaststroke semi-final this evening.

The final is tomorrow, and van der Burgh goes into it as the Olympic record holder and the fastest qualifier by an enormous 0.61s.  The manner of his win suggests more to come, particularly if he improves the final 10m where he wasn't perfect.  So van der Burgh gets faster, and everyone else is looking for 0.7s or more just to get him off the top step of the podium.  Few things in sport are certain, but I suspect a medal for South Africa is one of them.  Whether it's gold or not, perhaps it's better to be a little circumspect, but the signs are there.  

I confess I actually picked him for silver - I thought Kitajima would be a little better, but that seems conservative now.  So maybe by this time tomorrow we'll be celebrating in SA (we take every one we can!)

Regardless, I'll be commenting.  As mentioned, I'll do my very best to get quick thoughts on the website, even if it's a short post two or three times a day.  But if I can't, I'll definitely be active on Twitter, so follow the discussion there if you feel the need!

Oh, and finally, I know there's a lot of discussion about the sensational swim of 16-year old Ye Shiwen who smashed the 400 IM world record tonight.  Some of it is, as expected, ominous as a result of the huge improvement in the last year - about 7 seconds.  I'll wait on the 200 IM and then comment further on that.  I know that Mark Foster was openly questioning her performance, and perhaps that's the first of the "smoke" that so often indicates fire.  Or maybe she's just a new sensation.  Time will tell, I hope. More to come, either way.

Enjoy Day 2!