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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

London 2012 Day 3 thoughts

London 2012 Day 3 thoughts

Three quick thoughts on the third day of action from London:

1.  More on Shiwen from a former coach: "brings back awful memories"

Yesterday I discussed the performance of Ye Shiwen, China's 400 IM gold medalist, in the context of her final freestyle leg being equal to that of Ryan Lochte when he won the men's event.  This issue was debated at length today, on radio and in media.  Then the Guardian came out with this piece, featuring detailed thoughts by John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association.

Among other things, Leonard says the following:
"The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, 'unbelievable', history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved. That last 100m was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers, for people who have been around a while. It was reminiscent of 400m individual medley by a young Irish woman in Atlanta."

The Irish woman he refers to is Michelle Smith, who surprised the world by winning the 400-IM in Atlanta before failing a dope test four years later.  The East Germans, well, they need no further explanation.

Leonard goes on to say:
"I have been around swimming for four-and-a-half decades now. If you have been around swimming you know when something has been done that just isn't right. I have heard commentators saying 'well she is 16, and at that age amazing things happen'. Well yes, but not that amazing. I am sorry."
"No coach that I spoke to yesterday could ever recall seeing anything remotely like that in a world level competition," Leonard continued. "Where someone could out-split one of the fastest male swimmers in the world, and beat the woman ahead of her by three-and-a-half body lengths. All those things, I think, legitimately call that swim into question."
"You can't turn around and call it racism to say the Chinese have a doping history," Leonard said. "That is just history. That's fact. Does that make us suspicious? Of course. You have to question any outrageous performance, and that is an outrageous performance, unprecedented in any way, shape or form in the history of our sport. It by itself, regardless of whether she was Chinese, Lithuanian, Kenyan, or anything else, is impossible. Sorry."
Those are fighting words.  In fact, given the climate of "political correctness" around the issue, I'm surprised that someone in a position of public authority would actually say them.  Not that I necessarily disagree, and as I tried to explain yesterday, asking the question is NOT the same as pronouncing someone guilty.

Regarding the Chinese, an interesting stat I saw today is that since 1990, China has produced 40 failed doping tests in swimming.  That is three times more than the next highest country.  The latest of those positives comes earlier this year, when a number of junior swimmers tested positive for EPO.  

And so history has given us reason to be skeptical.  It's just the way it is.  That, combined with her age, and combined with the rapid improvement from someone who was already at the world-class level (she was 200-IM world champion and fifth in the 400-IM when the seven second improvement occurred), gives pause for concern.  A big improvement for a 15-year old is not by itself a huge problem.  When that improvement moves a world-class swimmer to a level never seen before, then it's a little different.

And related to that, the same standard should apply to any young swimmer.  Tonight we saw a 15-year old huge outsider complete a remarkable series of races to win the 100m breast-stroke gold, when Ruta Meilutyte beat off Rebecca Soni.  I'd be asking the same question about her, though her story may be able to answer those questions, I'm not sure.

I think at this early stage, what can be said with certainty is that Shiwen's performances are "unusual".  That may go on to be seen as a synonym for 'exceptional' - I certainly hope it does.  However, history has taught us that in sport, this kind of unusual often means something else.  Speaking of Shiwen, she broke the Olympic record in the 200-IM last night, which is sure to provide more polarizing opinion.  

2.  The results from the pool haven't gone entirely to script

The results from the pool have been dramatic for reasons other than we might have expected.  First, the anticipated showdown between Lochte and Phelps in the 400IM didn't quite materialize, as Phelps had an off-night and finished fourth.  The race very nearly didn't even happen, with Phelps only just squeaking into the final to begin with.

Then on Sunday, the Australian 4 x 100m freestyle relay team failed to live up to their favourite tag in the relay final, finishing outside the medals in fourth, and swimming only 0.66s faster in the final than they did in the heat (with a supposedly stronger squad for the final).  That squad included James Magnussen, who came to London the favourite for the individual race, but found himself beaten on Leg 1 by Nathan Adrian in a relatively slow time of 48.03s.  How he responds in the 100m free later in the week will be intriguing, but the form of Yannick Agnel (46.74s split with a 'flying start') would have everyone worried.

Then Lochte, admittedly in a weaker event for him, lost a 0.55s lead to the fast-finishing Agnel to give the USA a silver in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay.  France claimed their first gold in the event.  Lochte's London continued with a fourth-place in the 200m freestyle tonight, again losing out to Agnel, with Sun and Park dead-heating for silver.

And then there is Phelps, who was always going to attract the attention in the pool.  His campaign began with the 400IM 'aberration'.  He bounced back with the second fastest leg in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay, and then looked solid, if not spectacular in the heats and semi-final of the 200m butterfly.  He swims that final tomorrow evening, entering the final with the fourth fastest time.  He controlled his semi, so perhaps is still the favourite, but the doubt remains, as it will until he wins a race with an exclamation mark.

There are others who have been "upstaged" - Soni was a red-hot favourite, but was beaten by 15-year old Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte in the 100m breaststroke.  Emily Seebohm broke the Olympic 100m backstroke record in the heat (58.23s), then went slower in the semi-final (58.39s) and then even slower in the final (58.68s), to finish with silver, when the time from her heat would have won the gold.  She was beaten by an amazing double-act from Missy Franklin, who swam the 200m freestyle, jumped straight into the diving pool to swim a few laps, and was back in the 100m backstroke final almost immediately to win gold. So that's a billing that lived up to the hype.

So an interesting swimming meet, showing that past performance is no predictor of future performance, even over the space of one day.  The media often coronate Olympic champions in the pool based on the results of the US and Australian swimming trials.  So far, 2012 has shown that the pool is a little more globalized than we tend to think!

3. Paula Radcliffe withdraws from the marathon

The other big news, the impact of which will only really be felt in a few days' time is the withdrawal of Paula Radcliffe from the marathon.  Radcliffe's Olympic marathon story is a long and painful one.  Two failed attempts in Athens and Beijing had led to the home performance, but as the months have gone by, it has been clear that Radcliffe just could not put together a consistent series of performances.  Whether it was illness or injury

Radcliffe's decision, which she announces in this statement, must have been an agonizing one to make. Having been burned by two Olympic Games, the second one by injury, she would have been mindful of history, and one can hardly blame her.  Especially because NOT finishing her home marathon would bring the British press and public down on her.  Judging from the post-Athens reaction, that's a cruel experience that most would wish to avoid.  She may yet have a Games in her, but one feels that this may be the end for the world's fastest female marathoner.

Her statement here is well worth a read.

And a final thought for SA readers - tonight sees our next medal chance in Chad le Clos in the 200m butterfly.  He qualified in second for the final, beaten only by Matsuda.  You have to think that Matsuda can go even faster, and then Phelps, who qualified in fourth, must be the favourite.  Which means that unless le Clos can find another big improvement, he's in strong contention for bronze, at least.  That will be hotly contested, with four men within half a second of one another.  Le Clos broke the Africa record to get lane 5 for the final, and so he is on the right trajectory.  It should be a fascinating race.

For the global audience, it's the race that really should see Michael Phelps tie Larissa Latynina for the all-time Olympic medal record of 18, and he may become the first man to win the same event at three consecutive Games.

Recap later (or tomorrow, depending on Olympic fatigue!)


Monday, July 30, 2012

Science of London 2012: Part 1 - clothing tech

The Science of the Olympic Games, Part 1: The technology effect

Last week Friday, at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, I gave a public presentation to welcome in the start of London 2012.  The presentation covered four topics - technology, doping in sport, Oscar Pistorius' advantage and South Africa's chances of 12 medals, in the context of Olympic economics.

The talk was aimed at the general public, to give them some insight into the 'hidden side' of the Games, and the scientific stories they'd be seeing and perhaps hearing about over the next two weeks.

Over the next few days, I'll share segments of that presentation with you.  Of course, without narration, it may lack the context to be fully understandable, but it is mostly (I hope), self-explanatory.

The first segment is on technology.  Beijing produced a clearance sale on swimming world records thanks to Speedo's LZR swimsuit, and introduced to us the concept of "technological doping".

So far, London has been interesting in this regard, because records are falling, but at nothing like the rate we saw in 2008.  So far, with eight events completed, we've seen three world and six Olympic records.  Compare this to Beijing, where 32 events produced 66 Olympic and 25 World Records.

One interesting observation you might want to make from home as you watch the swimming, is to note how often a swimmer is AHEAD of world record splits at the first turn (50m), and how rarely they stay ahead.  One possible interpretation is that the first 50m has improved disproportionately, and that seems, at least to my eye, to be partly due to modified and improved starting blocks.  The addition of the second block at the back, to allow a forceful horizontal push from the back leg, seems to have made the starts faster.  The result is that many are going out faster, not because of a faster swim, but a faster start.  They are then slowing in the second half.  Or maybe it's just an interesting observation that says more about pacing than equipment, who knows?  Time will tell!

But for now, this is a look back to a section of a talk given on Friday, dealing with technology, before the swimming events began.  Later this week I'll post the section of the talk looking at the war on doping.

Oh, and the Day 3 recap of London is yet to come.  Later tonight, after the swimming finals!


Sunday, July 29, 2012

London Day 2 Quick thoughts

London day 2: Women faster than men in the pool, and SA's first medal is gold
Day 2 in London produced some great racing, including the much anticipated men's 4 x 100m freestyle relay, which always seems to produce one of the races of the Games.

2012 was no different, and it was France who exacted revenge for the drama of Beijing, where Jason Lezak came from behind in the dying meters to hold off the French challenge to keep Phelps' dream of eight alive.

This time, the situation was reversed, and it was France who hit the water behind the USA for the final leg.  Lochte for the USA led Agnel of France by 0.55s at 300m, but Agnel's brilliant swim (a 46.74s performance, the fastest of the race by a considerable margin), first reeled the American in and then passed him for the win.  Lochte, for his part, closed in 47.74, exactly one second slower, and the USA took silver.

Speaking of times, Phelps actually produced the second fastest split of the race, a 47.15s.  Notwithstanding the fact that the lead-off swimmers don't get the benefit of a flying start, Phelps will be greatly encouraged by that performance after his poor showing last night.  It suggests that Day 1 was simply an aberration, and that he'll be back for more medals in events three to six.

It's the upside of a silver medal that might have been gold, were it not for a brilliant last leg by Agnel, who gave the USA a taste of the feeling they had in Beijing four years ago.

Some other quick thoughts from around the Games, beginning in the pool

Ye Shiwen's final 100m freestyle leg - a talking point

One of the big talking points in the media and over on Twitter was the observation that Ye Shiwen, China's 16-year 400 Individual Medley champion, swam the final 100m freestyle leg of her world record (4:28.43) in 58.68s, compared to the 58.65s by Ryan Lochte when he won the same event last night (time of 4:05.18)

The doping accusation

Much can (and has) been made of this, and for many different reasons.  The first, and the one that I will deal with right upfront, is what it implies about doping.  It should come as no surprise that people will be suspicious.  It's not just the fact that a world record was broken that arouses suspicion.  It is that the record breaker is only 16 years old, and has improved her time in the event by 7 seconds since last year's World Championships where she finished fifth in 4:35.

Also, and this has to be said, we regard swimmers from China with more suspicion.  There are a few reasons for this and some of them, I do not condone.  However, I do appreciate the suspicion - remember, this is the nation that produced a host of world-class runners almost overnight in the early 1990s.  They came, they saw, the smashed world records that are yet to be challenged, let alone broken, in the women's 1500m, 3000m and 10,000m.  Then they vanished almost as quickly.

In the pool, history teaches us to be equally skeptical.  Just this year, a 16-year old Chinese swimmer tested positive for EPO.  In the 1990s, the same thing happened for swimming as happened for running - came, saw, conquered.  But in that case, they got caught and then disappeared.

The doping allegations of the 1990s were largely confirmed by officials and sources who reported that doping within Chinese swimming programmes were widespread and institutionalized.  That, in turn, would come as no surprise to students of the sport and doping.  The practice of institutionalized doping began east of the Berlin Wall in the 1960s, and when the Wall fell, it just went further east. 

The result is that Chinese performances will always be viewed with suspicion.  In exactly the same way that a Tour de France leader is suspicious because of the history of that jersey, a Chinese world-beating athlete is going to face questions and suspicion. 

So I will be upfront here - when I see such remarkable a) performances; b) improvements in a short time and; c) pacing strategies in a 16-year old, I too am skeptical.  It's human nature, conditioned by human behavior in sport, and I think anyone who follows the sport understands the thinking process here.

However, that is NOT the same thing as condemning someone as a doper, and I would not do that based solely on performance.  I would, however, be asking the same question I think many are, and I think this is only right.  We should be suspicious, because history has shown us up more than once before.  And the thing about generalizations (they're Chinese, they must be doping, for example) is that sometimes, they become generalizations because there is an element of truth in them!  Does anyone who knows China's ethos and attitude towards Olympic sport actually believe that they would NOT deliberately dope their young athletes to win medals?  If your answer is no, then I'm afraid you're naive, just as we'd be naive to believe that any athlete, regardless of nationality, faces huge temptation to dope.

That doesn't mean they do it though, just that they might, and so what we need to avoid is to paint everyone with the same brush, and so let's ask, without reaching a verdict.  Just yet.

But let's just talk about the pacing, and the fact that this young Chinese swimmer can finish a medley as fast as Lochte did.  It has some really interesting implications, and I'm going to talk about those instead of doping for now.

Shiwen's race "structure" - why a fast finish implies a huge "reserve" capacity

I'm a "student" of pacing strategies - they were a significant part of my PhD, and so I read a great deal into the physiology and implications of how athlete's pace themselves.

So truth number 1 - our ability to finish fast is a function of how much "reserve" capacity we maintain during the race.  If we are racing maximally, at world record pace, for example, then we do not produce super-fast sprint finishes.  Think of a 5,000m runner at world record pace with one lap to go.  He is not going to blast a 52 second final lap.

Now consider the same runner, same distance, but running 30 seconds slower in a tactical Olympic final.  They can run 52 seconds for the final lap, because they have a physiological reserve.  The point is, our finishing speed is a function of the difference between our best performance potential and what we are actually doing - the closer we get to our best, the slower we finish.

Overall, the best performance comes from making sure that reserve is as low as possible.  That is, you will perform your best when you have the least reserve at the finish.  Put differently, if you have a big reserve at the finish, your overall performance is NOT as good as it might have been.

So, that's a long-winded explanation, let's look at what it means for Shiwen.

First point, we're talking about a medley here - 100m each of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle.  Because there are different strokes, any comparison we make between Shiwen and Lochte may be affected by the relative strengths of the two for the freestyle stroke.  You might be comparing an exceptional freestyle female swimmer in Shiwen to a fairly mediocre male freestyle swimmer in Lochte.  If that were true, then similar times at the end would be no big deal.

But that's NOT the case here - Lochte is a good freestyle swimmer.  An hour ago, he did a 47.74s 100m relay leg.  It didn't win gold, but it's right up there, at most only a second off the very best on the day.  Shiwen, on the other hand, is clearly an exceptional freestyle swimmer, but is not in their relay teams, and nor does she do any individual freestyle events, so she's not at the kind of level that would destroy world records (which is what it would need to be to make the comparison invalid).  I'd argue that they're probably very similar, relative to their peers, at that stroke.

So I think it is safe to say that at best, Shiwen may edge Lochte for relative strength in the event, but not by much, and so she is comparable to Lochte for the specific stroke. Therefore, a direct comparison between Lochte and Shiwen for the freestyle leg is not invalid - it can be made without the confounder of relative freestyle strength.

Next, you look at what it "typical" in the 400IM race.  For men, the best swimmers typically close in 57 to 59 seconds (check splits from London). This is about 19 to 23% SLOWER than the best men finish in an isolated 100m freestyle.

For women, the TYPICAL (excluding Shiwen) final 100m freestyle takes 61 to 64 seconds. This is 18 to 22% slower than the best females swim 100m freestyle.

So the sport shows that you have a normal pattern, a typical ratio of medley freestyle to best freestyle - they SHOULD BE between 18 and 23% slower at the end of a 400m IM than in a 100m freestyle by itself.

Yet Shiwen is not. She does a 58.68 s final leg, which is only about 10% off the best 100m freestyle swimmers.  The conclusion that I would draw from this is that her 100m freestyle leg is disproportionately fast not only by comparison to Lochte, but also to her peers, and to the best 100m freestyle swimmers.

The only way to interpret that is to recognize that the physiology of a fast finish tells us that she must have a significant reserve for that final leg.  It says that her first 300m was an extremely conservative effort. The simple question is "Under what circumstances does a female have the capacity to finish a race as fast as a male?"

To answer this, think back to the key concept - finishing ability is a function of how close we are to our potential.  To finish as fast as Shiwen does, relative to an unfatigued, isolated 100m freestyle, implies that she has a lot more potential in the event than was realized with her world record.  The fact that Shiwen could close as fast as Lochte suggests to me that her efforts over the first 300m of that final took very little out of her.

If that is true, then her overall performance is a significant underperformance.  The allocation of energy over the course of the race might be debated, but what physiology suggests is that it should probably be more even for Shiwen, and it would allow her to swim quite a lot faster than the 4:28 that she did.

Now, at this point, many will say "maybe it's just her way to finish fast", and that may be true.  You'll find examples of athletes who just had more at the end, and of course you get ranges.  But the range is 18-23% off the isolated performance, not 10%.  That's too big, and it's not the optimal way, based on everything we know about performance and pacing.  I suspect that Shiwen would probably be 2 or more seconds faster if she went out harder and pushed to the point of fatigue.  It would force her final leg to be slower, maybe 62 instead of 58.6 seconds, but the gaps would have been created early.

Scary thought then that there is a "reserve" there that would see her get even better.  It would only cause more questioning though - imagine a strong world record of 4:30 lowered by 5 or 6 seconds by a 16-year old?

Interesting times.  Again, to stress the earlier point, this is an interesting discussion.  And the doping aspect is important (don't shy away from the question just because it's politically incorrect - look where that got sport before), but this doesn't prove anything.  So let's wait and see.

South Africa's gold - van der Burgh delivers

In other news, on the local front, South Africa has its first medal, and as expected, it is gold.  Cameron van der Burgh hinted at the possibility in the semi-final last night, and did the job tonight in spectacular fashion, winning the 100m breaststroke in dominant fashion.

A world record of 58.48s was the bonus for van der Burgh, who showed class and poise before and after the race.  A genuinely deserving champion, he was as emotional as anyone about the death of perhaps his greatest rival for the gold, Norway's Alexander Dale Oen, earlier this year and will dedicate this medal in part to his memory.

van der Burgh was always going to be SA's best medal chance.  I actually picked him to win silver, mostly because in the past, he has always been so much stronger in the shorter, more explosive 50m event, and the short-course races.  His 100m history is good, make no mistake, but it's not the dominant one he has in the shorter distance.  

The question then, was always going to be whether he could translate his power and speed into a longer event, and produce 100m of racing.  He did exactly that - perhaps the fact that the 50m event is not on the Olympic programme meant his training focus changed enough to allow him to work on the second half, unencumbered by the need for speed, made the difference.

But he swam the perfect race for a man with the best 50m credentials.  He got the fastest start, building a lead and putting himself 0.60 seconds under world record pace at the halfway mark.  Then he worked brilliantly off the wall, opened that lead even more, and the race was won at 75m.  He lost some of his advantage over the final 25m, as the more endurance-based swimmers began to come back, but the work had been done and his margin in the end was impressive.  The script could not have been implemented more perfectly, and he took the necessary step to move his 100m history from silver and bronze to a dominant, and well deserved gold.

More to come tomorrow, of course.  Join me then!


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!


Monday, July 09, 2012

The Tour in the mountains: Analysis & discussion

The Tour hits the mountains: Power output thoughts

The 2012 Tour de France has reached its first rest day, and with it a chance to catch our breath after a frantic few days that have taken the peloton into the mountains, then to a time-trial, via a press conference which generated just as much interest as either of the Tour's first "shake-up" stages.  If it's the mountains, then it must mean power output analysis, and so below, I look at some of the limited data from Saturday's mountain finish, and ask whether it flags anything "suspicious"?

First, the press conference.  In case you missed it, it featured Bradley Wiggins, leader of the Tour de France, fielding a question about doping accusations from skeptics on social media with the following answer:
“I say they’re just fucking wankers,” Wiggins said. “I cannot be doing with people like that. It justifies their own bone idleness because they can’t imagine applying themselves to do anything in their lives.
“It’s easy for them to sit under a pseudonym on Twitter and write that sort of shit,” Wiggins added, “rather than get off their own arses in their own lives and apply themselves and work hard at something and achieve something. And that’s ultimately what counts. C**ts.”  (Did I mention that this post is rated R for profanity?)
Many have commented on this already, and far more eloquently than I can.  The best of those, and well worth the 5 minutes it will take to read, is this by Joe Lindsey, who addresses all the key points.  The bottom line is that cycling's history puts its current champions squarely into the doping spotlight, and so this is a question that owes its origins to fifty years of deception.  Given this, a more nuanced response would be welcome, and a stronger anti-doping stance celebrated by those who share Wiggins' apparent frustration with doping (and here I exclude the snipers who will never be satisfied, but they're really not worth spending energy on)

To understand the perception of cycling from its fans, there is no better expression than this, written on a forum by a fan, and it says what I think many who follow the sport closely are feeling.

Some thoughts before getting onto power outputs.  First, I would start by highlighting that I would like to believe everyone wants the same thing - a drug-free sport.  I think Wiggins (based on his and Sky's history), those asking the question and those who are now a little concerned and perplexed by his answer share a common desire.  And given that desire, they come to the debate WANTING to believe.  The fans who matter (again, I exclude the outright snipers who just want to tear things down) want desperately to believe that after years of false flats, we've finally reached the end of the hard slog uphill and can enjoy a free ride into a doping-free sport.

Let's face it,  for at least 15 to 20 years, cycling has made fools of its fans.  Just go back and look at the top 5 of the last 15 Tours de France and allow yourself to reminiscence about the excitement you felt watching the race, discovering a new star, cheering your rider to victory, only to later discover the deceit.  I know I have.

Therefore, it is not unreasonable for people to be skeptical, particularly when every one of those champions has vehemently protested their innocence before their fall.  So when the latest champion (and a man who after today's TT looks more likely than ever to be a huge champion) doesn't give the response they crave, a negative reaction is expected, however unfair it may be for us to want a specific anti-doping response (another debate).

Having said that, I can also appreciate that to a rider who has reached the summit of the sport without doping (let's assume this to be true here), and who has invested so much time and effort into that dream, the nagging questions will be frustrating, even angering.  So in the midst of "battle", perhaps one should make allowances for emotional responses.

Here's the thing though - that anger and emotion should surely be channeled and directed towards the people responsible for the question in the first place - the dopers.  The "irksome, annoying question" that triggered Wiggins wrath surely owes its origin to the actions and deceit of previous generations.  Someone asks it in 2012, sure, but the question is planted in the 90s and 2000s by the generations of Mr 60%, Pantani, Ullrich, Armstrong, Landis.  Wiggins has famously shown his contempt for dopers before, including once calling Christophe Moreni  an "idiot" for the doping offense that saw Wiggins' Cofidis team withdraw from the Tour in 2007.

That is the type of response fans applaud - they want their riders to share their anger, to condemn cheating.  They cannot understand why a clean rider, who loses out to dopers, would not join them in the fight AGAINST doping, rather than becoming a passive observer (and 'victim') of a dishonest culture (as an aside, the psychology of silence among clean riders in the peloton would make a fascinating thesis).  Can you blame them?

But for too long, cycling's champions have been perceived to be leaning more towards sympathy to dopers than condemnation.  Wiggins' response is viewed by those people as being yet another example of this.  Further, Sky have crafted themselves as a team that prides itself on its anti-doping stance, and their vocal attitude against doping has rightly been hailed as leading the way into a new era for the sport.

So when their star rider, the man who is identified as a custodian of the sport by virtue of the yellow jersey he wears, suddenly turns that anger and wrath against the fans, I can appreciate the disappointment.  This is the greatest opportunity for clean riders to show the world that the sport has moved on, and swinging in the opposite direction, against the detractors, only fuels their skepticism and ultimately, invites more of the same doubt.

It doesn't help that Sky hasn't entirely broken ties with all doping baggage, as they still have ties to doctors known to have worked in teams with doping tolerance.  This doesn't mean they are doping, and even the doctors can change, but perception is reality, and people who view the sport from outside, who dream of a dope-free Tour, need a stronger reassurance than this.

In any event, more time may be required, and hopefully, anti-doping stance will not be discoloured by a yellow jersey.

Now, onto the power outputs.

6.2 W/kg for a top 10, 6.5 W/kg for the lead group

So, unfortunately, we have a scarcity of top rider data, as is often the case, but we do have Jani Brajkovic's SRM file to play with.  I've taken it from the TrainingPeaks Tour analysis site, and zoomed in on the relevant section, the Les Planche des Belles Filles.

The climb took Brajkovic 17 minutes to complete, and he lost 46 seconds on the stage winners (16:15 for the fastest time of the day).  His power output was reported as 351W, which gives him 5.8 W/kg (remember that relative power, expressed to body weight, is crucial for climbing, and it also allows comparison to other riders).

Note that there is about a minute's worth of missing data in the file, in the first quarter.  Jani actually tweeted me himself to point this out, and obviously some technical gremlins affected the SRM.  If one attempts to "normalize" these sections, and push them up towards the range of 400W that the power was at the time, then the average power output jumps from 351W to about 375W, and the relative power output is around 6.2 W/kg.

So, in terms of what that means for Wiggins and co at the front of the stage, it predicts about 6.4 to 6.5 W/kg.  Over 16 minutes, that's not at all unreasonable.  To give you some context, calculations of climbing power output in the Tour de France in the 1990s and 2000s often estimated that top riders maintained power outputs of 6.4 to 6.5W/kg on the Tour's HC climbs, most of which take over 40 minutes to climb.  So in other words, there was an era where the best riders were maintaining similar power outputs to what we saw on Saturday, for three times the duration.  Put differently, all those riders would probably have been a minute clear of this current generation on this climb...

Another point is the physiological implications of this performance.  I try to explain this every year, but every year it seems to invite the (obvious) criticism, of which I'm well aware, that assumptions have to be made.  Every year, I try to explain that if you control the assumptions, and make sure you always take "best case scenarios", you get a very clear and accurate picture of the physiological requirements behind a performance.  So we'll try this again...

I've written before that I believe a sustained power output of above about 6.1 W/kg on the longer (40 min or more) climbs is not physiologically 'plausible'.  I know that this is a view that Aldo Sassi shared (independently, I might add), and the reason for it is that to produce that kind of work, there are physiological requirements.  Think of them as specifications in a car, and unless you have a certain engine, you can't achieve certain speeds.  In cycling terms, the performances of 6.2 W/kg and higher simply cannot be met by any plausible combination of VO2max, cycling efficiency and thresholds.  I describe this theory and the assumptions in this post from back in 2010.

Back to the 2012 race, the assumptions one might make for a 17 min climb are that a rider with efficiency 23% (high case assumption) can sustain 90% - 95% of maximal intensity for this short duration. Then, you can estimate that riding at 6.2W/kg (again, this is Brajkovic), the VO2 on the climb will be 77 ml/kg/min.  Given the 90-95% of max estimate, this rider has a predicted VO2max between 81 ml/kg/min and 85 ml/kg/min  (I realise there are 'errors' in the assumption, but I compare across generations to illustrate a point)

If you take lower case assumptions (efficiency of 24%, which I think is probably a more reasonable assumption), then the estimated VO2max falls to between 77 and 81 ml/kg/min.

Obviously, you can infer from these numbers what the implications are for the top 5 on the day, and you'll see that they're not too different.  You're predicting physiology that says that the world's best cyclists have a VO2max of 85 to 87 ml/kg/min, that they're 23% efficient, and riding at 90% of maximum.  Or, they could be 24% efficient with a VO2max of 81 ml/kg/min.  That is, on paper, normal physiology for the best cyclists in the world in peak condition.

The "abnormal" physiology of years gone by came from guys who were sustaining 6.4W/kg for 45 minutes.  That points to a human that has a VO2max of 97 ml/kg/min on the bike, or an efficiency of  28%, or can sustain 95% of max for 45 min at the end of five hours of racing.  That just doesn't happen.

There's a risk of running away with physiological implications here.  Let's simplify it into the obvious metrics - power and time.  The difference between the current era and previous eras is startling.  In the last four years, none of the Tour's decisive HC climbs have been done at greater than 6 W/kg.  Even the Contador-Schleck showdown on the Tormalet, with the Tour title at stake, was ridden at 5.9 W/kg.  

The graph below was put together by Alex Simmons, and it shows the time on the famous Alp d'Huez climb as a function of power output.  There's a lot of data there but slide your finger across from a time of 38:30.  That's the kind of performance (or faster) we saw in the previous generation.  Then consider the more recent times - Frank Schleck did 40:46 in 2006, the first time in 12 years they didn't break 40.  The best performances in the last 3 years are all slower than 41 minutes.  That fits well with what I've added to the graph in blue and yellow - those are the equivalent performances to two climbs in the 2010 Tour, where riders simply don't get above 6W/kg anymore.  Not even once, let alone repeatedly during the race, as they once did.

Chris Froome, when coming second in the 2011 Vuelta TT (47km) rode at 5.8 W/kg for 55 minutes.  That's likely to be close to what he and Wiggins produced in the Tour today, and is yet another indication of where the "ceiling" for that duration of effort lies.

So that's what we're all getting at when we say the Tour is getting slower.  It is, and it's a good sign, because it brings everything back into the realm of expected physiology.

Now, an important disclaimer.  None of this disproves doping, and none of this proves doping either.  When a rider produces performances that have "alien" physiology implications, it's a strong flag for doping (I'm gratified to read that cycling's governing bodies are actually looking at this approach now). But when the physiology is "normal" or at least, not suspicious, then it doesn't necessarily vindicate the rider.  Why?  Because doping helps with far more than on-the-day performances - it also aids recovery and thus enables consistency. 

So we can't rule anything out this way.  All I will say, and I'm very confident in saying this, is that what we saw on the slopes of Les Planche des Belles Filles did not have me thinking "That's just not right, there's something not adding up".  It adds up.  It's exactly what you'd expect, just as I expect that when we do hit the longer HC climbs later this week, we'll see the top men ride at 5.9 to 6 W/kg, just as they have done for the last three years.

It will be fascinating to see what develops in the high Alps and Pyrenees over the next two weeks.  Hopefully, we'll have some data to chat about.  And a press conference or two!


Saturday, July 07, 2012

Olympic buzz: The Tour, Bolt vs Blake and other Olympic musings

The Olympic Buzz: The Tour, Bolt vs Blake, and more Olympic thoughts

July is traditionally our bumper period here on the Science of Sport, with the Tour and the peak of the athletics season, but unfortunately so far it's been a bumper period for "real work" too, hence the infrequent posting.  Between students, writing and recent work for the South African Olympic broadcaster Supersport, I've barely kept pace with all the developments in the lead-up to the Games and the Tour de France, let alone added any insight of my own!  As a result, much of the "energy" of the website has been funneled to our Twitter feed and Facebook page, where I have been posting thoughts and links to keep you abreast of the stories, so if you're not following there, now's the time.

But here are three thoughts, dealing with Bolt and Blake, the Tour de France, and other Olympic musings.

Le Tour - attrition, predictability and doping clouds

The race

As I write this, the Tour is heading upwards and into the mountains for the first real shake-up of the overall classification.  Since the prologue, where Cancellara re-affirmed himself as cycling's best short TT man, little (read: nothing) has changed in the way of jersey wearers.

There's been drama, most of it in the form of crashes and events off the bike, but all the major yellow jersey contenders have bided their time, waiting for today's finish and the mountains and long time-trials that lie ahead.  Some have been unsuccessful at avoiding the carnage and race-damage caused by accidents, and yesterday's stage into Metz saw a number of names lose considerable time, and remind us that while it takes almost 90 hours of racing to win the Tour, you can lose it in a second.  You can catch up on who has lost what in this article, but Schleck, Hesjedal (who has since abaondoned the race) Gesink, Valverde and Brajkovic were among those affected.  By today's 7th stage, 17 riders had abandoned, which is the highest since 1998, and that was only because an entire team (Festina) was kicked off for doping.  So it has certainly been attritional, and not for the ideal reasons!

What the crash does is remove many men from overall contention, but shifts their focus to stage wins, which may mean more aggression at least in terms of break-aways.  On the other hand, the format of the race, with the two long time-trials, means that attacking in the mountains was always going to be the only play for many climbing specialists anyway, and Wiggins and Evans, who will look at the time-trials as their battle-ground to gain time, can assess and respond to those breakaways a little differently now.

Lionel Birnie wrote an interesting piece on the predictability of the Tour, suggesting that the race was in danger of stagnating and the its organizers needed to take action to prevent this.  A few people responded to a tweet about this saying that if you find it boring, it's because you don't understand the sport, which is a) foolish to say given Birnie's history in the sport, and b) missing the point.  Birnie makes the distinction between the quality of the race and it's lack of 'change', for want of a better word. And I agree.

The point is that when sport becomes predictable, it loses value.  Its biggest asset is the uncertainty, and the likelihood that anything can happen.  The first week of the Tour has brought drama and crashes, it has brought great sprints and revealed new superstars (Sagan).  It has brought some debate (Sagan's tactical duel with Cancellara for example), and it has brought the team tactics and speculation over who has what form?  But it has also brought pretty much exactly what most people expected it to bring - jersey wearers on Saturday who will retain their jerseys throughout the first week, the usual hopeful breakaway that is reeled in within reach of the finish, and impressive sprints to the grab stage wins, without shaking up the overall race.

And yes, the overall race unfolds over three weeks, and with the start of the mountains and Monday's time-trial looming, the focus now shifts to the GC, but like Birnie, I feel there's something missing in week 1, and that 'something' is the uncertainty that sport needs.

The doping shadow

Outside the race, of course, there is plenty of uncertainty, and it revolves around the shadow of doping that continues to hover over the sport of cycling.  When USADA announced their investigation into the doping conspiracy by Armstrong and five others only weeks before the Tour, it was inevitable that the story would permeate throughout the race around France.

And when a leaked story emerged on Thursday, alleging that four current Tour riders and Jonathan Vaughters had testified and were given suspended six-month bans, the reaction was swift.  At first, USADA took a beating - how could the anti-doping body negotiate reduced sentences for dopers?  How dare they suspend the sentences for some people, and offer some form of leniency in return for testimony?  Of course, doing this is morally acceptable, and it happens all the time, not only in sport, but in criminal investigations too.  It's as it should be - if you don't incentivize the truth, nobody would ever tell it, especially when they are already in the belly of the beast, as it were.  If cycling is to clean up its act, it requires that its riders, who are almost always part of the complex and intricate doping web (because honestly, who else can reveal how cheating happens if not a cheat?), come forward, and short of incentivizing this, it'll never happen.

But then the story was flatly denied, and the plot thickened.  Much has been written about it since, but this is one of the best commentaries on the leak, what it means, and how one might react to it.  It makes this observation:
"Regardless of where the leak fits into any broader legal or public relations strategy on the part of its U.S.-based source, it seems clear by its timing and its scope — not a full list of witnesses, only Tour de France participants — that it is intended to inflict maximum damage to the public image of the named parties.
As one of cycling’s few crossover successes, the Tour and its news reach the general public and the casual fan, and by timing the leak for the Tour’s first week, the source ensured that the names traveled beyond mere cycling circles, and that they would be perceived by the average news consumer as getting away with something by admitting doping and riding the Tour at the same time. By political standards, it was a shrewd move."
Those within cycling saw this news report, naming Hincapie, Leipheimer, Vande velde, Vaughters and Zabriskie as witnesses, and reacted with little more than cursory acknowledgement.  It's barely news, because the history of the case provides the context to know that they are likely to have spoken out.  That was only fueled when the four riders withdrew from USA Olympic team selection, so most who follow cycling barely registered the names.  To those outside, of course, it's different.

The problem, I guess, for Armstrong and his mighty PR machine, is that these men are more difficult to discredit than the previous witnesses, Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. Both of them are known dopers, and they (gasp!) lied about doping after the fact.  Eventually, they came clean, and when they named Armstrong, they could be attacked for being greedy, dishonest, ambitious, conniving etc.

The same is not true of "The Five".  So what better strategy than to portray them as a) dopers, b) manipulative cheats who will tell USADA what they want to hear to save themselves, and c) getting away with it?  It's the defense strategy in a crystal ball.

There was some confusion, however, because having initially positioned the PR message as one of "look at how USADA are victimizing me" and "don't believe them, they're cheats", Armstrong later tried to portray the five as victims too.  He also worked himself into the awkward position of basically pointing out that everyone in his own team doped, before trying to argue that he, as the leader and most successful rider, didn't!  So not only did all his major challengers dope, so did his domestiques, his helpers, but he did it clean.  But that again is clear only to those who follow cycling outside of the Tour.  The overall thrust of the leak and reaction was one of strategically placed "explosives" to undermine the case, and one can see now why USADA has tried to keep the names of all its witnesses confidential.  It's a mighty force to come up against.

As for the final question asked by this article, what do we make of the riders who testify, even when they implicate themselves as dopers in the past?  Or are they the whistle-blowers whose testimony may help rid cycling, once and for all, of its affliction (I nearly said "cancer" there, then remembered Paul Kimmage...he is one of the real whistle-blowers, by the way, along with David Walsh, Simeone, Bassons, Betsey Andreu, Emma o'Reilly etc).  The cynic in me says that much of this "truth" has emerged only because these men may have been faced with Federal investigators and the threat of perjury charges (you want an incentive to talk?  That's a good one).  

But I also think that they should be commended, because the bubble has to burst eventually, and who am I to second-guess the difficult choices made by men like these in a team sport where pressure is exerted to dope or "decay" (in a professional cycling sense)?  Their job and future in the sport they loved was held hostage at needle-point, and that's not a choice I'd want to make.  So as long as they may have lied, their truth now, however 'late', is worthy of praise.

If history records that their testimony opened the doors to a cleaner sport, then I'd be prepared to acknowledge their role.  Whistleblowers?  Perhaps not.  But their contribution to cycling may go on to be far more than pulling fellow dopers up Alpine and Pyrenean mountain passes for hours.

Let's see how that unfolds.  Until then, focs on the Tour, and the start of the mountains, a change in yellow and hopefully, some interesting power output numbers!  Remember, if you want quick thoughts, and links, I'm doing what I can do get them out on our Twitter feed!

Bolt, Blake and the 100m intrigue

In sprinting circles, the big news of the last week was the double defeat of Usain Bolt by Yohan Blake at the Jamaican trials.  It has led, predictably, to the inviroration of the "Is he vulnerable?" debate (of course he is - it's perhaps the most prized medal of the Games, and the guy at the top is the target and thus always vulnerable in professional sport).

Most recently, he announced his withdrawal from the Monaco Diamond League event citing "problems" (not of the Yohan Blake variety), and then stated that he was on his way to Germany to consult a well-known doctor regarding apparently tight hamstrings.

Tyson Gay, in the lead-up to the Paris Diamond League meeting last night, suggested that Bolt looked a "little banged up" in his Blake defeats, and he certainly had a point.  If you watch the races, Bolt looks laboured out of the blocks in the 100m, and tight down the home straight in the 200m.  The manner of the two defeats was thus completely different - in the 100m he was beaten out the blocks, and could not make up the loss on Blake, whereas in the 200m, he was ahead before being caught and beaten at the end.  That would perhaps be most concerning to him - the 200m is his preferred event, after all.

Time-wise, Blake was fast (9.75s, a PR), and Bolt was relatively slow (9.86s), having run basically as fast as Blake on a few occasions this year (9.76s).   So Bolt was slower than normal, Blake was faster.  Historically, Bolt's best performances still make him a the favourite.  If Bolt returns to his 2008/2009 form, and gets into the 9.6 range, it's difficult to see anyone beating him.  That's a big if though - since 2009, Bolt has not returned to that form and has, at best been in the mid-9.70s range.  Of course, in the lead-up to Beijing, Bolt ran 9.72s, and then improved from there to run a 9.69s which was actually worth about 9.65s to win gold, so it's conceivable that both he and Blake can dip below 9.70s off their current level.

I received an email last week that suggested that neither has fully shown their hand, and are capable of much faster.  Similarly, there is a line of thought that Bolt may be holding back, playing psychological games and allowing Blake to become complacent.  A few thoughts on that.  First, Blake does not seem like the type to get complacent - you don't earn the nickname "The Beast" for training so hard if you're inclined towards complacency.  Second, few men would get complacent in the final month before their first Olympic Games, especially as defending world champions.  Third, as the most scrutinized athlete in the world, I cannot imagine Bolt would deliberately and knowingly invite the kind of speculation and doubt that the world media have poured on him since the defeats.  And fourth, 100m men are notoriously all about the 'edge', that psychological upper-hand, and to give that away by losing two races just seems inconceivable to me.

I do think that one can say that Bolt's slow start in the 100m was probably deliberately over cautious, that he wasn't pushing the limit there in order to safely qualify.  But there's a difference between holding back in the race and being cautious about the most vulnerable moment in your entire Olympic campaign.  But to lose both races suggests that Blake carries better form right now.  Much can change in a month, however, and by the 5th August, Bolt may well have found the 0.2s that he probably needs to beat back Blake's challenge.

Then, to this already intriguing set of questions you add Gatlin and his 9.80s at the trials, and now Tyson Gay, who last night beat Gatlin in Paris despite an abysmal start.  The manner in which Gay caught Gatlin in the final 30m belies the relatively slow time (9.99s) and given his lack of racing, Gay may be the third name in the mix in London, rather than Gatlin or Powell.  Powell, for his part, was just caught by Bolt in Jamaica, and his start is far superior to Bolt's.  He may not medal in London, but the first 30m may be dictated by how quickly he gets out of the blocks, and that may have a significant bearing on Bolt's relaxation and form, and that of the other big contenders.

All in all, the men's 100m, which until last year ago looked like Bolt's victory parade (quite literally, in the case of Beijing), now has four or five fascinating storylines, and a great rivalry or two to add to the existing privilege of watching the fastest man in history.  That can only be a good thing, and the 5th of August is the most anticipated date of the Games as a result.

More Olympic musings - distance events

Meanwhile, the distance events continue to come nicely to the boil.  Kenenisa Bekele, slowly making his way back to something like his best (though let's face it, the days of 12:37 and 26:20s seem gone), took another step last night in Paris, by running 12:55.79.  That's five seconds faster than anything he'd done before, and it continued his progressive improvements.

That's the good news. The bad news is that eight men went faster in the one race!  Four of them were Ethiopian, and so Bekele's 5000m challenge was effectively ended.  In the deepest 5,000m race ever, six men broke 12:50, with the race being won in 12:46.81.  That came with a final lap of 54.66s (it was probably even faster since this is leader-to-leader), by Ethiopia's Dejen Gebremeskel the winner.  In second was another Ethiopian, Hagos Gebrhiwet in 12:47.53.  It was a spectacular race, probably worth a 12:43 given an average job of pacing - the start was super fast (2:32), then a drop (2:37), followed by a steady middle period (2:34 & 2:36) and a quick last kilometer (2:27).

The question, of course, is whether the Ethiopians can produce this off a slow pace, with surges.  And can they run a sub-52s final lap, which is what seems likely to be needed if the pace is slow (over 13 min).  In the 2011 World Champs, incidentally, the winning time was a pedestrian 13:22, and the final lap was 52.75s and the last 2km were 5:10.  In Paris, the final 2km were quicker (5:03), the last lap slightly slower, and of course, the overall time was much, much faster.

Those are two different races then, and the absence of pace-makers means that tactical decisions and a different physiological requirement become important.  In the two new "Gebs", Ethiopia clearly has two exceptional runners, and their performances in London will be fascinating to see.

Equally fascinating are the women's middle distance events.  We've spoken many times about the 800m event, which was dominated by Jelimo in 2008, Semenya in 2009, nobody in 2010, Savinova in 2011 (though that was really confined to one race), and now a host of athletes have emerged in 2012.  Jelimo has re-emerged from a 3 year "slumber" to run 1:56s again (and the fourth fastest 600m ever).  Ethiopia has discovered Fantu Magiso, who has beaten Jelimo and looks like a frightening prospect if she gets it right tactically, especially in a slow race.  Savinova has raced sparingly, but started her season faster than in 2011, and ran 1:57 in Russia just last week, so she will be tough to beat and is tactically savvy.  And there's Semenya, who has yet to dip into the 1:57s it seems will be required, but clearly has the history to suggest this could happen.  The women's 800m is a fascinating race, both performance and personality-wise.

The women's 1500m is equally intriguing, if a little "worrying".  First it was Dibaba of Ethiopia who looked like a new star.  Then came Abeba Aregawi, who ran a 3:56 earlier this year, the fastest time in many years in an event that has really been tarnished by a doping past.  Then last night in Paris, she was beaten into third by Mariem Selsouli in a world-leading 3:56.17 and Asli Cakir in 3:56.62.  And that was off a relativel slow time through 800m - the third lap was 61s and that set it up.  Arguably, they may go even faster.

The cynical reaction, seen in forums on T&F sites, is one of disbelief, particularly because both women have served doping bans.  That is not by itself anything to judge a person on - second chances are only fair.  But it is difficult to see these huge performances and be trusting when you know the history, and it has to be said, the reputation of certain countries for doping.  The second-placed athlete, Cakir, ran a PB of over 5 seconds last night in Paris, having previously been a doper, for example. So it may seem a snap judgment, but I have to wonder.

In related news, three Russian women were banned by the Federation for doping, having been caught with the Biological Passport system.  Two were middle-distance runners - Zinurova (European 800m champ in 2011) and Svetlana Klyuka (4th in Beijing 800m) were banned, along with marathon runner Yulamanova.

Generally, women's middle distance running seems to find its way into the news for the wrong reason, and that makes any spectacular performances fodder for cynics.  Time will tell whether these athletes follow the trajectory of dopers (here today gone tomorrow) or remain as strong in London, under the brighter spotlight of doping controls.

And finally, speaking of middle-distance races, David Rudisha continued his total domination of the 800m event in Paris, running a world-leading 1:41.54.  If you want to know just how good Rudisha is, this is only his fifth best time.  Rudisha blamed weather conditions for not cracking the world record.  Of all the Olympic medals, his seems most "secure" (as far as Olympic gold medals are secure!).  The most interesting thing in the race will be his tactical approach - clearly, he can run over a second faster than anyone else in the world, and so simply running a 1:41.xx wins gold. But front-running in a semi-final (only 2 qualify, and it's a super tough race) and final is a tough ask, but then so is relying on a furious final 200m.

Should be a fascinating race.  As they all will be!

Hopefully, more comment on the week ahead, which includes Tour developments and athletics news.