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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 1

Number 1: The limits to human performance

It took 9.69 seconds, on 16 August, 2008, for Usain Bolt to blitz his way into the record books. (Some say he'd have run 9.55 seconds had he not celebrated, but that was Number 4 on our list!)

Only four days later, on 20 August, he covered 200m in 19.30 seconds, to solidify what was fast becoming the greatest sprint Games in history - he'd put the cherry on top a few days later by running the second leg of a world record breaking Jamaican 4 x 100m relay team.

Then, just over one month later, at the other extreme of track and field, Haile Gebrselassie became the first man to crack 2:04 for the marathon, running 2:03:59 on the streets of Berlin.

The world was suddenly abuzz with talk of the limits to human performance. All in all, 13 world records were broken in 2008 - a big year (though not compared to swimming, with its 108 records!). By the way, if you fancy a general knowledge quiz, name the 13 world records...? The answers are at the end of this post...hint: there are 7 for men, 6 for women)

How fast could man (and woman) still go? Everyone weighed in - the athletes, the coaches, the agents, the meeting promoters. Most got massively carried away - the sub 2-hour marathon, they sang, was only years away. Sub-19 seconds was next for the 200m. Never mind that it's taken ten years to knock the last minute or 0.02 seconds off the marathon and 200m records respectively! What's another 4 minutes or 0.30 seconds between friends!

The hype was enormous. But, the truth is, it's been that way the whole year, perhaps spurred on by the Olympic Games. And it's for that reason that the limits to human performance takes the Number 1 slot on the countdown!

The Olympic flame - a beacon for performance limits

Since it was an Olympic year, this kind of discussion is expected - Olympic athletes, at the very leading edge of human physiology (and sometimes over it, aided by some doping!), are always a beacon to human performance limits.

The year began, in fact, with a study looking at the limits to the world records in a number of different sports.

That study, done by IRMES in France, was very cautious. In fact, it suggested that within our lifetimes, the records would hit a ceiling beyond which they would no longer be broken. For example, half of the records were predicted to max out by 2027, while all of them would have reached the limit by 2060.

This research used a mathematical model to track changes in the 3,260 world recors set since 1896, and then estimated that athletes were operating at 75 per cent of their potential in 1896, while in 2008, they would be operating at 99 per cent.

"By 2027 the athletes in about half of the events will have reached 100 per cent, and by 2060 they all will. After that the only way a world record is likely to be broken is if the athlete is on industrial amounts of steroids or a product of genetic doping, or indeed both" (which is, of course, not beyond the realm of possibility! Of course, some will argue that many of the records already are aided by industrial amounts of steroids!)

A debate inspired by great Olympic performances

I can't possibly summarize all the discussion around the world records in this review post - Bolt was the first to open discussions with his 9.69 second performance (to follow his 9.72 sec performance from New York earlier in the year). The 100m event is, of course, the focal point of track and field for many, and so garnered enormous coverage. The fact that Bolt left something on the track also provoked lively discussion. It was quite clear that the limit had not arrived yet, thanks to Bolt's celebrations and the time he lost. The question was "How much faster could he have gone on the day, and in the future?" It made for interesting discussion.

Little of it was scientific, though. There was one 'scientific' contribution - perhaps the most bizarre contribution of the year, when a professor of biomechanics named Peter Weyand volunteered that since Cheetahs can run 100m in six seconds, humans are nowhere near their limits (seriously). That same Peter Weyand's other contribution to 2008 was the defence of Oscar Pistorius, which I wrote about yesterday

The marathon - the other focal point lights up

Then the other focal point of athletics, the marathon, got involved, thanks to Haile Gebrselassie's amazing 2:03:59. Last year, Geb ran 2:04:26 in Berlin, and the same kind of discussion ensued - when would man dip under 2 hours? This talk is of course massively premature, it is still 4 minutes away, and given how the margins by which world records are broken is likely to become ever smaller, it was a case of getting slightly carried away.

However, Geb's 2008 world record got the same debate going. At the same time, a young Kenyan, Sammy Wanjiru, had run 2:06:32 in hot, humid conditions during a competitive marathon in Beijing (for which he got Number 6 on our Top 8 list). So not only could we debate Geb's great marathon, but we could discuss whether in fact Wanjiru's performance was even better? If so, then the world record would be in for a revision in the not too distant future, adding fuel to the discussion

The next scientific study - humans vs dogs and horses

Then, in late November, the next study came along, which neatly provided the other bookend to 2008, to go along with the French Irmes study I mentioned earlier.

This study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, was done by Mark Denny, and it used the rather novel idea of comparing human running performance to that of horses and dogs. However, unlike the earlier efforts of Weyand to compare man to cheetahs, Denny used a mathetmatical analysis that provided some very interesting predictions. His broad finding is that horses and dogs reached a limit in the 1970's, and the winning time at the Kentucky Derby, for example, has not improved in over 30 years.

Humans have however continued to improve, which provides the basis for the model to predict where that improvement might end up. For example:

  • He predicts that the 100m world record for men will one day peak at 9.48 seconds. That's perhaps 2, maybe 3 generations away (given the assumption that each generation might take 0.07 to 0.10 seconds off it - that's off course open to change). It therefore agrees with the French study, suggesting a limit by 2030, or thereabouts.
  • It predicts that the women's 100m world record will come to rest at 10.19 seconds. This is, in my opinion, unrealistic, and is not going to happen. Remember that the current record of 10.47 seconds, has stood for 20 years, and more importantly, no one has even come close. The closest was Marion Jones, who got to within about 0.2 seconds of it (a lifetime in sprinting), but we all know what her secret was. I feel the model fails on this event, at least.
  • The men's marathon record stands to improve by between 2min7s and 4min23s. The latter would give us the sub-2 hour time, but it's anyone's guess how long that would take. My feeling (and this is all it is), is that I won't see a sub-2:02 time in my lifetime. I posted the reasons why in this post, for those who are interested in a more logical approach to the question.
  • The women's marathon record limit exists at 2:12:42. Given that the current record stands at 2:15:25, we're looking at about 2 to 3 minutes' improvement as well. Again, how long this will take is not known, but seems reasonable.
All in all, I think that the two mathematical models brought out in 2008, first by the French group, and then by Denny, agree pretty closely with one another, and are probably about as accurate as one can expect for this kind of "crystal ball" exercise.

I am always reminded of the time that some scientists, back in the 1980's, looked at the men's and women's marathon records, and predicted that women would be beating men by 2000 because the women's record was improving at a faster rate than the men's!

These mathematical models are always hazardous, but good fun and interesting conversation starters. 2009 will probably not produce too many more of them - a non-Olympic year. But, given the hype around world records in 2008, maybe we need some time to test the predictions!

2009 - how many world records?

As for 2009, how many world records can we expect? We might well get one in January, when Haile Geb runs another time-trial, err, marathon, this time in Dubai, chasing a huge pay-day. Geb has made a marathon career out of running paced time-trials for records, and Dubai 2008 nearly provided a record, but he went off way too fast and lost big time in the second half. If he gets it right, there's no reason why we can't have a record in January.

Next comes the spring marathon season, and especially London, where a world class field will assemble. It includes Martin Lel and Sammy Wanjiru, the two men who I believe will both break 2:04 next. It will also feature Zersenay Tadese, who will be the next giant of the marathon - he will make up the big 6 along with the two Kenyans, Gebrselassie and Tsegay Kebede (you saw it here first!)

The problems in London are the weather (it's often gusty, especially along the river at the end), the course (twisty in areas), and the competition, which, paradoxically, makes it less likely the record will go - the top men will watch each other and lose seconds as they did in 2008. So I think it'll be fast, but not a record.

Then we have track and field season. Once again, on the women's side, it's the pole-vault and middle distances where records COULD fall. In particular, I'll be watching to see if Pamela Jelimo can find another second of improvement and break the 800m record.

For the men, there is Bolt, and possibly Asafa Powell in the sprints, and Robles in the hurdles, but that's about it - I don't see much chance of a Bekele record, but who knows?

Whatever happens, if it warrants analysis, we'll do it in '09!

That wraps up the Top 8 of '08 series, which I hope you've enjoyed. If it's stimulated some discussion, or even a read or two of posts that you may have missed this year, then it's done its job!

We'll take a break for a few days, over the Christmas break and then do some more light-hearted posts between Christmas and New Year!

I know many of you will be heading off for holidays, or spending time away from your computers, and so let me take this chance to thank you for your readership, your support, your emails and comments during 2008! You are all the vindication of our effort, thank you, and God Bless over this Festive season!


P.S. The answer to our "quiz" question from above. There were 13 world recorsd this year. They were:

  • The 100 metres (twice, by Usain Bolt);
  • The 200 metres (Bolt, again);
  • The marathon (Haile Gebrselassie);
  • The 110 metre hurdles (Dayron Robles);
  • The 4 x 100 metre relay (Bolt, again, with some Jamaican company);
  • The 50 km walk (Denis Nizhegorodov).
  • The 5,000 metres (Tirunesh Dibaba);
  • The 3,000 metres steeplechase (Gulnara Galkina);
  • The javelin (Barbora Spotakova);
  • The pole vault (thrice, by who else but Elena Isinbaeva).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 2

Number 2: Oscar Pistorius, the CAS and the evidence that begs to be challenged

Our number 2 story of 2008 is also our most controversial, at least personally. The discussion around Usain Bolt generated some heated emails, but they were fan mail compared to some of the comments and emails received in response to my position on Oscar Pistorius, South Africa's Paralympic sprint challenge, who hit the big-time in 2008 thanks to a Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling in April that cleared the way for him to run against able-bodied athletes.

This post is obviously not meant as a rehash of the same arguments I've now been making for the last 20 months. I'd encourage anyone who has joined us recently to go back and read the articles I reference below, because without that background, this post will be thin, but it's intended as a review, not the re-opening of a new discussion.

The beginnings - theory without evidence

Our coverage of the story began in July 2007, when we posted on the science and engineering that would, in theory, provide Pistorius with his advantage (for those who haven't followed the debate, I might as well declare upfront - I believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that Pistorius has an advantage). Those advantages were discussed and explained in great detail in this post, but as yet, little evidence existed, so unusual was the case.

However, the key scientific arguments were put forward for debate - reduced energy cost, improved energy return, attenuated fatigue, lower limb mass etc.

Science relegated to the sidelines

One of the hallmarks of the debate early on was the refusal of "pro-Pistorius" advocates to actually debate the issues - not a single person, on this site or elsewhere, came forward to discuss the issued raised in the scientific debate. Instead, it was a campaign based on smokescreens and mirrors, one that was fuelled by the emotions and sympathy that Pistorius as a human-interest story engenders.

Not a single scientific debate occurred early on - it was denial of fact and scientific opinion, and then agressive punting of a pro-human interest story. The bandwagon soon picked up speed, with PR companies, marketing agents, and big corporates throwing their weight behind Pistorius' efforts to compete in IAAF meetings against able-bodied athletes. Nike and Ossur, the two companies with the most to gain, were aggressive in their lobbying efforts. They'd be joined by a dozen more by the end of 2008, a sign of the massive media and public interest that provided the jet-fuel for Pistorius' campaign.

The only occasion where science was debated was when Professor Robert Gailey came out and said that the human tendon could return 240% of the energy it stored. What the Professor failed to realise is that this can only happen in the presence of muscle contraction, which ADDS energy to the tendon. A tendon by itself can't return more energy that it stored. If this were true, then a tendon would be capable of perpetual motion. If you had a tennis ball made of tendon material, then it would bounce 2.4 times higher every single time it landed. If you dropped it from a height of 1m, then by the time it bounced for the 20th time, it would hit the moon! It was a ridiculous argument, and captures the level of science early on. Unfortunately, it was not to get better, though the CAS failed to realise this...

The IAAF intervenes

In July 2007, Pistorius made his debut in European races, but on the condition that he'd be filmed and analysed as part of the IAAF's efforts to establish whether or not an advantage existed. At this stage, it's pertinent to ask why the IAAF should be the ones to prove advantage, as opposed to the other way around, where Pistorius would have to prove the absence of an advantage.

In any event, the IAAF evidence was intriguing, because his debut race in Rome threw up a finding that was EXACTLY as predicted by the theoretical models before it. That is, Pistorius showed a never-seen-before pacing strategy, the absence of fatigue during the second half of the race, and a vindication of many of the arguments put forward earlier. The post we did analysing this can be found here.

Once that was completed, the IAAF did their testing in Germany, under the supervision of Prof Bruggemann. That research, which would form the basis for the IAAF's initial decision, found a number of important things. That report, which was released in January this year, found that Pistorius demonstrated some potentially significant differences in energy use, and biomechanics, and formed the basis of the initial IAAF ban of Pistorius.

Firstly, they found that at sprinting speeds, Pistorius used LESS oxygen (by 25%) than able-bodied runners. The graph of this result is shown below:

There is of course a problem with this finding - the measurement of oxygen use during sprinting is a questionable one. That's because energy comes from aerobic and anaerobic sources, and so one can challenge the conclusion that Pistorius uses less ENERGY. It is highly likely, however, because if the aerobic energy use is down, there's no reason to believe that the anaerobic might not also be reduced. However, it doesn't PROVE it, only suggests it very strongly.

The second major finding is shown below:

Here, you're looking at the horizontal and vertical forces on landing, braking, and then moving through into the propulsive phase of the running stride.

Pistorius has a massively reduced horizontal braking force compared to the able-bodied runners, but similar propulsive forces. This, allied to some other biomechanical findings by Bruggemann, led him to conclude that "Sprinting with the artificial limbs is – from a biomechanical perspective – a “bouncing” locomotion and is signficantly different to able-bodied sprinting on a hard surface. It is a different kind of locomotion at a lower metabolic cost"

It was little surprise then, that the IAAF banned Pistorius. You can read much more detail about the tests and the ban here.

Pistorius goes door-to-door

That would not be the end of it - with the money at stake, that is not surprising. What happened next is that Pistorius went door-to-door, looking for scientists to assist with his defence. I know this because, in one of the bigger ironies of 2008, I was one of those asked. He sent a request to the Ministry of Sport in SA, requesting help. That was sent to me and all other scientists across SA. He received no joy here.

As a result, he found his way overseas, and asked a number of US- and Canada-based scientists. One of them had the following to say:

I received the IAAF report in January and reviewed it for the Pistorius people. I told them there were methodological problems with the inverse dynamic analysis, and that the presentation was not complete. I also told them that if those concerns were eliminated, I expected to come to the same conclusion which is that these devices are advantageous. I offered my help to the project but was of course politely refused

So, scientists felt that:

  • The IAAF testing had some flaws - no arguments there, but
  • That the conclusion drawn was correct.
That did not dissuade team-Pistorius, and they continued to knock on doors, until some were opened.

Eventually, Prof Hugh Herr of MIT and Prof Peter Weyand stepped in, and research was done that would eventually make its way to the CAS in Switzerland.

What science? We can only guess, but the signs are there that it begs for a challenge

This would be the moment where I go into a discussion of what that science is, how it was done, and what it showed. But, unfortunately, I can't. We have not seen it - we have only heard its conclusion, and it has escaped review and analysis.

So, what we have here is a situation where the IAAF submitted their research (methods, results, conclusion) in January, giving Pistorius three months to build a case. On the other hand, Pistorius and a team of eight lawyers from New York (funded how, you might ask?) rolled into Lausanne with 'never-seen-before' evidence ON THE DAY of the hearing and presented the alternative science. There was no chance for the IAAF scientists to review, rebut and challenge the science.

I wrote at the time that as soon as that science was released, that given the chance, I'd be able to find at least half a dozen flaws with it. That was not folly, it was realism of science. The very nature of science is that no research is airtight, no study PROVES anything, especially on something as complex as this. There is little in sports science and physiology that is KNOWN - theories exist, and they are countered by other research that draws different conclusions.

The same is true of this case. Sadly, however, the research done by Pistorius has not been published, its methods have not been revealed, and we can only wonder.

Some answers are emerging - flawed science, laughable method, corrupt process and the remarkable physiology of Oscar Pistorius

That's not to say that we don't have some insight on the US-testing. That has been "leaked" as a result of interviews, boasts, claims and reports. And it's actually the Pistorius testing that provides the surest evidence to date that Pistorius has an advantage.

It was in July THIS YEAR that I did a post on the remarkable physiology of Oscar Pistorius. That physiology, which is the result of a combination of the IAAF and Pistorius' own research, is that:
  1. At 400m sprinting speeds, Pistorius uses 25% LESS ENERGY than able-bodied sprinters. This suggests a reduction in energy use, predicted exactly by the theory
  2. At slow, jogging speeds, on a treadmill, Pistorius uses the SAME oxygen as able-bodied runners (not sprinters, mind you, but distance runners). This is one of the findings of the Herr-Weyand research.
I hopefully don't have to unpack how many problems there are with the second finding - first, testing the carbon fibre blades on a treadmill is questionable. Testing them at slow speeds is questionable, and comparing Pistorius to distance runners (who are more efficient) is also very dicey.

However, let's assume that you believe the method and the finding. Now, you have an interesting situation, because:

  1. Oscar Pistorius uses the same volume of oxygen as able-bodied runners when he is jogging at sub-maximal speeds
  2. He uses LESS oxygen than able-bodied runners when he is sprinting at 400m speeds.
  3. In other words, something changes differently as Pistorius speeds up. Most people, the able-bodied runners, use more and more oxygen as they get faster and faster. Pistorius, however, does not follow this pattern - either his use of oxygen remains the same, or it increases only very slightly, or it goes down
  4. Regardless of which option, Pistorius now has a problem. He has shown, through his OWN research, that he has a physiology that we have NEVER SEEN BEFORE. A human being who does not increase oxygen use as he runs ever faster? There is one other animal that can make this physiological claim. Its picture is below.

This is one of perhaps five or six arguments that can be made against Pistorius' science. For another one, read this post, in which I explain how Pistorius displays a remarkable anaerobic adaptation to exercise.

Then there are the mechanical factors, the reduced braking forces, the differences in ankle moments, the weak arguments by Pistorius' scientists that the knee joint must take more work. The scientific debate on Pistorius' science for sale is far from over - 2009 will bring all those discussions.

The last word for now, however, goes to another group of scientists. In the last year, I have often been the only voice willing to express the scientific truths of Oscar Pistorius. However, much to my relief, I came upon a chat forum (hence publicly available) where some of the best biomechanists in the world were discussing Pistorius. The quote below, from one of them, is a combination of a few posts, and they sum up the year according to Oscar Pistorius:

"It seems that the "experts" have now retreated to the politically correct position of we can't see an advantage, so let him compete" but that does not help advance the science. We have to do better. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

"You have to admit that these experts are in a difficult position…with all the media and public wanting to give this guy a chance, it's hard to take the opposite position in public."

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Oscar has an advantage and that (if he had the athletic ability) could be made into the fastest runner in the world. If they let below the knee, bi-lateral amputees run, the world record in the sprints will soon belong to such a runner"

One to go - join us tomorrow for the Top Sports Science story of 2008!


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 3

Number 3: The Speedo LZR Racer creates a splash

The Number 3 Sports Science story of 2008 comes from the swimming pools of the world. It is a story we've featured heavily this year, perhaps more than any other (so it may even have been deserving of the Number 1 slot), because of the scientific, philosophical and ethical questions it has thrown up.

It was over a year ago that the suit was released, but it was in March that we first commented on the LZR Racer. You can read that post here (no point rehashing the story). At that stage, NINE world records had been set, and the LZR Racer was the common denominator. That was nothing compared to what would happen in the coming months...

The French technical director called for a review of the suits, but back then, he was something of a lone voice - everyone else saw no problem with them. This was perhaps the result of the fact that the French had a sponsorship by Speedo's rivals, Arena, whereas the USA and Australia were both benefitting from the Speedo technology.

The swimsuit wars begin

That was a precursor of what was to come - in a matter of months, the number of world records had risen from nine to about thirty. That was before the Olympic Games, where a further 25 world records would be broken (and this does NOT include the poor swimmers who swam seconds faster than the old world record and still finished seconds behind, often outside the medals!). All in all, only TWO events survived the Olympic Games with their Olympic Records in tact - it was an unprecedented "cleansing" of the record books, and while there are certainly other factors in play, the swimsuit has been the one dominating the news.

We began to look at some of the technical matters surrounding the suit, the design, the principles, the debate over whether the suit improved buoyancy. That post, along with some interesting comments from a swimming hydrodynamics expert colleague of mine, can be found here.

It was at around this stage that the battle moved away from the pool and into the factories where suits were being manufactured. Speedo's LZR, developed partly by NASA, partly by 1000 swimming flume, hydrodynamic sessions in New Zealand, was clearly in the ascendancy in the marketing battle. With the Olympic Games looming, no respectable swimmer wanted to be seen in anything else, which of course posed a problem for those swimmers sponsored by Arena, Adidas, and Nike.

Swimmers decided to abandon sponsorships and wear the Speedo - some were sued. Entire teams revolted, insisting that they'd swim in Speedo (and not Adidas, as was the case for Germany). As a result, Adidas last week decided not to renew its sponsorship - the implications of this swimsuit war go well beyond the pool and the record books...

Arena had developed its own full body suit, but then sought to have the LZR banned - a letter, written by the Arena President, was sent to the International Swimming Federation, in which he said that "FINA faced an "irrecoverable loss of credibility for swimming sports," if they did not act to stamp out the use of the suits. You can read that letter, and some more of the amazing quotes, in our post done at the time.

At the time, Arena was losing the battle for world records 18-1, which makes it hardly surprising that their CEO was pushing for a ban!

The calls for a ban intensify - is there evidence?

By the end of the year, however, even his voice was being drowned out by coaches, swimmers, federations, just about anyone involved with swimming was calling for a similar ban on the suit! Admittedly, things were getting out of hand - swimmers were wearing not one, not two, but three suits, so that the material was thickened and their buoyancy improved. This is blatantly making use of equipment to improve performance, and many would label this very obvious cheating (my question - how is it different to wearing one suit when you know that the same relative effect exists compared to wearing your old suit, or a non-speedo one? Seems to me that both lie on the same continuum, which means you have a moral dilemma)

Most recently, following the European Short Course champs in Croatia (where the total number of records for the year hit 105 - incredible!), a number of federations have petitioned FINA to ban the suit, or at least to review its use. All in all, 15 out of the 17 European nations have petitioned for a number of regulations to be discussed and implicated.

One thing that is interesting is the debate around the scientific merits of the suit. In 2009, we'll look much more at those studies (this review is not the time or place! And besides, it's holiday season!) and discuss whether the suit is really having that large an effect. To my mind, there's little doubt - the number of world records set this year is now triple the normal number, and while the Olympics provides the catalyst for this "rush", it cannot explain the growth by itself.

The nature of competition and access

Some other silly comments have been made - early on, a number of swimmers were of the opinion that the suit "doesn't swim by itself". Yes, rather profound...their argument, though, is that the suit doesn't change the nature of competition, provided all swimmers have access to the suit. You should not be surprised to learn that the swimmers saying this were wearing Speedo's LZR at the time!

The point is, and this is probably the crux, that competition is changed when the suit is not available to all. So either everyone must wear the same, or no one must wear it. Unfortunately, the "roll-out" of the suit made it impossible for all swimmers to get it (and there were sponsor conflicts, as mentioned above), and so suddenly, it did become a battle of technology.

Of course, as you read this, you may be thinking "why should Speedo be punished for innovation that produced a superior costume?" And you'd be right - it's not fair to "standardize" costumes and prevent natural market forces and competition from having their effect. So how can you force them to make the suit available, or ensure that other manufacturers, who, let's face it, missed a trick, are brought up to speed? As you can see, the issue is highly complex!

But can they ban it now? What are the implications?

One voice that has come out and opposed the idea of banning the suits is that of Libby Trickett, of Australia. She says "I read that in 1972, I think, there were 53 world records broken, and there has been 54 [long course] this year," Trickett said. "What provided that difference that year?" She goes on to say that banning the suits would set the sport "back a decade".

Regular readers of The Science of Sport would know the answer to Trickett's question, because we covered that back in August - the 1972 development was the invention of swimming goggles, which allowed swimmers to see the wall and improve by perhaps half a second on the turns! (Trickett is clearly not a reader!)

However, where I do agree is that if the suit is now banned, they'd have to accept that the number of world records broken will fall dramatically for a number of years. The sport would begin to resemble track and field athletics for women, where world records are simply not broken, because so many of the existing records were set in the drug-heyday of the sport, the 1980's. We did an analysis of this recently, and showed how doping-aided performance of the 1980's had made women's world records irrelevant. Speedo's LZR threatens to do the same.

Swimming's decision, then, is do they wish to eliminate the chances of seeing world records for a while by closing the door long after the horse has bolted, or do they ban the suit on legal grounds?

I can't see how a ban would be tenable - my suggestion would be to draw a line very clearly at the current point - the current suit is acceptable, but no further enhancements will be allowed, and see how that goes.

FINA meet in February to discuss. As always, whatever the outcome, we'll do the analysis right here!

Top 2 coming up in the week before Christmas!


A cricket comment for those outside the USA

P.S. I've just finished watching the conclusion of the First Test Match between Australia and South Africa. As many will know, SA won by 6 wickets - a win many thought was improbable given the fact that SA had to chase down 414 to win.

It was a great batting performance, and credit to the SA batsmen. However (and I'm going against the grain here, being South African), it was entirely predictable, and I was not surprised at the win, given the Australian bowling impotence at the moment.

As is typical of South Africa, we are currently over-reacting dramatically to the result. "It's the greatest Test match ever played" were the words of one analyst in SA. "South Africa's greatest moment in history" were the words of another.

Truth is, when you look at the performances, you realise that in five days of cricket, Australia managed to take 14 wickets - 11 of them went to one bowler (Mitchell Johnson), and five of those came in about 20 minutes on day two. That means that other that this brilliant performance, the Aussie bowlers managed to take 3 wickets between them.

They were completely impotent, as they were in India recently, where, in four matches, they took only 59 wickets (remember that 80 would be required to win), and conceded 2,877 runs. That's 49 runs per wicket, which is abysmal - the opposition thus averages 490 given ten wickets (and that's not including the fact that India would have declared on some occasions, and includes tail-enders - the average of the top 6 batsmen is in the mid-50's).

So, before we celebrate South Africa's "remarkable" performance, let's bear in mind that many of the world's best batsmen would be lining up to play this current Aussie bowling line-up - they could improve their batting averages somewhat.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 4

Number 4: Usain Bolt steals the Olympic Games

Michael Phelps has scooped up most of the awards for Athlete of 2008, for his incredible haul of eight golds (7 with world records, though as we'll see, swimming world records mean very little) in Beijing.

But our athlete of the year is not Phelps, but Usain Bolt of Jamaica. The greatest sprinting Olympic Games in history - three golds, three world records, a never before achieved feat, and worthy of our title (a premature announcement, we'll still do our 2008 Review) of Athlete of 2008.

Bolt and the "lost 0.14 seconds" - a debate on performance opens

It is a bit of a stretch to say that Bolt's performances demonstrate sports science in action - not as obvious a link as doping in sport, or the swimsuit issue, for example. However, Bolt has provided plenty of discussion and debate around human performance, science and physiology, and it's for this reason that he makes our Top 8 of '08 Sports Science stories.

The first question is how fast could he have run in that 100m final had he not celebrated from 20m out? For those who've been in outer space this year, Bolt ran 9.69 seconds to win gold by a huge margin. So huge that he had a chance to look to the side and start celebrating only 80m into one of the most anticipated 100m finals in history. The picture below shows the celebration and the size of the margin Bolt created.

The physicists response, and the truth

To answer the question, a group of physicists performed an analysis of Bolt's race and predicted that he'd run 9.55 seconds. That was widely reported and taken as fact, in large part due to the method followed - a mathematical calculation from men who usually concern themselves with the origins of the universe is unlikely to be challenged!

However, it seemed very fishy to me, and back in September, I did a post reviewing that research. My conclusion? There is no way to find 0.14 seconds in the final 20m of the race, and it's simply not possible for Bolt to have run 9.55seconds. My prediction is that he'd have run somewhere between 9.61 and 9.69seconds, most likely in the 9.64 area.

The key factor in the physicists' work was their assumption (and the basis for their calculation) that Bolt would have continued to accelerate relative to the second place athlete, Richard Thompson. However, the splits reveal that Bolt was already slowing down from 70m to 80m. We also know that nobody continues to speed up all the way to the finish line in a 100m race - they are all slowing down.

So without rehashing the whole argument (you can read it here), the graph below shows the best, actual and potential-case scenarios.

The best case scenario is what the physicists worked out - continued acceleration. The "Actual" case is obviously what transpired, and the "potential" case is the time he would have run had he maintained his speed from 70m to 100m. As mentioned, he was already slowing down prior to celebrating, and so the truth is he'd likely run just over 9.61 seconds.

It was a really interesting discussion, and credit to the physicists for applying their minds to it - that's what we need more of, particularly to help science grow, but also to expand the appreciation people have for sport - provide a different lens through which to watch athletes. That's our purpose here, and kudos to the Oslo physicists for doing the same.

A number of people have written in and said that he could run 9.55 seconds if he improved his start, tied his shoelaces, and had a following wind. And that's certainly true, but misses the point of the discussion - the discussion is not around all those other things, it was around the celebration. If one stars to pick apart all the various factors that influence performance, then every single run can be improved by a margin as large as your imagination!

The world's highest paid athlete

Still, it will be interesting to see what Bolt does in 2009. He is going to be the highest paid athlete in the world, commanding appearance fees of $250,000. From a management point of view, this is probably not good for the sport, because most meetings, barring the big 6 or 7 will never be able to afford that - it is the equivalent of perhaps 5 or 6 Olympic champions, and about a quarter of the athlete budget of many European meetings. The result is that meeting organizers will either have to find more funding, or will sacrifice depth of competition to bring Bolt to their event. A problematic situation, perhaps?

Bolt will be hard-pressed to repeat his 2008 performances next year. World Championships in Berlin should provide another sprint double (the 200m event, which I haven't even touched on, seems a foregone conclusion. Perhaps Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay can make him sweat in the 100m). But four world records, I'm not so sure. I think it will be a quieter year, but then again, Bolt has surprised before!

The other discussion around Bolt

The other discussion around Bolt, and the one that drew some of the most aggressive comments from readers was the issue of Bolt and performancing enhancing drugs. Unfortunately, people's reactions to this issue are tainted by emotional responses and blind patriotism. In August, during the Games, I did post titled "Discovering Usain Bolt: Who is this guy?", in which I looked at Bolt's historical performances, from the age of 15. This post drew some scatching attacks, from people who accused me of wanting to tarnish Jamaica's success as a result of my jealousy that the USA had not won an Olympic gold medal in the short sprints for the first time in many, many years (I'm not American, for the record!. I couldn't care less which country wins the medals)

It's quite clear that Bolt was a spectacular junior talent. He ran 21.73 at the age of 15, became world junior champ at 16, and achieved all this with an apparent lack of discipline and dedication to training hard (according to some readers who know his background). Given that history, it's not inconceivable that Bolt would produce the kind of sprinting he did in Beijing.

However, by virtue of the fact that he dominates an event in a sport that has not escaped from a doping cloud since about 1988, he automatically assumes the mantle of "suspicious individual". This is the inevitable consequence of being a 100m champion - the same discussion would be had for anyone, so if you're reading this and the red mist of anger is descending, just take a breath and appreciate that not a single champion in the last 20 years has been without controversy. Ben Johnson started it, Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Dwain Chambers, Tim Montgomery, to name a few, have kept it going.

The reality is that whenever an athlete bursts onto the scene (and despite his phenomenal junior success, Bolt did burst onto the scene in 2008 - four world records and complete domination were unexpected, even if you are a huge Bolt fan), he will be questioned - we can thank the hundreds of cheats of the past for that. It's guilt by association, which is not fair, but the sad reality of the sport.

So what about Bolt? That's impossible to know. I said in my post in September that I believe Bolt is clean - there are a few reasons for this, primary among them is his physique, and what I believe to be a neuromuscular basis for his dominance. I may be proven wrong, who knows? But until such time as that happens, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Join us again tomorrow as we hit the Top 3 stories of 2008!


Monday, December 15, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 5

Number 5: The battle against doping shifts gears

There was a time, perhaps 20 years ago, where a positive drug test meant a positive drug test. One of my earliest memories of sport, and specifically of the Olympic Games, was watching the sports news in 1988, and seeing Ben Johnson being hustled out of a press conference in Seoul after returning a positive test for stanozolol, the anabolic steroid that helped propel him to a 9.79 sec clocking. Back then, the positive test was accepted as accurate and true, and Johnson did not deny or fight the ban that would soon be imposed on him.

Jump ahead 20 years, and Austrian cyclist Bernard Kohl, fresh out of the polka dot jersey as the King of the Mountains in this year’s Tour de France, admits to doping before being fired from his Gerolsteiner team and banned for two years.

The fight against doping escalates – doping detectives needed

Between these cases, there are few cases where a high-profile positive test has been accepted and a ban issued without some level of controversy. In the current age, a positive test rarely proves the athlete has doped – it is merely the catalyst for accusation, counter-accusation, arbitration, denial and court cases that further highlight the problems facing professional sport. Some of the highest profile cases, like those of Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and Marion Jones have never been accepted – Pantani, for example, protested his innocence until the very end; Marion Jones admitted to using drugs, but continues to deny her knowledge – they were given to her by a coach, she was the unwitting “victim”.

The last few years have seen the war on doping progress to a new level, one where doping control no longer involves urine or blood tests and a chemical assay to find traces of banned substances. Rather, it has become an elaborate “cops and robbers” type-scenario, where the doping control resembles detective work, including raids on team hotels, headquarters, collaboration with pharmaceutical companies, and, from the perspective of science, the development of the biological passport system.

In 2008, this strategy produced its first significant victories. It is this escalation in the fight against doping, and particularly the pharmaceutical collaboration that brought us the CERA-gate affair and the biological passports that is my fifth-ranked sports science story of 2008.

CERA-gate and proactive doping control

“CERA-gate” is important because it is one of the first occasions where the doping authorities have been ahead of the dopers, lying in wait to pick them up. For those who missed it, CERA is the third-generation of EPO, the drug of choice in the 1990’s. EPO, of course, is a hormone that is produced in the kidneys, acts in the bone marrow and stimulates the production of red blood cells. Cyclists had been using EPO for years to improve endurance performance. Then, around the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a test for EPO was developed, and the drug dropped somewhat out of the news.

It made its comeback in 2008, with CERA, or Continuous Erythropoeitin Receptor Activator, which was manufactured specifically to have a longer-lasting effect on EPO activation and production. This obviously has benefits for medical treatments, but it offered cyclists the opportunity to return to EPO use without being caught. This is because CERA had been chemically modified by the addition of a polyethylene glycol molecule, which, in theory, would make it undetectable by the normal tests.

Or so the cyclists thought. It turns out that Roche, the company producing the drug, had been working together with anti-doping authorities to develop a test for the drug, using this specific chemical alternation as the basis for the test. The drug wasn't specifically designed to be detectable (as was initially reported). Rather, it was the strategic partnership and clever use of the chemical modification that gave the testers a chance to "lay a trap" for the dopers.

Those dopers walked straight into that trap, and received a nasty surprise when their supposedly undetectable drug suddenly started to produce positive results. First to go was Ricardo Ricco, fresh of two stage wins at the Tour de France (and the Giro). Added to him were Leonardo Piepoli, Emmanuelle Serra, Stefan Schumacher (another double stage winner on the Tour) and Bernard Kohl, with potentially more names to come. The IOC recently announced, for example, that it would be retesting hundreds of samples from the Beijing Games (personally, I think the horse had already bolted, because the athletes knew in July that the test existed - any smart ones would have stopped using CERA instantly)

Winning battles in the fight against doping

It was an important coup for doping control, representing a significant gain in the battle against doping. But this was not all – the biological passport system, where riders' blood samples are monitored throughout the season and suspicious patterns flagged as “high-interest” samples, has also gathered momentum, with a large body of scientific experts contributing to the evolution of that 'weapon'.

It was, according to reports, the regular monitoring of Ricco that threw him up as a target for further testing, and which culminated in the CERA-test in July. It is the equivalent of “forensic detective work” for doping control, much like accounting transactions and financial statements might be tracked to flag suspicious activity.

It does have a hint of the clandestine to it (the possibilities of witch-hunts and conspiracy theories exists), but may be just what is required to mop up the image of a seriously tarnished sport. The future of doping – WADA’s new strategies The future of doping control looks likely to involve even more "oppressive" steps - the latest suggestion by WADA is that every athlete must provide WADA with their location for at least one hour every single day - a 'window' during which WADA knows exactly where the athlete is should they be required for testing. Three missed tests within 18 months would constitute a doping violation.

This ruling, proposed to be put into action on January 1 2009, would bring the rest of the world more in line with what Britain has done for the last few years. It was however met with resistance from athletes and administrators. They claim that the rule "effectively places elite players under house arrest for one hour each day, 365 days a year".

Added to this is the extra-ordinary logistical exercise involved, both on the part of WADA, but also on the athlete, though both are not insurmountable problems. The legal issue may be a bigger barrier, because the code is being challenged on the grounds that it is unlawful according to European employment legislation and human rights laws.

Life bans for athletes? Burdens of proof

Unfortunately, this is the way that doping control is headed - ever-more "draconian" methods are required, and I am all for those steps that help to clean up the sport. Where it becomes tricky is in enforcing these findings legally, because that has been the major area where follow through on positive tests seems to have been found wanting.

People have repeatedly called for life-time bans, even for first offenders (probably a bit harsh). The problem with lifetime bans is that you would have to prove beyond any doubt that the athlete cheated, which means it raises the bar that WADA (or the host federation) needs to clear in order to obtain a guilty verdict, following through with any positive tests it is able to obtain. Given the problems of the past, such a measure seems unfeasible until the testing processes are absolutely airtight and completely infallible. Anything less leaves open an even wider gap than before.

2009 will bring the interesting next steps in this doping war. 2008 is probably a tie, the first for a long time (doping authorities having previously been outmanoevured and outmuscled). They'll be hoping 2009 continues the momentum. But it will take manpower, money and a mighty effort.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 6

Number 6: Sammy Wanjiru in Beijing - too hot to handle

Number 6 on our Top 8 of '08 takes us back to Beijing to look a little more closely at Sammy Wanjiru's remarkable marathon victory in Beijing.

If you needed any reminder of it, Wanjiru became Kenya's first Olympic Marathon champion (in itself an incredible fact given the Kenyan dominance over marathon running) by scorching his way to a win in 2:06:32.

It was an Olympic record, one of the fastest marathons ever run, in a race without pace-makers, and most significantly of all, in hot and humid conditions. The graph below shows the splits from the race, for those who missed it.

There are many reasons why this run was so spectacular, both as a spectator and from the scientific point of view (which is, after all, the theme of this Top 8 series).

The pacing - last man standing

Firstly, you'll notice that the pace early on was almost on world record pace. Given that the temperatures were at least 10 degrees higher than is usually the case for the elite marathon runners, combined with high humidity, this was aggressive front-running the likes of which we've never seen.

The result is seen in the overall pacing strategy of the race - only one athlete in the whole race managed to run a negative split. That was an Italian who came 15th in a 2:14 time.

Wanjiru was the best of the top 10 men - his first half was run in 62:34, his second in 63:58, a difference of 1:24. That's huge for men at this level, who normally run close to even pace, but consider that Wanjiru's rivals were blown away by almost three minutes, and you realise that the Beijing conditions were so tough that the best runners in the world lost five or six minutes in the second half of the race. Incredibly, the average difference between first and second halves for the Top 10 was 4:03, testament to the conditions and the brutality of the pace set by Wanjiru (and Martin Lel, who is one of those who faded in the second half, finishing fifth)

The heat - physiology to the fore, Las Vegas style

But that is not the reason that Wanjiru's performance scoops our sixth place of Top 8 moments.

Rather, it's because Wanjiru's win was, from a physiological point of view, proof of an observation we've made a few times here on The Science of Sport - the smaller you are, the better you'll go in the heat.

Obviously, Wanjiru is a world class athlete, perhaps the next world record holder in the marathon. His 2:06:32 in Beijing is, in my opinion, the best marathon ever run, better than what Haile G would go on to do in Berlin in October. So Wanjiru is likely to have won no matter what the conditions - hot and humid, ice-cold and windy, Wanjiru seems the class act.

But what was most interesting to me, as a scientist, is the role that Wanjiru's small size played in his victory - weighing in at only 51kg, he was one of the smallest men in the race. And size matters in the heat. You'll recall that when the body temperature rises above 40 degrees, the athlete stops running - this is the "limit" to exercise, and so if that athlete wants to finish the marathon, they must run slowly enough to prevent their temperature from hitting 41 degrees before the 42km mark.

We can calculate the increase in body temperature that would be expected if an athlete runs at a certain pace on a certain day, using mathematical models. There are theoretical predictions, of course, and should not be taken literally, but rather to illustrate a point. Take a look at the following graph, which shows the maximum possible distance that can be run at different marathon paces for two different athletes, one weighing 60kg (blue), the other 70kg (red).

It should be immediately obvious that the smaller athlete, shown by the blue bars, is able to run further before they hit that limiting core temperature - for example, at 2:08 marathon pace, the 60kg athlete can run for just over 38 km, the 70kg athlete would make it about 30km before having to stop and cool down.

One can work out the fastest possible time that the athlete can run and still finish 42.2km. For the 60kg runner, it is about 2:10:20. For the 70kg athlete, it is 2:18:22. Again, this is not exact, because the mathematical equations don't provide exact guidelines, only illustrations of the key principle. That principle is that the larger athlete will overheat sooner on a hot day, and therefore must run slower in order to finish the race. This difference is enormous - 8 minutes thanks to 10kg of extra weight.

Now, enter Sammy Wanjiru. At 51kg, he was one of the smallest men in the race - the second smallest, if my searches were correct. Using the same formula we have above, we can work out that the theoretical limit for Sammy Wanjiru would be a 2:05:45, which means he is right on that limit, but still inside it. What he did in Beijing is therefore spectacular, impressive, but still physiologically predictable.

So predictable, in fact, that you'll find quite a nice tight correlation if you look at the order of finishers plotted against the mass of the runner. Sports science, Las Vegas style, says that if you want to place a bet on the winner, go first for the smallest runner, and then work out which small man is likely to be the best. The smaller guys tend to be better in the heat. In cooler races, this is not as significant (for other reasons, smaller athletes do tend to dominate running - this dominance is even greater in hot conditions). Just for the record, the smallest man in the race was Tsegay Kebede, of Ethiopia - he weighs in at 50kg, and he came third! Gharib, I believe, comes in at 56 kg.

So Sammy Wanjiru scoops position number 6 on our Top 8 list, thanks to his excellent demonstration of a principle of physiology. He happens to be an incredible runner too, and 2009 might just see him find his way onto the list as well, if he can get the right race on the right day, with the right pacemakers, because he's good for that world record.

Enjoy the weekend, and join us next week for the Top 5!


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 7

Number 7: The margins between victory and defeat, and the myopia of sports science

Since the 1970's, the Olympic Games have thrust human performance squarely into the limelight. The margin between Olympic gold and failure is so small, so intangible, that four years of work and training can often be undermined by the length of a fingernail. And so the seventh biggest story of the year, through the sports science lens, is the margin between success and failure, and my somewhat philosophical perception of the role of science in determining the outcome.

Much of this is inspired by my own personal experiences this year, first with South African sport (where science is non-existent, and where the sports science is viewed so narrowly as to make it obsolete), and then with the SA Sevens Rugby Team, where the coach (Paul Treu) and manager (Sebastian Prim) have shown South Africa just what proper intellect and science can do for performance, and created the template for high performance success that the rest of the country, maybe even the world, should be copying in the future (rest of SA, take note).

Race of millimeters

Take for example the picture below, which I'm sure many of you have seen. It is a photo taken from the bottom of the Beijing pool, and it shows, on your left, Michael Phelps, on his way to his 7th gold medal, and on your right, Milorad Cavic of Serbia, on his way to a silver medal in the 100m butterfly event.

Had you not seen this race, however, you'd be tempted to tell me that I've mixed up my right and left. There is no way, surely, that Cavic, on your right, can lose this race. He has led for 99.5 m of a 100m race, and is centimeters from the wall. But Phelps touched first, by 1/100th of a second, in one of the moments of the Games.

It is against this backdrop, where gold and silver, history and anonymity are separated by millimeters, that sports sciences and the value of attention to detail become apparent. If you look at Cavic on your right, you'll see that as part of his early reach for the wall, he has begun to hyperextend the neck, and the result is that his head is starting to rise out of the water. Phelps, on the other hand, has made a call to get one last stroke in. His head is down, his arms are making one final sweep for the wall, and he is about to pip Cavic on the line.

What this race comes down to then, is Cavic's head position, which may have increased his drag (this is according to Phelps himself), and the timing of a lunge for the wall. Such are the margins between gold and silver. Phelps goes on to become the first man in history to win 8 gold medals at a Games, Cavic may never again be so close to an Olympic gold and a place in history as the man who denied Phelps the perfect Games.

Sports science - a marketing myopia and short-sightedness that creates lose-lose situations

Now, this may not seem like a normal application of science to you, and herein lies the key point - our understanding of human performance has evolved, and hence the way we apply sports science to performance must be revised. It is no longer acceptable to simply define sports science as the measurement of a VO2max and lactate concentration during a test on a treadmill or stationary bike.

This understanding is unfortunately what we sit with in South Africa. To many, sports science means a finger-prick, a VO2max test and a laboratory where performance outcomes can be conveniently measured and predicted based on a set of nice, ordered numbers. I am sure that many of you reading this are familiar with this kind of attitude or approach to sports science - "What do you do as a sports scientist?", is the common question. "Well, we measure VO2max values and lactate values and can tell you how fit you are or how good an athlete you are" is the common, and ultimately ignorant answer. Remarkably, this is the level of service that is offered to most sports, certainly in South Africa, perhaps around the world.

It is an attitude that comes from sports scientists themselves, who suffer from the same short-sightedness that marketing expert Theodore Levitt wrote about in his famous "Marketing Myopia" paper in the Harvard Business Review. Sports scientists often suffer from myopia, not fully understanding their own business and value, and ultimately creating a lose-lose situation, where they fail to add value to athletes and coaches, and eventually reduce their own value as a result.

The consequence of this attitude towards sports science is that the sciences and intellect are relegated to the role of support function, rather than becoming a driving force behind athlete preparation and performance. A few countries have managed to overcome this problem, and have succeeded instead in immersing sports science with athlete preparation. Rather than being a sideline function, sports science should form part of the strategy, an integral part of the preparation of the athlete.

South Africa have not yet done this, and a case in point is the recent decision by some of our sporting codes to veer away from the best expertise and towards the facilities and location. Given the margins for error, the tiny differences that separate champions from losers, one can ill afford to prepare with anything less than the best. When administrators then choose to bypass the best people, they are asking to lose - they are the losers. This pre-occupation with facilities is the inevitable outcome when people are too ignorant to recognize the importance of sports science in the strategy, and would rather use it as a support service only.

The new wave of sports science

What is required from the new view of sports science is a comprehensive, intellectual approach to sport that INTEGRATES and IMMERSES the sciences into the day-to-day preparation of the athlete. My background is in both sports science and management, and I recall the words of a famous management theorist, Peter Drucker, who was known to say that "you can't manage what you don't measure".

And this is where sports science is heading - the measurement of ALL aspects of athlete preparation and performance. Once this begins, it is not difficult to see how the sports scientist, being immersed in the measurement of various performance indicators for the athlete, would soon develop a large role in the preparation of the athlete. Once measurements are being made, they form the basis for subsequent improvements. These improvements are measured, and further changes, in pursuit of further improvements, are the result. The continual measurement, adjustment of training/technique, and measurement of response form the basis for athlete development, and just happen to be the scientific method. This would soon expand into a role in the selection of athletes, the identification of talented juniors, and significant inputs into the strategy of the sport for high performance.

This situation already exists in many nations, where coaches and teams of advisors work with athletes to make sure that every single avenue for improvement is explored. The coaches of many of the technical events, for example, are men and women who hold high level degrees in biomechanics. These are people who have spent years of their lives trying to find ways to find half a meter of improvement, a degree of difference. When you consider that many athletes don't even video-tape their technique and performances, then the problem becomes apparent - if you fail to invest in intellect, if you fail to immerse that intellect and science in the process of performance, then you will find yourself on the losing end.

And so the 7th biggest story of the year, from the sports science annals, is the changing of (my) understanding of the role of the science in performance.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 8

Number 8: The experiment that never happened... dangerous pollution in Beijing

As promised, today begins a short series which also serves as our summary of the year's sports science news. I'll be looking at the Top 8 stories of 2008, with a sports science spin (in case you were wondering, eight is the lucky number of the year - just ask the Chinese who started the Games on 8/8/08, and Michael Phelps, who bagged 8 golds! That, plus the fact that I couldn't think of 10!).

At a later stage, I'll look back at my own personal highs and lows of the year in sport, the more news-oriented post, but for now, it's the stories with the sports science angle that take the limelight. And we begin with NUMBER 8.

Beijing pollution: The world held its breath

One year to the day before the Games would begin, back on the 8th of August, 2007, the Beijing pollution problem hit the news for the first time, when the IOC President Jacques Rogge cautioned that some events may need to be rescheduled because of Beijing's notorious pollution problem. The events in 'danger' were the endurance events, like the road cycling and marathon events.

In anticipation of this problem, Beijing's organizing committee initiated all kinds of strategies to reduce the problem - a timetable that would allow only odd-numbered licence plates on the road on certain days, even-numbered plates on other days was one example. Factories were relocated, though this would later cause controversy when it emerged that initial promises to do this were not kept.

As potentially damaging as this situation could be, it didn't capture the public's attention too much, until about March this year. That's when the new world record holder in the marathon event, Haile Gebrselassie, announced that he was considering WITHDRAWING from the Olympic marathon because of this pollution issue.

That announcement, predictably, caused an enormous stir. Gebrselassie suggested that he did not wish to risk his health by running Beijing, and would instead compete in the 10,000m event (for the record, he followed through on his word, and did exactly this. Many people, including me, felt at the time that the pollution was a convenient excuse to miss the Olympics to focus on the Berlin Marathon and attempt the world record. He did this as well)

Other athletes had weighed in on this debate (Meseret Defar apparently called the conditions "disgusting"), but it was the sports science reaction that was most interesting.

Elite athletes in the "laboratory" - reminiscent of 1968

Back in 1968, the Olympic Games were headed to Mexico City, at an altitude of 2,240m (7,349 ft). There was much debate about the effect of the altitude on the elite athletes, and because of physiologist's experience (and the obvious experience of athletes) with exercise at altitude, it was known that performances would be affected. Few knew, however, just how large the impact would be, because the level of athlete in question had never been observed in laboratory studies.

Some were suggesting that the altitude would be dangerous to athletes' health, others suggested that elite athletes would be better able to handle the change, and the effects would be minimal. As it transpired, perhaps the biggest effect was on the sprinters and speed athletes. Bob Beamon just about jumped right over the sand pit to set one of the most amazing world records in history in the long jump (8.90m). All the sprint records fell at the meeting. It was a sprinter's paradise.

The other major impact was that East Africans started their dominance of events on the track. Every single medal from 1500m upwards was won by an African who had been born and raised at altitude. Time has shown that these African athletes would probably have dominated running regardless of altitude, but 1968 was their coming-out party, no doubt aided by the altitude, to which they were far more adapted (as Ron Clarke found out - see picture to the right. Clarke was favoured to win the 10,000m, but he collapsed after the final and had to be hospitalized, medal-less)
So Mexico City answered the question. Beijing didn't.

Precautions were taken...diplomatic disasters and scientific preparation

The big nations certainly took every precaution to avoid the potential effects of the Beijing haze and smog. The Australians announced an asthma-specialist in their 50-man medical team. The Great Britain team, along with the USA, Japan and Germany, developed much spoken about "gas masks" that athletes should wear when warming up and around the village. The USA had a head start, because they adapted masks that had been developed by the CIA in response to terrorism threats for the Athens Games four years earlier.

It was one of these masks that caused some of the early controversy in Beijing, when one of the USA's track cyclists arrived in the Beijing airport wearing the mask (see picture on the left). The minor diplomatic crisis was averted by a heartfelt letter of apology from the athlete and the US Olympic Committee!

And then, just as suddenly as the smog had started dominating the headlines, the controversy disappeared (unlike the smog cloud over Beijing typically does).

August 2008 was, however different. In the end, the pollution may have played a very tiny role in performances, and no doubt some athletes were affected. But once the action began, the pollution issue was (perhaps rightly) relegated to an afterthought, replaced by on-field action. To this day, I've not yet seen a research paper on the effects of the pollution (though I'm sure someone was monitoring the levels and athlete's symptoms - if you did, and you're reading this, we'd love to hear from you!).

As for the distance events, the following results were achieved:

  • Men's 5000m - new Olympic record
  • Men's 10000m - new Olympic record
  • Women's 10000m - new Olympic record (and perhaps fastest and second fastest "clean" times in history?)
  • Men's Marathon - new Olympic record
The women's marathon, meanwhile, was run in cool conditions, with light rain, meaning that the pollution levels were unlikely to be especially high, and so the slowish time was a function of tactics, not the limiting air quality.

So on a pure-performance basis, Beijing will be recorded in history as "ideal" for long-distance running! That of course does not tell us whether or not the pollution made a difference. Perhaps nothing will, and we'll be left to guess forever?

We did receive some emails from within the village, from scientists who were working with some of the teams (the teams who actually bother to send this kind of expertise - you can be sure it was not South Africa). Their reports suggested that some of the athletes were having some problems, with sinusitis, breathing difficulties, headaches, burning eyes etc.

Quite how this translated into on-field/track performance is impossible to know. If there is a study out there, please let me know, I'll gladly report on it!

But until then, the Number 8 Sports Science story of 2008 was the lack of any noticeable impact of pollution on performance, probably because the experiment never happened! I would guess that the measures taken by Beijing's organizing commitee, combined with the frequent rainfall during August, meant that Beijing's pollution levels were probably pretty close to "normal" for the Games. And that, in turn, meant that the theoretical problems, were never encountered. Much hyped, much spoken about, blamed for Gebrselassie's absence from the Marathon, the controversy disappeared as suddenly as the Games began.

So, we were denied our "experiment", but we got some fantastic performances instead. A fair swap, and our Number 8 story.

Join us tomorrow for Number 7!


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Preview of December

Winding down 2008 with a Top 8 of '08

A quick post this evening to preview what remains here at The Science of Sport for 2008.

We have had a bumper year, filled with World Marathon Majors, Tour de France doping scandals (and signs of a fightback by doping control!), technological controversies (Speedo and Pistorius), and of course, the big highlight of 2008, the Beijing Olympic Games, which we did our very best to cover "behind the scenes" (physiologically speaking of course!)

Over the course of the last year, we've seen amazing growth here as well - some time tomorrow, we'll hit our 400,000th visitor since we started out about 18 months ago! And we have a few big ideas to build on the last 12 months. As I mentioned in my last post, it's looking like I'll have a little more time on my hands to actually implement some of the ideas we've picked up (many of them from you) in the last few months. So that's something to look forward to (hopefully!).

But for the rest of 2008, and now that the sports world is winding down, it's a good time to reflect on the year, and so for the next two weeks, I'll be starting a new series called "The Top 8 of '08".

The series will look at the Top 8 sports stories of 2008, from the perspective of Sports Science. In keeping with our Mission Statement and Vision, our purpose here is to provide that second and third-level of insight, to look beyond what happened, and try to interpret how it happened, why it happened. And so this Top 8 series will be my attempt to look at the year through the "X-ray Glasses" of a sports scientist.

I have a fair idea of what those Top 8 stories will be - the swimsuit issue, doping in sport etc are obvious candidates. But, as always, I welcome suggestions, so if you have any stories you'd like to nominate, feel free to do so, either in the comments section below this, or on our FaceBook group. (if you haven't joined, click here to join now!)

Join us over the next two weeks for a more story-book look back on science and sport in 2008!


Friday, December 05, 2008

Olympic funding discussions

Hang-gliders in space races. Or just flap your arms, really really fast

Sorry for the silent week, once again. The last embers of a dying year command attention! The good news is that I'll have much more time on my hands next year, at least at first...so the posting frequency will rise substantially in the new year!

For today, since it's Friday, and not many people read the emails over the weekend, I thought I would do a short post on a story that has been reported on widely in the last week, and which is based mostly around my other sports-passion - that of sports management.

You'll recall that the Beijing Olympics brought a great deal of discussion around high performance sport, and what it takes to succeed in Olympic competition. South Africa (my country) highlights this by doing the exact opposite in most situations to what should be done. So we are the model for anti-high performance sport by our own example.

But the UK had its best Olympic Games in 100 years, an incredible achievement considering the competitive nature of world sport and the fact that the Chinese in particular have emerged so strongly as a sporting superpower. And with the 2012 Olympics heading to London, UK Sport are turning their attention to 2012. And this past week, they announced the funding figures for 2012.

UK Sport funding for 2012 - enormous investment, 'no compromise'

The figure announced, according this excellent and detailed article, is 550 million pounds, an incredible investment that will have caused tremendous debate within the UK. The investment into high-performance sport is always contentious, and one of the problems we have here in SA, of course, is that as a developing nation, government spending must be prioritized on many more pressing social issues, like employment, education and health-care. I certainly agree with that, but spending is of course, relative, and even with those considerations, sports spending here in SA is very low. More than this, it is the application of the funding, and the return generated on those investments that should be questioned. An investment of say R100million can be justified if it is effective. In South Africa, R100 is wasted when spent on sport in the current climate.

That debate around spending on high performance sport was ignited in the UK this past week. For an excellent discussion on it, this article from The Times is well worth a read.

The UK policy is one of "no compromise" - sports with medal hopes are supported, those with slim chances are rather ruthlessly culled. This is the next cause for debate. Take athletics, for example. Given that the UK fared "disappointinly" in Beijing's Bird Nest, UK Sport have cut the funding by 5%, allocating "only" 25.1 million Pounds to the sport.

This compares to increases received by rowing, sailing, diving, swimming and cycling, to name a few. The biggest allocation was to rowing, which receives 27.4 million Pounds, up from 26 million for the Beijing Games, while cycling receives 26.9 million, a reward for the domination of the velodrome and roads of Beijing.

For athletics, it's a bitter blow. The "poor performance" in Beijing was that they won one gold, and only four medals in total. In Athens, they won five medals, including three gold. But two of those gold were won by Kelly Holmes, one of the great athletes of the Games. Still, they had projected five medals in Beijing, and failure, by one medal, was enough to see changes in UK athletics. The performance director was released and replaced, and new allocations of funding made almost before the athletes had hung up their medals after returning from Beijing.

That approach - the tough, no compromise approach draws many critics. Some will argue that if a sport is performing poorly, increased investment is required. In business, one might decide to invest heavily in the hope that a poorly performing unit can become profitable. UK have taken the opposite approach, the equivalent of "selling off". Not quite, however, because the amount given, 25.1 million, should still allow athletics to put into place structures and systems that can begin to convince higher authorities that they are worthy of more funding in the future. The balance between wasteful over-investment and punishment is a fine one!

You can see a table of all the sports codes, and their allocations at this site.

Just to put into perspective the amount being spent, in South Africa between 2004 and 2008, a total of R60 million was spent on high performance sport. The UK spent 550 million Pounds. That is 140 times more than was spent on the sport in SA over the same period.

The Australian reaction - hang-gliders in the space race

In response to this announcement, sports officials in Australia have warned that they will be unable to compete with the likes of Great Britain given that they have received less than half the allocation from the Australian Sports Commission.

In the words of Rowing Australia chief executive Andrew Dee, "We have to decide upfront whether as a nation we want to be successful. You can't join the space race with a hang-glider. If you say you are going to space, you need a spaceship. If you want to be successful, you can't then spread the funding too thinly. We need a quantum leap forward."

Winning and losing - a decision, a commitment and expertise

Couldn't have put it better myself. The reality (which may be unfortunate in the eyes of some people, I suspect), is that success at sport is a committment of time, money and people. Failure to recognize this guarantees failure to win. In the world of elite sport, you are either doing whatever is required to win, or you are likely to lose. That's not to say that if you spend money, you'll guarantee the win, because the way that money is spent is the key determinant of success. And nations like Kenya and Jamaica have shown that medals can be won "cheaply" when sufficiently talented athletes are given the opportunity to train and compete. But regardless of the system, it identifies talented athletes, prioritizes qualified, educated coaches, and supports the athlete-coach relationship. That support is where the realm of sports science enters the picture, and the UK system, like that of the Australian, the US, and the Chinese, has recognized and invested in this.

South Africa - flapping the arms

But in South Africa (to close on a note that is closer to home), we've failed on all three accounts. No one has made a firm decision, no one has committed the necessary level of support (plenty of talk goes around), and no one has bothered to recruit the right expertise at the expense of vested interests and financial incentives. Politics and other personal incentives take precedence, and the result is that sporting federations are still amateur, sports science is 15 years behind the rest of the world (sports science means more than a finger-prick lactate and VO2max test), and the athletes are permanently competing against professionals with little hope of success.

I mentioned the example of UK athletics - four medals in Beijing, instead of Five, was enough to see the Performance Director released, funding cut, and many athletes 'culled' from the funding system.

In South Africa, we went to Beijing, had the worst Olympics for 72 years, one a single silver medal in ALL sports, and little has changed. In fact, we have found a means to promote certain people, who were involved with the 'blowout in Beijing", into higher positions within SA sport.

So while the Australian enter the race with a hang-glider, South Africa stands, ready for lift-off, flapping their arms as fast as possible, because after all, if you're happy to be one of the losers when the medals are handed out, it doesn't matter much if you fail to get off the ground. And if you fall, well, it's not a long way down when you're in the basement already.