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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Gebrselassie and Beijing Part 3

Gebrselassie hints at reversing his decision to withdraw from the Olympic Marathon

Just time for a very short post today (I promise I'll find time and tackle running shoes and barefoot running soon!), and thanks to Lorenzo for providing the following link, which hints that Haile Gebrselassie may actually go back on his decision to pull out of the Olympic Marathon!

BBC News article: Gebrselassie drops marathon hint

In the article, Gebrselassie is quoted as saying that he will consider running the Marathon, but only if:

  1. The start time is changed, to take place in the cooler part of the day, and;
  2. The course is moved away from the city centre, where pollution is in theory the worst
"I do not want to rule anything out at this point," were his words.

Now, I remember a previous occasion where Gebrselassie made similarly bizarre requests. The event was the IAAF World Championships in athletics, held in Seville, Spain, in 1999. Gebrselassie withdrew from the 10,000m event saying that the track surface was too hard to run long distance races on! There was talk at the time, if I remember correctly, that he actually asked the meeting organizers to pour water on the track just before the start, so that it could be softened!

They refused (I suspect they knew that it wouldn't work, along with everyone else), and so he said he would not run. Eventually, he was "persuaded" to run by a combination of pressure from the Ethiopian federation, and I seem to recall that his shoe sponsor Adidas designed extra-cushioned spikes for him to run in!

So perhaps this is all just the same thing, 11 years later. Or maybe it's Gebrselassie's rather unique sense of humour. Whatever the case, when I first read the announcement, I was quite sceptical that he'd actually go through and pull out. He may yet, but I wouldn't be that surprised if he changes his mind and lines up on the roads, even if it is inside the city centre!

More information on the conditions in Beijing

Just one more story I picked up on in the news in the last couple of days - apparently, in September last year (which is only a few weeks after the Olympics will end this year, so weather conditions are much more similar than for the Beijing Marathon in October), Beijing hosted a pre-Olympics Mountain Bike event, to serve as a trial run for the Games.

Well, 50 cyclists started the race, and a grand total of.......EIGHT athletes managed to finish, most dropping out, in part due to oppressive heat, in part due to difficulty breathing! It's apparently difficult to differentiate between the two - very hot and humid air is certainly difficult to breathe (if you've ever been in a steam bath, you'll relate). And we received a great comment with some personal experience from Jamie, which you can read below in the Comments section - he was in Beijing last August for a test event on the rowing course. His report? Heat and humidity were significant factors, but the pollution not so noticeable.

We've of course neglected to focus on the heat in the last few posts, courtesy of Gebrselassie's decision based on the pollution. But there's no question that the heat and humidity are going to be significant factors. If that's what Beijing has in store come August this year, then it's anyone's guess who'll win the endurance events. My money is still on an athlete who is based in the Far East - a Kenyan who lives and races there (think Wanjiru), or one of the locals, seems the best bet.

But, in closing I do just have to add that I don't believe there is a long term danger of exposure to that pollution on a very short term basis. Gebrselassie has been quoted as saying that he fears for his long term health, and more recently, that "our [the athletes] safety has to be protected". I certainly believe the pollution will compromise performance, but the worst case scenario, in my estimation, is that an athlete will be unable to breathe, maybe feel nauseous and pull out of the race quite early on. But he'll live to fight another day, and no long term, residual effects will slow him/her down for years to come. So as I said previously, a short term negative effect, absolutely. But I don't buy this theory of long term damage - the exposure is just too short.

Anyway, that's all on this issue, for now. I have a feeling that we'll be coming back to it again in the future.

Oh, and last thing, as much as I would love to claim that Haile Gebrselassie is changing his mind as a result of reading this site, I can't bring myself to do that!



Jamie said...

HI Ross

I was in beijing last August for the test event for the rowing course at Shunyi, the Junior World Rowing Championships. Although there was a thick fog for most of the time the German and British teams were testing the air every few hours and from what their coaches told me after and several month later at a coaching conference they did not find an problems with the air at the course.

This is of course 50km from central beijing but having stayed in the city centre is was not too bad their either. I wasnt running but spent most of the week walking around the city sightseeing.

As far as the mountain bikers, their course was close to the great wall where we went walking one day and it was extremely hot and humid. Several thousand tourists start the walk up that section and only a handful finished. During the two hours I spent going up and down at least 4 ambulances took people away who had collapsed walking up the wall.

Beijing is very demanding because of heat and humidity. I think that these will take a greater toll than the pollution

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jamie

Thanks for that - some inside information! Very interesting indeed!

Certainly, the heat and humidity remain the biggest problem, and at least it's one that can be adapted to and prepared for. I hope the athletes don't forget that - it always amazes me that some will arrive in a venue having neglected that aspect of their preparation - it was the same in Atlanta and in Athens, where the heat and humidity were also major factors. I know the British team has a few training camps planned in hot weather locations (though I suspect you know more than I do about that!) - they were even in South AFrica earlier this year. I wonder if Gebrselassie is more concerned with heat than pollution, but the focus of the reported stories is the pollution?

Closer to the time, we'll have a good discussion going on the heat, I'm sure. We both did our PhD's on exercise in the heat, so we look forward to that!

Very interesting though - I'll edit the post above and make mention of your comment, because it adds a lot to the discussion, thank you!


Anonymous said...

Very interesting debate. Did you see this?
Apparently Haile may be forced to do the marathon. Bit of a turn around from comments last week.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Edward

Thanks for the link - I did see that article, it came across the wires yesterday.

I seem to recall that the same happened in 1999, when Geb pulled out of the IAAF world champs - that was the event I described in this post above. I recall that pressure from the administration eventually forced Geb to run. Realistically, there's little chance that any federation would allow their most valuable "property" to compromise the Olympics. And given that Ethiopia has such a rich history, especially in the marathon, and that Geb is pretty much the brightest star in the sky, this doesn't surprise me in the slightest. In fact, ever since the story broke, I've been incredibly sceptical that come August, he'll actually still be singing the same tune. He's just too 'valuable' to bypass the Olympic marathon for what are personal reasons. Interesting debate, from a management point of view, is who actually owns the athlete?

Anyway, there's more in this story, we'll keep a finger on it!


Anonymous said...

Hi !

Hey, don´t overestimate the pollution effect on the respiratory system of the athletes. To my knowledge, there is only very limited scientifically validated information on this issue. Just remember the Athens games (I was there as part of a team): Prior to them, everybody was complaining of how bad the air would be, and then during the games, not one single athlete I know of had problems that were connected to the pollution. Furthermore, I witnessed the Beijing MTB race mentioned in the article as staff and the reason for the mass-withdrawal was not the breathing but the fact that this was a test event and most riders used it to measure, videotape, GPS-track the course and not for proper racing...After it was done, most withdrew..And the breathing wasn´t that bad!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Thanks indeed for the input, it's great to hear from people who've actually experienced some of the conditions.

I'm not 100% sure what the effect of the pollution will be, for as you point out, there is such limited information. So I suspect that you are possibly quite right, and that we'll get through Beijing without a single noticeable problem.

And in our defence, I don't think we've overestimated the effect - the post I did before this one (Performance and Pollution) in fact suggests that the pollution may not be as bad as people were suggesting. However, it is, and will remain, an unknown quantity until the end of August this year, so it's a great debate to have.

But I am honestly of the opinion that the heat and humidity will be terrible, and I suspect that it may be so bad that we never see a Summer Games taken to place that is so potentially inhospitable again. Much like the 1972 Mexico Games showed that elite athletes were endangered by exposure to extreme altitude, Beijing may do the same for heat and humidity. And quite possibly, pollution, for I don't believe we've ever seen elite athletes exposed to it before.

Time will tell!

Thanks for the insight!