Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Friday, June 13, 2008

World Record 110m Hurdles

Note: This is our second post today - the first was a preview of Sunday's Comrades Marathon for all our "ultra-marathon" fans...you can scroll down to check out that post if you're receving our daily email.

Dayron Robles ups the ante: Liu Xiang is definitely losing sleep now!

We're a little slow on the uptake on this one, but I guess better late than never...

Dayron Robles of Cuba, out of nowhere, has broken the 110m hurdles world record!

His time - 12.87 seconds, which shaves 0.01 seconds off the previous best, held by Liu Xiang of China. It caps a pretty bad week for the Chinese superstar - he has been battling with a hamstring injury, and he then false started to get disqualified at the Prefontaine Meeting, leading to wide speculation that he'd done it on purpose to avoid the pressure of race defeat. Now, Robles of Cuba, aged just 21, has upped the pressure on the Beijing poster boy even more.

Everyone has been looking at Robles for the last two seasons, saying that if anyone was going to knock Liu of the top step of the podium, it would be the talented Cuban. Earlier this year, he was unbeatable indoors, until he got himself disqualified at the World Championships. That was a major blow, because had he gone through with the deal, he should have beaten Liu for the gold there, gaining another notch in the psychological battle that is bound to peak in Beijing in August.

But, now, at the Ostrava meeting last night, he's finally delivered on his promise, and announced to the world that come Beijing, Liu is going to have to be 100% perfection to fulfil the expectations of a billion people - the margin for error, already tiny in the high hurdles event, just got a lot smaller!

Who would want to be Liu Xiang?

A week ago, when we gave a brief summary of the Prefontaine meeting, we mentioned the enormous pressure that Xiang finds himself under.

Late last year, we did a post giving out our own Science of Sport Awards to the best achievers of 2007. It was somewhat tongue-in-cheek (Marion Jones received the Undo-A-Lifetime-Achievement Award, for example), but we did mention then that Liu Xiang should be the recipient of the "Losing Sleep Over the Future Award". The pressure he must find himself under is immense. I can't think of another athlete who has ever been under the kind of scrutiny that Liu will find himself under in Beijing, if he's not already! A billion people have looked at him, an individual competing in one the most technical events arounds, as their great hope for a track and field medal.

And to date, he has handled himself admirably. He took the world record in 2007 in Lausanne, he won the World title in Osaka, he's delivered on every major stage so far, and so it's not so much a case of Liu folding under the pressure as it is of the other narrowing the gap on him over time. The Olympic Games may (and it's early days yet) be a few months too late for Liu, if his rivals can continue their progress - already this year, there have been two sub-13 second clockings (David Oliver was the other athlete, running is Qatar), and so Liu's buffer is slowly being eroded.

So what of Beijing? Perhaps Robles and Liu both crack under pressure, and a third party steals it

That said, I'd still make him the favourite for Beijing, purely because his rivals are just about as untested as he is under that kind of pressure. The 110m hurdles event, to repeat, has the smallest margin for error at the best of times. A millisecond too early or too late, or a millimeter too low or too high, and the race rhythm can be lost and so any tension or over-arousal out the blocks can serious undermine the best efforts.

And in a perverse way, this world record by Robles has ensured that he too will go to Beijing under intense pressure. Had he kept his great form "hidden" and gone there as one of seven men who "might" dethrone Liu, then he could slip under the blanket of pressure the 110m hurdles athletes will face. However, the attention of a global audience is now squarely on his shoulders, as much as it is on Liu's. What are the chances that neither of these two wins gold, and some as yet-unknown or unfancied athlete running in lane 2 or lane 7 sneaks through to win? Stranger things have happened, and the situation just seems to me to be developing to the point where that may indeed happen. Were I a betting man, I'd pick the American champion, whoever that may be (after the US Olympic trials, that is).

Regardless, a great performance by Robles, and time will tell if he can get even faster and repeat this kind of form. Liu knows he can - he's run sub-12.90 twice. Quite how both handle Beijing's cauldron remains to be seen. Yet another Olympic event building nicely to a crescendo!