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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Huge drug bust out of Russia

Russia's "finest" women athletes: Suspended from the Olympics for doping-related offences!

Well, yesterday I did a post saying how the upcoming Olympic Games were bound to bring up a few doping stories. I must confess, I did not think that we'd get such a huge story so soon afterwards.

It has emerged that SEVEN of Russia's leading women athletes have been banned from competition with immediate effect following what the IAAF are describing as tampering with the urine samples provided for testing. The rule in question is 32.2, and bans the women for "a fraudulent substitution of urine which is both a prohibited method and also a form of tampering with the doping control process". It would seem that the IAAF, perhaps suspicious of the Russian women for reasons we'll get to in a moment, did DNA analysis on various samples provided by the Russians, and found that the DNA did not match. Therefore, different samples, substitution, call it what you wish, it is grounds to exclude seven women from Beijing.

The seven women include some big names, especially in the world of middle distance running:

  • Tatyana Tomashova - twice world 1500 metres champion
  • Yelena Soboleva - world indoor 1500 metres champion and current world leader over 800m and 1500m
  • Olga Yegorova - former world 5000m champion (and not Paula Radcliffe's favourite athlete - she once protested against Yegorova competing after a positive EPO test)
Soboleva out: world leader in 800m, and a race against Jelimo is denied

Of these three, the biggest disappointment is Soboleva. It was about two weeks ago that Soboleva ran a brilliant (well, at the time) 1:54.85 to win the Russian championships. It was the fastest time in the world this year, beating even the incredible performances of Pamela Jelimo of Kenya.

And OK, when the news broke of that performance, a huge part of me was sceptical, but hope does tend to die hard, and a tiny sliver of hope was looking forward to a race between Soboleva and Jelimo in Beijing. As it the situation now seems to be developing, Jelimo will likely be unchalleged in Beijing (barring her own fall from the peak she's on), and the Games has been denied a great race. If that race was only drug-induced, of course, then it's irrelevant, but a shame nonetheless (any takers on Jelimo's status? Just a thought...)

As for the 1500m event, it also loses a huge name in Tomashova, who has three major medals from the last four outdoor championships, including two golds (Paris and Helsinki). The race will of course be a little more open without her.

Russia's women: A doping flag

Consider the following facts about Russia's women:
  • In 2007, the top 10 lists over 800m featured only two Russian women. As of today, they had 8 out of the top 9 (only Jelimo is non-Russian in position 2)
  • Three of their 800m women have improved by over 2 seconds in 2008 alone (this is not grounds for anything more than suspicion, admittedly)
  • Over 5000m, Russian women are ranked 3rd and 4th, and another two in the top 10 list this year. In 2007, they did not have a single runner in the top-10, suddenly now they have four
  • In track events from 400m up to 10,000m, Russia owns 24 out of the top 60 performances. That's 40%, and in 2007, they only had 18% of the leading performers. This is extra-ordinary dominance over a wide range of events.
Finally, consider that the Russian women who feature in these top 10 lists have only run these times in Russia, and not on the European circuit (Golden Leagues and IAAF events). That is grounds for suspicion, regardless of your hope in clean competition!

The bigger picture: Targeted testing approach pays dividends

Looking at the bigger picture, however, this story is another encouraging step in the right direction for the authorities. There was a time where this would never have happened, and the IAAF might have continued to analyse the urine unsuspecting. But the early reports (and these are early - we'll cover it more as news is released tomorrow) suggest that the IAAF specifically did the DNA analysis as part of an investigation they have been carrying out for more than a year.

That kind of targeted approach is paying off, and it will be interesting to see how the story develops in the next few days, or whether it will remain somewhat hush-hush. It would seem that the IAAF have identified "high-risk" athletes and targeted them in a specific testing approach.

An illusion of control over the doping process

One other point that must be made is that the fact that the women could submit fake samples means that there MUST be some kind of conspiracy or assistance from within the federation or meeting organization level. The doping process is strictly controlled, right down to the point where an official will usually accompany an athlete to make sure that the urine sample collected belongs to the athlete. We can of course remember the famous Hungarian discuss thrower in Athens who implanted a bag of urine in his bladder and ran a catheter out through his penis to falsely provide someone else's urine!

The fact that the Russian women have managed to submit somebody else's urine should be of concern to the IAAF, the IOC and WADA, because it means that the "illusion of control" that the authorities think they have is clearly just that, an illusion. These women were, if the story pans out in the coming days, able to provide samples "officially" without any direct observation of wrong-doing. Who were the "accomplices" and how did the women get away with it?

Let's hope that the biggest impact of this particular story (apart from losing out on Russia's women in the Games) is that we get a step closer to learning how the cheats operate. Any chance of collaboration from the guilty parties, and maybe a lid blown off doping practice yet again? I won't be holding my breath...

We'll keep tabs on this story as it develops, so join us then. In the meantime, I wonder if we'll get a day between now and the start of the Games to actually talk about the competition, rather than doping. Again, I'm not going to hold my breath!


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Olympics on the horizon

Dust settles on le Tour, and the Olympic Games loom on the horizon

Well, it's now 9 days to go before the world's sporting attention turns to Beijing, and the 2008 Olympic Games. As we've tried to do all year, we'll be keeping a close eye on proceedings both on and off the track/pool/fields to bring some insight and analysis of the Games.

You can read all about Beijing's pollution, prospects of doping at the Games, Speedo and Arena's swimsuit wars, and other previews of the Olympics in our "Beijing Build-up" tab above. From now on though, with the Games so close, we'll switch to a specific, theme-by-theme preview, and try to spend the next week or so looking at issues that will be relevant to performance in Beijing.

They will almost certainly include doping, with much going on in the battle against drugs in sport, so I expect a great deal of coverage of this controversial topic. The swimsuit war will finally come to a head, when Speedo's LZR meets Arena's Powerskin Revolution Mach-2 in the pools, and the result should be a slew of world records. We're obviously particularly fond of the endurance events, and so the battles between Kenya and Ethiopia on the track should deliver some fireworks. Expect Ethiopia to dominate, winning at least 8 out of the 12 medals in the men's and women's 5000 and 10000m events (and all the golds).

As for the marathon, can Martin Lel, the greatest marathon runner in the world at the moment, deliver Kenya it's first gold in that event? If he fails, there's a better than good chance that it's another Kenyan who beats him anyway, with Cheruiyot and Wanjiru particularly posing the greatest challenge. We'll look at all these events and more in the weeks to come, and we'll post those articles at this link for those who want to jump straight there.

The world of sport will be going into something of a "hiding" phase for the next week as most of the teams will be taking their athletes to pre-Olympic training camps. Last night, for example, saw the last major track and field meeting before the Olympics, and many of the great athletes were not there, having finished their preparations a week or so earlier. So actually knowing who is taking what into the Games will be difficult, but we'll use the "gap" to build up to what will hopefully be the greatest Olympics yet!

Cycling: The Tour is over, looking back

The Tour de France finished on Sunday, and not surprisingly, it was a procession into Paris that saw Carlos Sastre become Spain's third consecutive champion. The Spaniard won the race with his solo attack on Alp d'Huez, and then held on by riding a great time-trial over 53km on Saturday.

The one man who was favoured to beat Sastre (experts gave him a 60-40 chance, or more) was Cadel Evans, who simply didn't have the legs in the final ride to bridge the 1:34 gap. Whether it was Sastre who rode out of his skin or Evans having a bad day, I guess we'll never know, unless we can get hold of the power output data from the two riders in both their Tour time-trials.

However, interesting observations from Wayne, one of our readers, suggests that if we use Stefan Shumacher as a "benchmark" (since he won both Tour time-trials this year, incredible performance), then it appears that Evans did slide off his performance in that second time-trial.

Looking at the performance, it turns out that Evans was 1.26% slower than Shumacher in the first, 29km time-trial, and fell to 3.26% slower in the final time-trial. Sastre, on the other hand, was 4.8% slower than Shumacher in TT1 and improved to 4.02% slower in TT2. Sastre was therefore better in TT2 (relative to Shumacher), but not by a huge amount, whereas Evans was considerably worse. Bernard Kohl, who surprised all with his final time-trial (including us), improved from 5% slower to 3.7% slower.

There are of course important considerations here, like the fact that the second time-trial, being hillier and longer, might favour guys like Sastre and Kohl, but it's interesting to note that if Evans had even kept the same gap between himself and Shumacher (1.26%), then he would have beaten Sastre by 1:44 and claimed yellow...but it wasn't so much the spectacular time-trialling of Sastre that held the yellow, it was a combination of his moderate improvement and Evans' fatigue after three weeks of hard racing that may have denied him yellow. If we could just get the power data...but thanks Wayne for that insight!

As for the overall summary of the race, that stage on Alp d'Huez was crucial, and I really can't help feeling that if Evans hadn't been caught up by the CSC tactics behind Sastre, and just ridden his own climb, the result would have been different. I am quite sure that by himself, Evans could have ridden the climb in 40:30, rather than the 41:45 he did it in. Had he done this, he'd have gone into the final TT with a 34 second deficit and who knows...?

Ifs and buts get sportspeople nowhere of course, and so we're not suggesting anything should have changed - the strongest man in the final week won the Tour in the end.

The 2008 Tour: A turnaround for cycling?

As for the Tour, it's being hailed as "turnaround" for cycling. Apparently viewership figures were up, spectatorship was higher, and of course, the authorities feel that they are getting to grips with the doping problem. The big feather in the cap of the doping authorities was that they were able to catch guys using a third-generation EPO, which those riders must have felt was not detectable. For once, it turned out, the testers were a step ahead (or level with) the dopers, and that can only send a positive message to all sports.

Four positive tests were eventually returned, and it's been hailed as a success because that is fewer than in previous years (and at least we didn't lose the yellow jersey in the cloud of controversy this time around!). I'm not sure I agree. To me, the number of positive tests tells you nothing about the state of the doping battle, because one could just as easily return not a single positive test because the dopers are that far ahead in the race. So I wouldn't say it's time for high fives and pats on the back just yet - for every MICERA, 3rd generation EPO that can now be caught, there may be 5 drugs that can't, and so the fight must be intensified.

Whether the race was clean this year is difficult to say. Certainly, the days of dominant riders going off the front are over. The jostling for position, the small time gaps, the brutal racing all suggest less doping, which would narrow the physiological gaps. The days of single attacks producing time-gaps of minutes between riders are now over. Sastre succeeded because of the tactical play behind him, but no other attack was able to create that much time in this year's race, which is interesting. So I think it's a step in the right direction, but wouldn't get too carried away just yet!

Thanks for joining us in our coverage of the 2008 Tour, and let's hope Beijing brings the same kind of action!


Saturday, July 26, 2008

Tour de France Final TT

Carlos Sastre wins the Tour de France!

Carlos Sastre started with a lead of 1:34 over Cadel Evans, and most thought he'd lose it to the better time-trialling Australian. But Sastre held firm, did the ride of his life, and has won the Tour de France, barring disaster on the road into Paris tomorrow. Of course, anything can still happen, but only bad luck or trouble will deny the Spanish their third consecutive champion!

In the end, Sastre lost only 29 seconds of his 1:34 lead, and therefore maintained a lead of 1:05 over Evans, who rode bravely but simply didn't have the edge to narrow that gap any more today. In third, perhaps the surprise of the Tour, will be Bernard Kohl of Austria, who no one (including us, as you'll see shortly) gave a chance of even holding onto a top 5 position. Denis Menchov will finish in fourth, and will regret those careless time-losses earlier in the Tour.

How it unfolded: A graphical summary

But today is all about Sastre. Here's how the race unfolded, in a summary diagram. It shows the time gaps, first between Sastre and Evans, and then from Evans to Denis Menchov. These were the "Big 3" before the stage, and so take note that we didn't include Bernard Kohl (apologies to Austrian fans, because we're doing him a disservice), but I honestly didn't think he'd ride that good a time-trial. He gets wedged in between Evans and Menchov at the end, finishing in third overall.

A war of attrition

The time-trial was a war of attrition. The three weeks of racing clearly did more damage to people than most had realised. In the build-up to the day, most experts around the Tour, including fellow riders and team managers felt that Evans would have the 1:34 in hand, and take the lead off Sastre. They said it was 60-40 in favour of Evans. But perhaps they didn't factor in the effect of the yellow jersey on its wearer, and the impact of three weeks of racing on Evans.

Certainly, Evans looked very ragged on the bike and didn't seem to have the edge that he needed to make up 2 seconds per kilometer over Sastre. In the end, he lost 2:05 to the time-trial sensation of the Tour de France, Stefan Shumacher, who won both time-trials. That margin is larger than Evans would have expected, given the stakes for him on the day, and it might suggest that the three weeks took a great deal out of him (understandably). He'll also look back on that day on Alp d'Huez and perhaps wonder what might have been had he ignored the CSC tactics and rode steadily to minimize that gap. Only he'll know what went into that particular day...

Bernard Kohl was even ahead of Evans at the first time-check at 18km, and for a brief moment, it seemed that Evans might not even make second. When added to the fact that Denis Menchov started the day very aggressively and had closed up on Evans in those 18km (as shown in the diagram above), a podium place was even in doubt. In the end, both Kohl and Menchov faltered, and Evans took a deserved second for his consistency. But Sastre was never going to be caught, doing the race of his life to finish in 12th overall.

That's about it as a very broad summary of the day. Below follows my "real-time" analysis of the day, for those interested in my random wanderings while watching!

Until tomorrow!

"Real-time" analysis of the final time-trial

Jonathan previewed the big day earlier, and you can read that post below this one. But for this post, I thought it would be entertaining to do some "real time" analysis of the race, as it unfolds. Of course, it's not "real time", in that most of you will read this on Monday, long after the dust has settled on the battle between Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre, but nevertheless, it makes a change from day late analysis!

To recap, Sastre will start the 53km time-trial with a lead of 1:34 over Evans. Evans is easily the better time-triallist, and looks a marginal favourite to win the title with a big ride today. Most experts interviewed felt the odds were in Evans' favour by about 60 to 40.

Personally, I think that three weeks of racing changes the dynamic drastically, and Sastre may well have come through those three weeks with less "damage" than Evans, certainly relative to where they started. That may not be enough, but I think it's more than likely that the margin by which Evans beat Sastre in the first 29.5km trial won't be repeated. If I have to stick my neck out, I'm saying Sastre will lose the day, but win the Tour by 22 seconds. Time will tell...join us progressively as I update this post.

First news - Kohl struggles into the ramp...or should that be falls off the ramp?

The first big excitement of the day is that Bernard Kohl, who is lying fourth going into today, seems to have either fallen off the start ramp or had some technical problems with his bike. He's wearing the polka dot jersey of KOM - two years ago, Michael Rasmussen wore the polka dots when he crashed twice on the final time-trial. Let's hope Kohl hasn't inherited that jinx!

They're all off

All the riders are out - Sastre has just left the ramp. We'll bring you the splits and the "virtual" positions on the road as the information is provided, along with opinion and insight.

Time check 1: Bernard Kohl surprising all

At the first time-check, Bernard Kohl has actually gone through FASTER than Evans. Highly unexpected, but too early to tell whether Kohl is simply riding out of his shoes, or if Evans is having a weak day. Menchov has also beaten Evans to Time Check 1, eroding the 1:05 that he had at the start. It's now at 42 seconds, just after the 18km time-check, so Menchov is moving ever closer to Evans! Perhaps he is the man who will pressure Sastre. If it does continue, and if Evans does manage to close down on Sastre, then it's quite possible that the top four will all be within seconds of one another. Extra-ordinary tightness at the top!

Carlos Sastre has hit the first time-check in 10th overall, and has only lost 8 seconds of his 1:34 to Evans. He's now 1:26 up on Evans, and 2:15 up on Menchov, who seems to be making the big move. Let's not forget Bernard Kohl, who was also riding faster than Evans up to the first time-check

The importance of an optimal pacing strategy

Of course, the big unknown at this stage is how the riders have elected to pace themselves. Science tells us that for exercise lasting just over an hour, even pacing is the way to optimize performance. That means equal power output throughout the 53km, which is not as simple thanks to the rolling nature of the course.

But in reality, it's likely we'll see a range of pacing strategies, particularly given that the race is on a tactical and timing knife-edge. It's not inconceivable then, that Evans has begun conservatively, or that Sastre has gone out incredibly hard (inspired perhaps by the adrenaline of the yellow jersey?).

Only once we hit the next time check will it become clear whether those first splits are down to pacing or who is having a great day and who is struggling.

Time check 2

Kohl has now slowed a little, his 4-second advantage over Evans at 18km has now been reversed, and he is 4 seconds down on Evans. That means that Evans has moved into third in the overall race, because he began only one second behind Kohl at the start.

Menchov, meanwhile, went through 36km slightly closer to Evans - at 18km, he'd made up 16 seconds, at 36km, he's made up 22 seconds. Still lying 43 seconds behind, and gaining more slowly than before. He's also not looking very fluid, though neither is Evans, to be honest. It does seem to be something of a war of attrition on the roads. I suspect that three weeks of cumulative fatigue are doing more to these riders than many experts had thought.

The next man to arrive at 36km is Sastre...he hits the 36km mark only 23 seconds down on Evans. That means that Sastre remains 1:11 ahead of Evans, with only a third of the final time-trial remaining. Barring disaster, or a complete blowout by Sastre in the final 17km, he'll hang onto that yellow jersey. It seems the 40% odds have swung in his favour today!

Finish line

Over the final 17km, Menchov has faltered. He's lost time on those who he was beating previously, and his time gap over Evans on the day has come down. Bernard Kohl will be most relieved about that, because he'll hang onto his podium place, which he certainly deserves after his aggression and courage in the race.

As for Evans, he's failed to close down on Sastre. The GPS analysis of the race have even suggested that Sastre has claimed back some lost time in the last few kilometers. Sastre will definitely hold onto his jersey.

Evans has finished just over 2 minutes behind the stage winner, Shumacher. That's a large margin, a sign that perhaps he wasn't at his best today (that's not really in doubt, I guess).

Sastre is now coming in to finish, having caught his team mate Frank Schleck on the road. An easy day out for Schleck, or a very bad one, but a great day for Sastre, who has ridden easily the best time-trial of his life.

He crosses the line, in 12th place, but only 30 or so seconds slower than Evans. Having started with 1:34, he wins by more than a minute. If it was a surprise that Sastre won, it's even more surprsing to see the margin.

So it will be Sastre, Evans, and Kohl in Paris tomorrow.

le Tour de France 2008: It all comes down to 53 km!

Six riders within reach of the podium or yellow

The year's tour has so far covered 19 stages and nearly 3,500 km, and during all that time we have seen no fewer than seven different cyclists in yellow. Yet after all that, it comes down to the final 53 km individual time trial, and even more, we have six cyclists with a chance at either the podium or yellow. Could we have asked for a closer race? It brings back memories of the 1989 tour when Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon by only eight seconds, a unit of time since immortalized as "one Fignon" by sports scientists like us. Indeed, we could see an even closer finish this year!

The situation: six within five

The top six cyclists are separated by only five minutes. That may sound like an eternity in the tour, but consider that Cadell Evans (4th), Denis Menchov (5th), and Christian Vande Velde (6th) all beat Sastre (1st) and Bernhard Kohl by just over one minute, and Frank Schleck (2nd) by 1:45. And that was over 29.5 km. . .Stage 20 covers nearly double that distance (53 km) and so in theory we should see larger time gaps. Therefore we do not need to tell you that potentially we have a huge toss up on the GC and a quite unpredictable situation.

To add another twist to the race this year, you might know by now that no time bonuses are at stake, and so even if only one second were to separate 2nd place from yellow, that marginal difference would remain intact with no hope of 2nd place earning a time bonus in an intermediary sprint or on the line in Paris on Sunday. So we can say with confidence that tomorrow the tour will be won or lost.

The strength of the yellow jersey

With an event as old as the tour, we do not often see "firsts" anymore. There have been close finishes (eight seconds, 1989 as mentioned above) and not-so-close finishes (28:27 by Fausto Coppi in 1952), and everything in between. Add to this the "benefit" of wearing the yellow jersey, when a rider who rides our of his skin when defending the lead---think back to only a few years ago when Thomas Voeckler nearly rode himself into a coma to stay in yellow for 10 stages during the 2004 edition of the tour. He was dropped early as Armstrong and US Postal attacked and rode away into the distance on the Plateau de Beille. However Voeckler fought long and hard all the way to the line, keeping yellow by about 20 s and barely able to lift his arms as he approached the line! Not once did anyone think Voeckler would defend the jersey all the way to Paris, but many cyclists report being able to ride that much harder when defending the maillot jaune, and Voeckler's courageous effort in 2004 demonstrates this.

If pressure had a color, it would be yellow

But alas, there is the pressure. . .and more than one rider has cracked under it! Most notable in recent years was now shamed Danish cyclist Mickael Rasmussen. In 2005 he had a phenomenal tour and a strong grip on third as he was only 60 s behind Ivan Basso but over two minutes in front of Jan Ullrich. Surely he could hold off Ullrich in the final time trial and squeak onto the podium. . .? You can watch what followed next in this short video:

Rasmussen crashed, changed bikes, crashed, changed wheels, and generally crumpled like a tin can under the pressure, eventually dropping four places and finishing seventh overall.

le Tour 2008 - Can you feel the pressure?

Which brings us to this year's race situation, pondering who will rise to the occasion, dig deeper than ever before, and turn in a performance of their career to take or defend yellow. As we say, on paper Evans should take the time from Sastre and Schleck and even Kohl, but as collected as Evans appears he too is susceptible to the pressure of the race. On the other hand, all the circumstances are right for Sastre to rise to the occasion. He has been perennial contendor for the past seven years in the tour:

2001 - 20th
2002 - 10th
2003 - 9th
2004 - 8th
2005 - 21st
2006 - 3rd
2007 - 4th

And when we consider that the difference between first and tenth in any given year of the tour is normally less than one percent, that is an incredible string of finishes for the Spainiard. And so is he primed finally to take yellow? He has been on the podium before, but also performed badly in the final individual time trial on more than one occasion. But tomorrow could see him finally get it right, and we will easily give any yellow jersey winner an additional 3-5% in this situation.

In any case, it will suspenseful watching the live coverage of Stage 20. We give the nod to Sastre, but honestly it is up for grabs and any of the top five can snatch yellow tomorrow and ride it into Paris on Sunday.

The shadow of doping looms

Doping has cast its shadow over this year's tour, and let's not forget that the results for the controls for the past few stages might only be announced in the coming days, so we still might see some postives yet. However the real question this year is are the contenders doping? It is so close, and the lead has changed so many times. Many will argue that this is a sign that they are not doping, as no one rider clearly dominates the others as has happened in previous tours. We woud love to hear what our readers thin about this issue, but will say that we remain skeptical!

Enjoy the time trial!


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tour de France Alp d'Huez

Sastre in yellow: But Evans is in range

Fascinating day's racing in the Tour de France yesterday, as the riders tackled what is arguably the race's toughest day - 209km including three out of category climbs, culminating in the most famous climb in cycling, Alp d'Huez.

And as expected, the attacks started early on the final climb, as the climbers were forced to go out looking for time on Cadel Evans, knowing that they required a buffer leading into the final 53km time-trial on Saturday.

The first attack, which proved decisive on the day, was by Carlos Sastre of Team CSC, right at the foot of the climb. In what became obvious as a planned tactical move, CSC propelled Sastre off the front, and then defended all the chasing attacks through the Schleck brothers. The result was that the chasing group was never cohesively formed, and momentum was lost every time another attack was chased down. On numerous occasions, the unsuccessful rider would sit up, wait for the group to rejoin, and the entire group began looking at one another as if to ask "What now? Who's next?".

In the surest indication of the tactics, Denis Menchov was dropped about 2km into the climb, and at one stage slipped about 25 seconds behind the yellow jersey, but was able to rejoin the group about halfway up the climb, such was the slowing down in that chase group. Meanwhile, Sastre grew his lead steadily, opening up about 10 seconds per kilometer, and putting himself in virtual yellow. With 8km to go, he was 55 seconds up, in yellow on the road.

The real action was behind, and Andy Schleck in particular looked in unbelievable form, such was the ease with which he controlled the attacks. Those attacks came predominantly from Kohl (The King of the Mountains leader, who'll go on to win that jersey now that the Alps are done), and the AG2R trio of Efimkin, Valjavec and Goubert (who were very impressive on the day - where have they beeen before this?). Every single one was easily neutralised, and Sastre benefited from the resultant hesitance.

Evans defends to limit his losses

Eventually, it was Evans, who would by then have recognized the danger of Sastre opening up too much of a lead, who went to the front and drove the pace on more steadily. By this time, with about 4 km to go, Sastre's lead was about 2:10, and threatening to become insurmountable. However, thanks to the fact that the attacks were not coming anymore, the gap started to stabilize, only growing by a few more seconds in the final 3km. And then, the combination of a levelling off of the climb in the final 2km, and the group sprints in the final 500m, saw the gaps come down a little, finishing at 2:03 to Sanchez and Andy Schleck, with Evans finishing a further 12 seconds down.

The slowest ascent in many years - EPO, anyone?

One interesting statistic is that Sastre's climbing time on Alp d'Huez yesterday was 39:31, almost two minutes slower that the record of 37:35 by Marco Pantani in 1998 (probably with a hematocrit of 60% and EPO coming out of his sweat glands). It was the 17th fastest climb in history. Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong share the top 5 times between them. The list of climb winners is actually littered with riders who've either confessed or tested positive for drug use (though that is probably not surprising, given what we know about cycling!).

Now, I realise that there are many, many factors that go into the final climb performance in the Tour - weather, tactics, race situation, preceding climbs etc. However, I think that an interesting analysis may be to look at the last 15 years of Tour de France data, and work out what the average climbing rate is on the big mountains. Given that there are probably 3 mountain finishes per year, that would provide45 climbs to analyse (at least), and I think it would be interesting to see whether the climbing rates have gone down drastically in the last two years. I suspect they have. In particular, I'd guess that if you looked at the tenth and fiftieth fastest times per year (to control the effects of attacks, tactics etc), they'd be much slower. Accessing that data is difficult, but I'm certainly going to try - if anyone has information on climbing rates or times taken on the big Tour climbs, please let me know, we'll work on a paper together!

An enthralling time-trial to come

Back to the race, and the result of yesterday's racing is that Evans is now 94 seconds behind Sastre (he is in fourth, with Schleck and Kohl ahead of him) with the 53km time-trial to come on Saturday. The burning question, then, is whether that gap is sufficient for Sastre to remain in yellow? There are of course three other riders with a shot at winning - Frank Schleck, Bernard Kohl and Denis Menchov are in range. However, Schleck and Kohl's time-trial credentials would suggest they're not likely to hold off Evans, and Menchov is (barring a miracle ride) probably not close enough. He also hasn't shown any sharpness in the last two days, so I expect it's a two man show.

So Evans or Sastre? Evans took 1:16 out of Sastre in the first time-trial of only 29.5km in week 1. That would suggest that 1:34 over 53km is no problem. However, there is the small matter of 17 days of racing between then and now, including two mountain ranges, which tends to level off those gaps in many instances (it could also grow them, of course, but I think the last few days have shown that Sastre is in better form later in the race). Also, Sastre in yellow, starting after Evans, with a huge incentive, means he should ride better than he did in week 1. Evans will of course be equally motivated, hungry to claim yellow after the close finish last year.

So at this stage, too close to call. Personally (if I may voice an opinion), I hope Sastre holds on (at the risk of incurring the wrath of the Aussie readers!), because he's been more aggressive and yesterday's win combined with attacks earlier in the Alps make him my favourite. Call it "romanticism", but I like the rider with panache and attacking flair, which Sastre has more of than Evans, it would seem (though Sastre is certainly not a flamboyant rider - if I could give the jersey away, it'd go to Andy Schleck).

Evans, for his part, will certainly be deserving of the win if he does claw back the time. So I certainly think he's a great rider. But he's a grinder, a non-attacker who controls and is decent at everything but not spectacular at any one discipline. Then again, who knows, perhaps on Saturday he whips out the fastest ever time-trial in a Tour and wins it by 2 minutes?!

Time will tell. We'll bring you that action!


P.S. Update on drug detection: Addendum to a previous post

Yesterday we reported on an article that quoted WADA President John Fahey as saying that WADA and Roche had worked together to develop a test for the new generation of EPO by "labelling the molecule" in the development process. That report has now been refuted, with WADA issuing a statement saying that there was no "label" attached. Instead, they are saying that the report was inaccurate, misled by confusion around the fact that CERA, the name of the EPO, has another molecule attached to it to help its function, and not to assist with detection.

A spokesperson from Roche (who made the drug) said that Fahey had "misspoken", and that Roche had worked with WADA to develop the assay for detection, but had not proactively labelled it to help the testers catch dopers. That clears up a lot of confusion about the issue, and I guess means that the whole "proactive" approach I was praising must be toned down a little. It's still good, of course, that WADA and Roche did collaborate, but some of the comments in our previous post will have been addressed by this news, hopefully.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Doping update: Two interesting stories, one positive, one negative

Two posts for you today (after a long absence, sorry!). This one concerns some doping news, and then directly below this post, you'll find a short summary of the Tour de France Alps stages, and a preview of today's big Alp d'Huez finish, which should shake the top of the leaderboard a little more. First, however, doping.

By "positive" and "negative", we mean "good" and "bad" as opposed to a Ricco-like positive test, incidentally (pardon the accidental pun)!

Ricco - thought he'd get away with it, but WADA was (for once), a step ahead

First up, it has been confirmed that Ricardo Ricco tested positive for a designer form of EPO (Micera, as we discussed in our last post). Nothing new there. However, what is quite amazing and was revealed this morning, is that the test that caught him was possible thanks to "collusion" between the testing authorities and the pharmaceutical company that produces Micera. It turns out that Roche Pharmaceuticals and WADA worked together to place a molecule in the drug that allowed testers to detect its presence.

In the words of John Fahey, WADA's President: "In the development of that particular substance close co-operation occurred between WADA and the pharmaceutical company Roche Pharmaceuticals so that there was a molecule placed in the substance well in advance that was always going to be able to be detected once a test was undertaken."

This is a very positive development, because for the first time, it suggests a proactive approach that is more integrated than what we've seen before from the authorities. One day, I'll discuss the "Wikinomics" approach to doping and what I believe will solve the problem, but let's just say that WADA needs to open its doors to external expertise if it wishes to remain in touch with the dopers. This positive test is a step in the right direction, maybe even a leap. Ricco did not believe that they could catch him, and so now all athletes in future should be warned that every once in a while, WADA will pre-empt their moves. Hopefully that will discourage doping...

All we need now is about 100 more similar tests, as the next story demonstrates.

China: Gene doping revealed in German TV documentary

On a more pessimistic note, a documentary that was aired in Germany showed how doctors in China offer gene-doping (the introduction of stem-cells) to a journalist posing as a swimming coach. The journalist approaches the doctor and requests stem-cell treatment for one of his "swimmers", and the doctor replies:

“Yes. We have no experience with sportspeople here, but the treatment is safe and we can help you.”

Asked how it would work, the doctor said: “It strengthens lung function and stem cells go into the bloodstream and reach the organs. It takes two weeks. I recommend four intravenous injections . . . 40 million stem cells or double that, the more the better. We also use human growth hormones, but you have to be careful because they are on the doping list.”

And the price? “Twenty-four thousand dollars,” the doctor said.

The documentary also reveals that doping products can be picked up for bargain discount prices in China - 100g of steroid hormones are sold for 100 Pounds, when the typical price in Europe is about 4500 Pounds per 100g.

Now, the knee-jerk reaction to this kind of information is to be hyper-critical of China, but it's probably prudent to point out that this same scenario is likely possible in any country, though of course the price would be different. China has been called the "world's doping pipeline", because it is able to make available ingredients so cheaply - that's nothing new, though. If your country is anything like South Africa, half your household goods were made in China. So economically, China can't be blamed for producing cheap drugs (though the impact of these drugs is a problem).

What is more disturbing and of concern is that in China, testing processes are likely to be far less transparent than anywhere else. Our first story today dealt with how WADA and Roche worked together to develop a test for a drug that was thought to be undetectable. This second story demonstrates just how much work they have left, because what happens in China is all too often insulated from the rest of the world. The relatively strict limits on foreign presence (and particularly "interference") means that if drugs are being made or distributed in China, which seems likely, no one will ever know.

Worrying times indeed...


Tour update: The Alps

Tour de France Update: Will today be the decisive day?

Apologies for the absence in our Tour de France coverage. It's been a while since we last commented on the developments in France, and our last post dealt with the positive drugs test of one of the race's most exciting riders, Ricardo Ricco. We'll pick up on that theme again in another post (directly above this one), but first, some race action to comment on.

Overview of the Alps and a look ahead

It's been a great three days in the Alps (with the rest day in between), but it's today's stage that should be the biggest indicator so far to who is actually going to wear yellow in Paris on Sunday. Three HC (out of category) climbs, Col du Galibier, Col de la Croix de Fer, and the most famous of all, Alpe d'Huez, stand between the riders and the finish line in today's final mountain stage of the Tour.

And it's an incredibly tight bunch at the top - 4 riders are within one minute of the leader, Frank Schleck of Team CSC, who took the jersey on the ride up to Prato Nevoso. Denis Mechov of Rabaobank should also have been within one minute, but he amazingly lost time on the descent of the Bonnette yesterday and so finds himself 1:13 down.

Cadel Evans, who was the leader when the Tour started the final climb up to Prato Nevoso on Sunday looked much better on the Bonnette yesterday, but he'll only really be tested when attacks come. He was ruthlessly attacked on Sunday in Italy, with five or six guys taking turns to launch off the front. And it's been quite noticeable that Evans is always the last to respond to sudden changes in pace, and lacks the ability to accelerate. Alp d'Huez will therefore not be his favoured climb, because it does lend itself to shifts in rhythm and pace.

Schleck, Kohl, Sastre and Menchov will all have to attack today, because they know that a 53km time-trial on Saturday is going to see them lose some time. How much is difficult to say - a man in yellow, or riding for yellow, is worth a good 5% more, and so judging just how much time they require over Evans, the race's best time-triallist, is difficult to say.

Alp d'Huez - brief description

Alp d'Huez, which hosts the finish of today's stage, is one of the most famous climbs in world cycling, with its 21 hairpin bends (virages, or lacets) on the way to the top. It's an incredible spectacle for fans and makes for great theatre. In riding terms, for what my experience is worth, it's not quite as difficult as some of the other climbs, particularly in the Pyrenees. My recollection of it differs from the profile (at least, the one provided by a reader), because my recollection of riding it and seeing profiles is that it starts out very steep - the first three hairpins are a long way apart with some seriously steep roads between - 10 to 11% average. However, the middle section is much easier, where I recall the climb levelling off. Again, one profile doesn't suggest this, so I am perhaps recalling incorrectly, but I don't fully trust the profile...There is then a kick up to the incredibly steep part about 5km from the summit, which may be decisive in today's stage. I suspect that Evans will struggle early, and during this steep kick, but in the middle, I expect he'll control the race and maintain his losses.

Also, the presence of the hairpin bends offers something of a reprieve, because they are actually very gradual, almost flat. In the Pyrenees, the hairpin bends tend to be about twice as steep as the straight sections between them, and so are often the worst part as you strain to press through them. So while Alp d'Huez is a brutal climb, it's not the hardest of the race, but it's location and the preceding climbs will make it decisive today.

Stage prediction: Schleck to win, but narrowly

Enough of the descriptions, however. Today's stage should see some great racing. Team CSC are clearly the best team in the race. They've got three or four men who should start the final climb with Schleck and Sastre, whereas Rabobank and Lotto seem devoid of support riders for Menchov and Sastre.

Therefore, expect a fast tempo by CSC on the early climbs (behind the usual breakaway), a regrouping towards the bottom of the climb, and then attacks on the steep part, very early on Alp d'Huez. If you want a prediction, I'll say that Schleck gets away, but not by much. It's interesting that time gaps are always so small - no one rider is able to produce the physiology required to crack other riders and the days of one minute or more thanks to vicious attacks at the bottom of the climbs are long gone - is that a reflection on "reducing" drug use? I'd guess so...

As for Evans, I suspect that he'll probably eventually crack under the attacks, but that he'll limit his losses by riding hard on the middle, flatter sections, and probably lose at most 30 seconds. That might be enough to help him into yellow on Saturday.

We'll bring you that action as it happens!


Friday, July 18, 2008

le Tour de France 2008: Third doping shock

Another dark day for cycling as it fights to clean up

In one of our pre-tour posts this year we mentioned that we would focus on the racing, and how last year the doping took center stage. We hoped this year would prove different, but that hope vanished somewhere on the road to Narbonne yesterday, and here we are in the middle of July discussing yet another tour doping scandal.

Tour hits strike three with Riccò

First it started with Team Liquigas's Manuel Beltrán, and then Moisés Dueñas of Team Barloworld. Both tested positive for EPO, and Dueñas was caught with, shall we say, a plethora of doping products in his room including blood bags and other items. Yet in some ways, people did not seem to mind these infractions. Beltrán (37) was of the "old guard" and raced in the EPO-rife 1990's when that drug was (ab)used with wreckless abandon. Duenas, although only 27 this year, was not a contender by any stretch---he finished barely in the top third in the last two tours. So although disappointed by these two positives, they were dismissed as the inevitable consequence of having 188 riders in the Tour - some would cheat, surely?

Ricardo Riccò, however, is a big name. At only 24, Riccò was hailed as a member of a new generation of riders who were fed up with the dopers. Even more, he was quickly becoming a contender and real threat as he attacked the field on the Col d'Aspin and destroyed the bunch, putting 1:15 into them by the summit. He won that stage, and the earlier finish at Super-Besse, but now he has left the tour in shame for alleged use of what he surely thought was an undetectable drug---else why would he be taking it?

The Science behind "Micera" and EPO: EPO makes a comeback

The first question we asked ourselves when Beltrán and Dueñas tested positive for EPO was, "Don't they know that we have had a test for EPO for several years now?" It is a bit like a shot putter taking the old steroid deca that stays in your body for many months and is easy to detect. But the real story is that in the beginning EPO was synthesized from animal cells. The DNA was taken from human cells and injected into the animal cells, which then produce the hormone. The use of the animal cells made it (relatively) easy to detect this type of EPO, otherwise known as the first generation EPO. Then came the second generation EPO, which was made in human cell cultures. It was this form of EPO for which Beltrán and Dueñas were caught, and we can only suspect that they thought this second generation was impossible to detect.

Currently we are on the (you guessed it!) third generation EPO, of which "Micera" is a member. Micera is the commercial name, and the drug is also known as CERA----Continuous Erythropoietin Receptor Activator. It is brand new, and has been available in Europe only from the start of this year. Its advantage is that it is a delayed-action EPO, which allows the athlete to take it less frequently yet receive the same physiological benefits associated with EPO. It was also reportedly undetectable, because the presence of a molecule called polyethylene glycol increases its size so much that it is supposedly blocked from entry into the kidney. Therefore, it would not be picked up in urine tests. Apparently, that's not true...

The initial reports from the tour suggest he tested positive for this drug, but according to Michel Audran, a blood doping expert, WADA does not yet have a validated test for CERA, and Audran suspects that perhaps they caught Riccò with this drug in his possession.

Surprising or predictable?

It is definitely no surprise to us that this new and "undetectable" drug has turned up at the tour. All we have to do is recall last year and Rasmussen's suspected use of Dynepo, a similar and undetectable drug. In fact this is precisely why guys will take things like CERA: the prospect of being able to evade the testers.

Other reactions to the postives in this year's race have been that we are in fact losing the anti-doping battle. That's a difficult question to answer. However, to suggest that the battle is being lost because of positive tests is missing the bigger picture, and in fact this argument suffers from a fatal flaw. To buy into this logic, one must believe that the reason for doping controls and anti-doping organizations such as WADA is to eradicate doping in sport. Yet to believe this is also to believe that speed traps eradicate speeding. Like it or not, athletes will continue to dope until the benefits of riding clean outweigh the benefits of doping.

A better approach to the current situation is to begin with the assumption that some athletes will cheat. There is a long history of this, not only in cycling but in many sports, and nothing to indicate that it will stop any time soon. Therefore the reason to have doping controls and anti-doping organizations is not to eradicate doping, but rather to catch the cheaters. It would be naiive even for these agencies to believe they can stamp out doping. Instead, as long as we are catching the cheaters, then these controls are in fact doing their job and the "war" is being won.

The problem of course (and forgive our cynicism here) is that WADA and world cycling are celebrating their efforts in catching riders who thought they were using an undetectable drug - they figure this is a sign that they are gaining ground, keeping up with the dopers. The problem is, it's just as likely that for every 3rd generation EPO they now claim to have a test for, there may be 10 drugs that they don't! So the question of the war is not as simple as "Look, we're catching guys" so we must be winning it. The battle perhaps, but the war has a long course still to run.

The Agency for Cycling Ethics

David Millar, previously of Saunier Duval, has said that before the end of the year that team will have an internal doping control program much like his current squad Garmin-Chipotle has. Apparently they were close last year, but this he thinks will be the tipping point. That approach uses private entities such as the Agency for Cycling Ethics to collect and analyze samples to "protect your investment in professional cycling." Their "product" is outlined here, and it is a tremendous step forward in the battle against cheating as for once the teams have taken some responsibility.

However currently there is still an "out" for the cycling teams because the results are not widely available to the public. This means that the teams still hold the trump card, and can decide to withhold or manipulate results at their discretion. And we can guarantee that given enough time, this is inevitable. Eventually the circumstances will arise when a team's management decides to do this for a short or long-term benefit. Publishing the data anonymously would protect the cyclists' individual rights yet add a thick layer of transparency to this process.

WADA + Pharma companies

Finally, to end on a positive note (pun intended!), another breakthrough is that WADA is beginning to work with drug companies to detect potential doping agents prior to those substances becoming available. This is the case for CERA. This indicates that perhaps the testers are beginning to think like the cheaters. We will not go so far as to say they are catching up, but this represents some proactivity on the testing side of the equation.

More importantly, race organizers like ASO are willing to toss out athletes when they are caught with things like CERA, which is not on the banned list but obviously has potential for abuse in sports.

"We will catch more this year, next year and the year after."

That coming from David Millar, a confessed EPO user, on Riccò's ejection. We agree David, and hope that we continue to catch them.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Oscar Pistorius: Remarkable physiology

The Remarkable Physiology of Oscar Pistorius

This morning, my email inbox was full of stories about Oscar Pistorius contemplating legal action against the IAAF for trying to exclude him from selection for the SA Olympic team. The grounds for his 'legal action'? Two reasons:

First, the IAAF last week suggested that Pistorius would be dangerous in a relay event, where the athletes are all bunched together at the change-over point. This would increase the risk of falling or clashing with another athlete. Athletes are often spiked in these 'close contact' situations, but of course the presence of carbon fibre blades poses a big risk for other athletes.

Can you imagine the fall-out if Pistorius cut LaShawn Merritt, for example? The defence put forward by Pistorius is that he'd run the first leg of the race, which is run in lanes. This of course, would be a crazy decision by Team South Africa (one I suspect they'd make, admittedly), because Pistorius big advantage would come when he has a running start. If he does start, then Team SA would lose perhaps a second. They would, of course, benefit from all the PR reasons and exposure they'll gain, which is why I think they'll pick him even though he hasn't qualified. Nike and Ossur's millions are hard to refuse...

The second grounds for Pistorius' threat is that the IAAF have suggested that it is impossible for them to monitor and regulate the use of the prosthetics. The CAS decision, you'll recall, was the Pistorius could compete IF he used the same prosthetics that were tested, first by the IAAF and this is team of scientists. The problem is, the IAAF testing cost 50,000 Euros, and I have it on good authority that Prof Herr, who led Pistorius' case, says their defence cast cost $1 million, with hundreds of thousands going to the science part.

Legal action for saying the truth

Now, in the aftermath of the CAS decision, many people were saying exactly these two things. First, how on earth would the IAAF enforce the ruling without the possibility of "cheating" by bringing out new blades? Subtle changes, worth half a second here and there, are not beyond the realms of possibility. And many people were worried about this relay participation. The IAAF have merely expressed what everyone else is thinking or writing. And for this, Pistorius is threatening legal action (again).

Well, perhaps Pistorius might wish to sue everyone who speaks the truth. And if you keep reading, you'll learn a truth or two about physiology that we've never seen before...

Pistorius' remarkable physiology: Never seen before

About two months ago, I did a post on Pistorius in which I made some arguments why the CAS decision was incorrect, and that the evidence presented by Herr and his team of scientists was flawed. I said at the time that evidence would emerge, the "truth" would gradually come out, and it would become apparent that what Pistorius did was bend the system. Effectively, he asked the right question, the unanswerable one, and now feels that he has been "cleared".

Let's remember, that the absence of evidence is NOT the evidence of absence. The CAS made their ruling based on the flawed information presented to them, and legally, made the only decision they could. But time will reveal a more detailed analysis of that "evidence" and there will be flaws. And the first of those flaws is ENERGY-GENERATION. For this, I'll do the post somewhat differently, using graphs to explain the physiology. So bear with me as we explain how Pistorius' own testing suggests that he has an advantage.

Where does the energy come from? The IAAF science vs. Pistorius science

If you think back to January, the IAAF testing found that Pistorius used 25% less oxygen to run at 400m race pace than able-bodied runners. The graph below summarises this, and the conclusions drawn.

The problem, which was freely admitted, is that the measurement of oxygen during sprinting, represents only part of the TOTAL energy. Energy comes from TWO SOURCES: Aerobic (using oxygen) and Anaerobic (without oxygen). Therefore, the conclusion drawn by the IAAF is only partly correct - it should say that he uses 25% less AEROBIC energy during 400m running.

Pistorius and his group challenged the finding on these grounds, asking the question "What about the anaerobic component of 400m sprinting?". We know from numerous studies that the split between the two is roughly 50-50, perhaps up to 60% for anaerobic sources.

Now, this is A CRUCIAL POINT, but when you do a 200m race, about 70% of the energy is ANAEROBIC, and in a 400m race, it falls to 60%. It's not possible to run a 400m race with much more anaerobic energy than this, because it means that too much energy is coming from anaerobic sources, and this is associated with fatigue, because of changes in ATP production, pH levels and lactate formation.

Pistorius' response: Ultimately proving his own advantage

So, the response by Pistorius was as follows:

Now, there are two problems with this assumption:

FIRST: The carbon-fibre Cheetahs are designed by Ossur specifically for speed and sprinting. How can you assess them at slow speeds and then infer upwards? That test suffers from a problem of what is called external validity – it’s irrelevant to answer the actual question of Pistorius’ 400m race.

SECOND: The RELATIVE proportion of the two energy systems must still be similar. The IAAF finding suggests that Pistorius uses LESS aerobic energy. There is no reason to believe that he would not also use less anaerobic energy, because the two systems act in proportion. Unless of course, you believe the argument of Prof Herr, who is suggesting that Pistorius uses MORE anaerobic energy than anyone else. Note that they did not measure this, it's a bald assertion, the kind they themselves criticize when others make it. It's also incorrect, and physiologically impossible, as we'll see shortly.

The truth about energy production

The sequence of graphs below shows the problem with the Pistorius science. And then after that, the MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION that Pistorius cannot answer without suggesting his own advantage.

Firstly, let's take a typical able-bodied runner, who gets 40% of their energy aerobically, and 60% anaerobically. If we assume 100 units of energy, the graph above shows the breakdown.

So, if we take the IAAF finding that he uses 25% less oxygen, then we see that he uses 30 units of aerobic energy. The Pistorius scientists contest this, and there are some theoretical arguments around measurement of oxygen during sprinting, but it has been done many times, and used in many studies, so this is not science-fiction, but validated science.

Now, the big question is how much energy does Pistorius get from anaerobic sources. And there are three possibilities here:

The implications of each of these options are profound:

Option A:
Here, Pistorius uses the SAME TOTAL energy, which means MORE anaerobic energy must be used to bring his TOTAL up to 100 units – his ratio is 70 units ANAEROBIC, 30 units AEROBIC. Note that the numbers are arbitrary, but the point is that he uses upward of 15% more anaerobic energy to compensate for the reduced aerobic energy. Note also that there is no basis to suggest that this would ever happen. Herr and Weyand couldn't tell you the reasons, and they only measured lactate levels to check this. They found similar lacate, which actually suggests that this would NOT happen, incidentally.

Science does not know the exact reason, but it’s physiologically impossible to run 400m with this large an anaerobic energy contribution – theories range from pH changes to lactate accumulation to phosphate (or other metabolite) depletion.

If this is true, Pistorius is effectively running a 400m race as though it is a 200m race, and should not be able to run more than 200m before he’d fatigue and be forced to slow down, unless….

He was immune to this fatigue, as a result of his carbon-fibre blades which do not experience the same fatigue as muscle. Therefore, Pistorius has an advantage.

Option B:
Pistorius uses the SAME ANAEROBIC energy, which means LESS total energy is used. His ratio is now 67% ANAEROBIC, 33% AEROBIC, but total anaerobic energy is the same.

This means that Pistorius has an advantage because his total energy use is reduced. Why would it be lower? Because the carbon fibre blades provide energy returns that are FAR GREATER than in able-bodied runners, giving him this advantage.

Option C:
This is the most physiologically likely possibility, because here, Pistorius' anaerobic energy contribution follows his aerobic contribution - both are lower.

There is no physiological explanation for why Pistorius would use more anaerobic energy. Instead, the knowledge suggests that whatever is causing the aerobic energy to be lower will also reduce the anaerobic.

Therefore, Pistorius' total energy production is down considerably to run 400m. Pistorius has a substantial advantage, provided by the higher energy return of the blades, which means less demand to produce metabolic energy for muscle contraction.

But the million dollar question, and the most telling finding so far, is yet to come.

What is described above is that no matter how you look at it, it's simply not possible to conclude that Pistorius does not enjoy a physiological and metabolic advantage during running at 400m speed. Either he is "unphysiological" as a result of higher anaerobic energy, or his total energy is lower. His own data suggest this.

About a month ago, I was doing a radio interview on this and was suddenly struck by an epiphany, that Pistorius had in fact proven his advantage.

Remember that when Herr and Weyand did their research on Pistorius, they made him run at slow speeds and measured his oxygen use. They found that at slow speeds, he used similar amounts of oxygen as the able-bodied runners to whom he was compared.

But when the IAAF tested Pistorius at 400m race speeds, they found he used 25% LESS oxygen than able-bodied runners.

So, here's the situation:
  • At slow speeds, you have a runner who uses the same oxygen as able-bodied runners.
  • At high speeds, he uses less oxygen than them. (the issue of controls is a major one, and I'll touch on that in the future - Pistorius' team used some dodgy control subjects)
So, how does a runner go from slow speeds to high speeds and not increase his use of oxygen like able-bodied runners do?

The answer can only be that he is getting a mechanical advantage that allows him to run faster. He gets a mechanical advantage from the blades that the able-bodied runners don't enjoy. They must produce more energy from metabolic sources, and hence increase their use of oxygen relative to Pistorius. That is, in a single question, the most telling evidence yet that an advantage exists.

What next? Olympic selection for Pistorius

If you've been following the story, you'll know that Pistorius has now missed the A-standard to qualify for the Olympic Games. But that's not the end of it. There is still the relay, and the very real possibility that he'll be picked despite not qualifying.

The Olympic Games allows this, so there is nothing wrong with it from a legal perspective. However, it does mean that SA Olympics selectors will have to pick a guy based on projected times in Beijing, and overlook any number of athletes who have not qualified.

Why would they do this? Well, because, according to Prof Hugh Herr, Oscar's defence case cost $1 million. Remember that everyone is claiming that the legal and scientific work was done "pro bono". That may well be true, but make no mistake, there is a massive army of sponsors and funders behind Pistorius. And now tell me, who spends $1 million to get an athlete cleared (you can buy freedom in the legal system, just not in science) and then doesn't mind if he doesn't run?

So the commercial pressures on South Africa's Olympic team (I'll vouch for those as a SA local), plus the opportunity to gain exposure means Pistorius will, in my opinion, run in Beijing, confirming that the Olympic dream has a price. But the physiology doesn't lie, the advantage exists.

And that is truth.


P.S. The purpose of this site is to stimulate discussion and debate, and obviously to provide insight on topical sports news. The Pistorius issue does all three. And therefore, I have no doubt someone will challenge part or all of the science in this post. That's fine, but can I ask that if you do challenge the science, at the very least state a logical case rather than just pointing out "you're wrong", as has been done. I'm all for debate, but pro-Pistorius people (and his team) have shown little capacity for this in the past. I've had some excellent, thought-provoking correspondence from one or two neutrals, but they are few and far between.

Indeed, one of the biggest problems in this whole case is that the IAAF science was released in January, giving Pistorius three months to criticize it and prepare a defence. To this day, the Pistorius science has not been fully released. When that' science is eventually made available, it will be easy to pick apart, as I've done for only one aspect here. The problem then, is lack of debate and opportunity for discussion. The CAS verdict was based on unequal information and opportunity, because scrutiny of Pistorius' science will reveal its flaws.

So if I'm wrong, let me know why. And explain the results your way, rather than simply trashing the messenger.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Welcome Jacques


This site has never been a "personal" webpage for either Jonathan or I.

It's still personal of course, in that all we write about are our own passion and interests, and give our opinions on sports events and physiology, with as much of an evidence-based approach as possible. But it's definitely not one of those personal blogs where people show photographs of their favourite pets, a flower they saw in the forest, or tell stories about the popular restaurants they frequent.

But for this post (and only this one), I'm breaking the culture and abusing "author privilege" to send a message of congratulations to Jonathan and his wife, Lara, who have been blessed this week with the arrival of their first child, Jacques Ronald Dugas. Jacques weighed in at a healthy 3.2kg, and is the newest member of The Science of Sport team.

It will be a while yet until he starts contributing to the content (kidding), but we certainly hope that we're still around if he does!

I've known the Dugases for seven years, first as students, then as colleagues in Cape Town, then with Jonathan as a partner on this site, and now as mother and father to Jacques (and maybe more in the future). Arguably their most significant role yet, and I know they'll be a wonderful family. So here's to Jonathan, Lara and Jacques, and wishing them many happy years of fruitful family living. There can be fewer richer blessings.

Now, let's get to the sports action, and the preview of the Alps in the Tour de France, directly below this post!


Tour de France Alps preview

The high Pyrenees shake up the Tour. But what can we expect from the Alps?

As mentioned in our short post earlier this morning, the Tour de France has already passed its first rest day, after its excursion into the high Pyrenees, with Sunday and Monday stages that have shaken the general classification around somewhat.

Monday's stage in particular, finishing at the summit of Hautacam, was a significant day for the leaders. As we said in our Tour de France preview, no rider is going to win the Tour in the Pyrenees, but they can certainly lose it. And Alejandro Valverde, the first man to wear yellow in this year's Tour courtesy his stage 1 victory, was the unlucky loser, conceding over 5 minutes to his main rivals.

However, a blow by blow commentary of Monday's racing is old news, so I won't go into huge details (apologies for missing it "hot off the presses", but there are good reasons...especially on Jonathan's side, as you've seen above!). What I thought I'd do instead is look forward to the three days where the Tour WILL be won - the Alps.

Cadel Evans: In yellow, but bruised and physiologically stressed

Monday's shake up resulted in a change of yellow jerseys, for the fourth time in the race. Cadel Evans of Australia become maillot jaune number five in only ten stages of this year's race. That high turnover is testament to the fact that the race is wide open, as well as differently structured - no team-trial, and few pure sprint stages have meant the attrition is somewhat higher than usual.

But Evans threatens to be the final man to wear the yellow jersey. His efforts on Monday have been lauded as heroic and gutsy in the media, because on Sunday, he suffered an accident that left him bleeding and bruised.

The physiology of such an accident is interesting. Of course, any rider who crashes is lucky to escape without completely debilitating injuries (like Soler Hernandez earlier in the Tour, for example), but even a "minor" accident (bruising and skin loss) can have quite profound consequences for performance. This is because the body reacts to the "stress" of a crash quite indiscriminantly - it doesn't really distinguish the cause, and all the responses that are triggered by a crash are similar to those initiated when a rider has a virus, for example. There is inflammation, swelling, allocation of resources to the affected area etc.

Of course, riding 200km over high mountains under this "stress response" presents an additional challenge, and so the rider often suffers weakness, fatigue and performs poorly as a result. This may even be part of the explanation for why Valverde has been so lacklustre in the mountains, and it will be interesting to see how Evans recovers in the week after the accident. The worst may not yet be over.

Predicting the Tour: A hazard

Certainly, on Monday, Evans rode a controlled effort: He was able to get to the front of his chasing group and limit his time-losses to ensure he took yellow (by one second, admittedly). But at this stage, it's impossible to tell whether he was riding at a maximum level or not. Predicting the physiology of performance in the Tour is a gamble even I wouldn't wish to take!

Valverde's team is another great example of this - for about a week, they were hailed as "the strong team of this year's Tour", since they did much of the pace-setting in the low Pyrenees. On Monday, however, those "strong" riders vanished and crumbled under the pressure of CSC's pace-setting, demonstrating how a few days in the Tour may as well be a lifetime.

So Evans will have his work cut out to defend the lead, and he can expect attacks. The Italian riders on Saunier-Duval, Ricco and Piepoli, have won the last two stages. And the fact that the Tour finishes in Italy on Sunday's high mountain finish at Prato Nevoso is only going to encourage their aggression. Both are close enough to Evans that he'll have to respond. He might however feel reasonably comfortable conceding a minute or so to them, with a 50+km time-trial to come, and therefore control their leads as much as possible.

The Alps: A world away from the Pyrenees

What was noticable in Monday's climb was that Evans lacks the sudden acceleration of the pure climbers when attacked, and is much more of a steady climber (we knew this from last year's Tour though). The Alps are quite different from the Pyrenees in that they tend to have longer climbs (certainly, there are some incredibly long climbs this year) but with a more constant gradient. In the Pyrenees, a climb of say 9 km at 7% is in fact more likely to consist of about 20 sections, some downhill, and some at incredibly high grades. This changing grade lends itself to attacks and uneven pacing. My experience is that the Alps, as a result of their more "constant" grades (though no less steep on average) will be a little more in Evans' favour. Time will tell.

Frank Schleck, who lies in second place ONLY ONE SECOND back, poses perhaps the biggest threat to Evans, and looked decent in the Pyrenees. Whether he'll have strength to attack remains to be seen - he'll have fond memories of the Alps, however, having won the last stage to finish atop Alp d'Huez. He also has a superb team who can help him raise the pressure on Evans, and then perhaps he'll be able to feed of the "sniper" attacks of Saunier Duval and other riders trying to bag a prestigious stage win.

As for Valverde, a big disappointment. We wrote a while back that his early form was probably a BAD omen for his overall chances. I didn't expect him to disappear quite this quickly though, and so maybe he'll bounce back in the Alps with an aggressive breakaway win.

All in all, it should be a great few days in the Alps (once we get there, of course). We'll (try to) keep you up to date with some insight, hopefully as it unfolds!


Doping and athletics

Athletics sprinting events: An "incurable credibility problem?"

Check in a little later for a post on the Tour de France, and the first big mountain top finish from Monday at Hautacam. Apologies for being a little behind on that one, but I'll get some comment up on the stage a little later today.

In the meantime, I came across this excellent article which delivers comment on the Dwain Chambers drug case with the British Olympic Committee. For those not following the story, Chambers, who became infamous as a result of testing positive for the designer steroid THG, is trying to have a lifetime ban overturned to allow him to compete at the Olympic Games for Britian. The lifetime ban is the creation of the BOC, because Chambers has already served out his two year ban for his positive test. We covered the story earlier this year, when Chambers made his intentions known (before a brief stint in rugby league):

Dwain Chambers makes his comeback: Implications
Should drug-cheats be given life-bans?

The Times article gives some interesting perspective on the debate, and is most interesting because it paints a damning picture of the apathy and negative attitude towards actually cleaning up the sport. Those who speak openly about the problem are often criticized, even crucified for being negative about the sport, by the authorities. It reminds me a great deal of the cycling situation, where the UCI President Pat Mcquiad feels that cycling doesn't have a major doping problem, despite the fact that teams and sponsors are flocking for the exit doors...

More on the cycling a little later today!


Monday, July 14, 2008

Kenya vs. Ethiopia

Sport's great rivalries: Kenya vs. Ethiopia, and a one-sided battle (at least on the track)

As you've no doubt noticed by now, we're somewhat partial to the endurance sports here at The Science of Sport. And with the Olympics now only 24 days away, we're starting to turn our attention to what are sure to be 3 weeks of magnificent racing action, especially on the track and roads in the long-distance events.

The Olympic Games tend to cast a spotlight on great rivalries, and I'm sure that if pushed, your best memories and highlights of the Sydney 2000 and Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games will include those two magnificent clashes over 10,000m between Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat. In Atlanta, Tergat attacked with 2km to go, throwing in a 60-second lap and a 2:32 km. In Sydney, he waited until 250m, but on both occasions, Gebrselassie was able to respond and win.

Kenya vs. Ethiopia: Battles on the track, road and country

Their clashes form part of one sport's great rivalries: the battle between Kenya and Ethiopia in the long-distance events. Earlier this year, after the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, I had intended to do a post on the "decline" of Kenyan running, because those championships were one of the worst in recent times for Kenya. They lost every single title, failing to win a single individual race, while Ethiopia cleaned up in both the men and women's events. It was not the first time either, and Kenya's once insurmountable dominance has slowly been eroded and few would now argue that Ethiopia, not Kenya, hold sway at the Cross Country events.

But no sooner had I started thinking about a post to discuss the relative demise of Kenya (and the dominance of Ethiopia, of course), and Kenya came back with a huge two weeks of running in the marathon. They won in London, Amsterdam and Boston. On one weekend, six Kenyans broke 2:07! It was a startling reminder that the demise of Kenya had been predicted a little too soon...though admittedly this happened in the marathon, while their status on the track and country continues to slide.

Kenya's strength in depth is incredible, and they produce far more runners than Ethiopia do, which does help to explain why the marathons are still Kenyan-dominated. Cross country and track, as we shall see, tend to reward excellence in a few athletes, whereas the relative unrestricted boundaries of world marathon running favour the Kenyan system or approach to athletics.

But this post is more about the track, and it is true here that Kenyan athletics seems to move from crisis to crisis. It happens twice a year - after every major championships, track or country, Kenya embarks on a "soul-searching" exercise to find some explanation for the fact that yet again, they've seen Ethiopian athletes dominate. But what are the factors contributing to this? And for how long has it persisted without an answer? To understand this, let's have a look at the last 13 years of major track races.

The track: A distinct upper hand for Ethiopia

The table below shows the Kenyan and Ethiopian results from the last 10 major championship 10,000m races (since 1995). It lists the atheltes who represented the countries, and their finishing position in brackets. I've looked only at 10,000m because it's a profound illustration of what I believe is the key problem for Kenya, though I will admit that this approach lends itself to some bias (apologies also for the small size - if you click on the image, it will open in a new tab and should be much larger...!)

What the table shows is that in the gold medal race, World or Olympic, Ethiopia leads 9 to 1! In fact, if you go back to 1993, then it becomes 10 to 1, because Gebrselassie won the 10,000m title in Stuttgart as well. The sole Kenyan champion since 1995 is Charles Kamathi, who beat Mezgebu and Gebrselassie in Edomton in 2001. The table below shows the medal counts from these races:

A pretty clear dominance for Ethiopia. If one were to arbitralily assign points for the placings, with gold equalling three points, silver two and bronze one, then you can work out that Ethiopia scores 40 points, Kenya only 14! That's dominance by any definition.

That dominance is however down to basically two men: Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, who have all nine Ethiopian titles between them. Geb owns 5, Bekele 4, though he should add a fifth in a month from now in Beijing.

So, in one respect, Kenya's problem is that they have failed, since 1995, to discover a runner capable of beating Gebrselassie or Bekele. That's hardly a disaster, because the two Ethiopians are surely two of the all-time greats.

The problem for Kenya: Absence of consistency, management and development

However, from a Kenyan perspective, one must ask the question "why not?" Why is it that a nation full of athletic potential has only managed to defeat their neighbours ONCE in eleven races over 10,000m (they also haven't won the World Cross Country title since 1999, remarkably enough!)

The answer to this question is enormously complex, and obviously not down to one single factor. However, I feel that one of the key problems is illustrated by the table above, showing the athletes who have represented the countries since 1995.

Cast your eye down the list of names, and the first thing you'll notice is that on the Ethiopia side, you recognize most of the names. On the Kenyan side, you'd be hard pressed to recall more than about five of the athletes who have pulled on the Kenyan vest. The table below shows the number of athletes who have represented the two countries, and most tellingly, the number of athletes who've only run for their country ONCE, never to be picked again:

The key differences between Kenya and Ethiopia, in my opinion, are the following:

  • Kenya has gone through more athletes than Ethiopia, clearly failing to settle on who they believe will be able to dethrone the Ethiopians. Remember that this is despite the fact Ethiopia have been able to select FOUR athletes for most championships, whereas Kenya can pick only THREE.
  • Kenya has also picked 11 athletes who have only run in ONE race, never to be picked again. There is a startling lack of continuity in that statistic.
Now, one might easily argue that the reason Kenya has picked so many different athletes is because they have picked men who have failed on the first occasion, and therefore they are constantly trying something new. Ethiopia, on the other hand, never need to change a winning formula.

But this is only part of the problem. Because the races are now so frequent (10 major races in 13 years), it's very easy to pick a young, upcoming athlete and allow them to run in 3 consecutive races in the space of about 4 years. That athlete, if given a chance, might have the potential to improve to the point where in his third race, he is competitive with the Ethiopians.

Unfortunately, Kenya has never tried this, and the high "churn" or recycling of their chosen athletes has undermined any efforts by young runners to develop. Consider briefly that Kenenisa Bekele was only 21 when he won his first 10,000m world title in 2003. Gebrselassie, in 1993, was only 20 when he took gold. So Ethiopia clearly discovers incredibly talented young athletes, who then go on to dominant for six or seven years. Kenya, having failed to win a title, seem to change their team every time, and so by the time a Kenyan is 25 years old, he's already been cast aside.

Now, the next problem is that in Kenya, there is little "centralization" of athletic training. I know this because my university is currently in the process of establishing a research collaboration with a university in Kenya, who deal with many of the top runners. Many hours of discussion and strategy have revealed that Kenya's primary problem is an abundance of talent. That's right, too MUCH talent. This is only a problem when the talent management systems are not appropriate, and in Kenya, there is such fragmentation that control of the talent pool is virtually impossible.

This creates a scenario where an abundant resource need not be nurtured and looked after as it would if it was scarce, and so a highly talented junior athlete in Kenya is, often times, at the mercy of the environment. That environment, in turn, is often out to "exploit" the athlete - agents and managers descend on Kenya like vultures, picking up the talented young athletes who are then taken off to run in Europe. All good and well, but no long term plan or vision. The result is that a Kenyan who enjoys a very successful season on track often "disappears" the following year, because they are not appropriately managed during the off-season or during the build-up to the following year. How many times have relatively unknown Kenyans emerged to take some big wins at the end of the European season, never to be seen again? Too often, for Kenyan administrators...

Ethiopia, on the other hand, while possessing an array of talent that would make most countries envious, have managed to centralize control of these athletes. That's been driven in large part by Gebrselassie, who by the force of his personality has developed a winning formula. But the Ethiopian federation, and their coach, Dr Woldemeskel Kostre, have also ensured that the squad of identified champions remains together and trains together.

The Kenyan federation and administration have tried to correct this, instituting training camps ahead of major championships and even before the recent Kenyan Olympic trials. However, their efforts are often roundly criticized, mostly because the camps deny athletes the chance to race in Europe. It would seem then, that control and money are the two conflicting driving forces behind Kenya's current problems on the track.

Beijing 2008: Kenya's Olympic team selection highlights the lack of vision

The reason this discussion is particularly contextual, incidentally, is because the Kenyan Olympic trials were held over a week ago, and they have now announced their team for Beijing. And it's the Men's 800m event that holds the greatest surprise, and yet another example of how the long-term vision of Kenyan athletics might be questioned.

David Rudisha is perhaps the second best 800m runner in the world. His times suggest this, and his racing performances too. Only Sudan's Kaki Kamis has been better this year. But the key is this: Rudisha is still a teenager, only 19 years old. Therefore, he is a potential multiple Olympian, possibly multiple gold medalist.

Unfortunately for him, he is Kenyan and he had an injury and a virus when the Kenyan Olympic trials were held. He therefore did not run the 800m event. That is OK, not a disaster, because the Kenyan system is designed to automatically select the first TWO finishers, with the third slot going to a "wildcard", at the selectors' discretion.

But, miraculously, instead of selecting a teenager who is CURRENTLY the second best in the world, one of it's most exciting talents ever, a potential future champion (if not in 2008, then in 2012 and 2016), the Kenyans went instead with the man who finished third in the Kenyan trials. That person was Alfred Kirwa Yego, who is the world champion, so a difficult decision to make. But world champions have been omitted before, and Kirwa Yego was both a surprise champion and has not repeated that form this year.

No matter how you skin it, no matter what criteria you use (development or performance) that third slot should have gone to a teenager who is a potential winner NOW. Yet instead, the Beijing Olympics have to go without Rudisha. It will be interesting to see where Rudisha is in 2010, and beyond. If he fits the classic tale, he'll be running average times of 1:44. The next question one has to ask: "If David Rudisha was Ethiopian, would they have picked him?" The answer to that question pretty much sums up this post.