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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Olympic Oscars

Looking back on the Games - "Olympic Oscars". The winner is....

It’s been one week since the Olympics, and a slow week here at The Science of Sport (as I try to catch up on time lost to the Games, mostly!). For today, though, to begin a Post-Olympic wrap, I thought I’d do a “Best of” (and worst of) list from Beijing. So here are the “Olympic Oscars”.

Best athlete

It’s a straight shoot-out between Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt on this one. Phelps was always going to be the biggest story of the Games, because even an “average” performance was going to see him surpass the record for most gold medals in history (which was 11 going in – Phelps was already on 6). As it turned out, he delivered on ALL the expectation, and won eight out of eight events, for an unprecedented medal haul in a single Olympic Games. By the time he’d won his fifth gold, he was already equal at the top of all-time gold medalists. He then added a further three, and with London to come (and who knows, maybe 2016?), he could well finish his career with twice as many golds as the next best person!

So, when we one day look back at the Greatest Olympians ever, Phelps is sure to be a name on everyone’s list. However, for Beijing, we’ll give the “Best athlete” prize to Usain Bolt. It reveals our bias slightly (we’re running fans more than swimming fans), but Bolt gets the nod ahead of Phelps because his performance was less expected, I dare say more spectacular, yet just as unprecedented. No one in history had ever won the 100m and 200m titles in world records. Bolt did both, and then capped it off with a third world record in the 4 x 100m relay. It was a Jesse-Owens like performance, and the manner of victory was what made it so spectacular. A demolition job in the 100m, featuring a celebration DURING the race and still a world record, and then breaking Michael Johnson’s legendary 200m world record, were probably two of the five highlights of the Games. Michael Phelps also broke world records – four individual and three team records, but given that swimming records fall just about as frequently as night follows day, I don’t think it’s quite as meaningful (more on swimming in future posts.).

Bolt still has a way to go to add “longevity” to his CV, and he will look to London 2012 and a repeat of the double to do that – if he succeeds then he’ll surely be recognized universally as the greatest sprinter ever. For now, he has the greatest sprint Olympics ever seen behind him. He energized the second week of the Games, and gets our nod as the “Athlete of the Games”.

Best team

I guess the “nominees” in this category are Jamaica, China, the USA and Kenya, each of which has some claim to call Beijing successful. Our pick is the Jamaicans, because for such a small island to have so comprehensively dominated a group of events is an amazing result. When we do our analysis of the medal table, you'll see that they top the charts in terms of success per PERSON.

They also get the prize because their success inspired one of our most controversial and widely discussed posts yet, when we tried to discuss Usain Bolt’s meteoric rise. In that post, we said how astonishing it was for Jamaica to have swept the four short sprints, including a clean sweep of the medals in the women’s 100m, and asked the inevitable question re doping. Had they not dropped the baton in the women’s 4 x 100m relay, they may well have won every sprint title. Add to that a women’s 400m hurdles title and it’s a never-seen-before dominance of the sprint events. Their success denied the USA a sprint title of any kind for the first time in the Olympic Games.

In response to our post, in which I wrote that their success will automatically raise questions regarding doping, we received some indignant, very offended emails from people who accused us of all kinds of ill-intentions. It’s still amusing to me to read the tone of those comments, because people get so indignant and are completely incapable of appreciating that at the very least, a discussion of doping is inevitable in a sport where success without doping is about as rare as South African medals at the Games! The most common argument in defence of Jamaica is that they have always produced great sprinters, and a few people accused me of lacking knowledge or appreciation of the history of sprinting (one even asked whether I’d ever heard of Merlene Ottey).

I must just make the point that while it is true that Jamaica has a rich heritage of great sprinters, what we have witnessed in Beijing is unprecedented, and not part of a normal sequence of historically good performances. Three world records, the fastest time in the last 10 years in the women’s 200m (since Marion Jones, that is), and an Olympic record in the 400m Hurdles. That’s not just part of a “long history”, that’s an explosion in performance! The celebration in Jamaica is testament to that very fact – Beijing 2008 cannot simply be explained away as the result of anti-doping in the USA, it’s more than that. And the debate exists merely to understand where that success comes from. But it was a spectacular sprinting performance, the highlight of the Games, and for that Jamaica is probably the nation with the most to celebrate post-Beijing.

Special mention to China, who we’ll discuss a lot more in our upcoming analysis of the medal table. I think it’s easy to dismiss China’s achievements as the inevitable consequence of having the world’s largest population to choose from. But when you look a little more closely at it, you realize that in fact, they succeeded because they invested very intelligently in their athletes. The medal tables from the last three Games makes for interesting reading, but we won’t give the game away here, but rather say to check in next week for the medal discussion!

Kenya also had their best ever Games, helped in large part by their women – the 800m and 1500m titles, as well as silver over 800m, marks the emergence of Kenyan women in middle distance events. Their men also won the 800m title, the Steeplechase (as always) and won their first marathon. It was, on the whole, an excellent Games for Kenya, and barring Bekele and Dibaba of Ethiopia, they will be satisfied with the health of the nation’s distance runners.

Most under-rated performance

There were so many magnificent performances in Beijing that it’s quite easy to see how some special results did not receive the focus they deserved. For one thing, we had two distance doubles on the track – Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba won the 5000m-10000m double, but were somewhat under-appreciated (not by the distance community, however) thanks to Bolt’s brilliant running.

However, our award for the single performance that was perhaps least discussed is that of Dayron Robles in the hurdles. Robles won the race in 12.93, but looked so comfortable and “conservative” that it was really a procession. If there was a category for “Biggest let-down of the Games”, then this race would receive it, because Liu Xiang’s withdrawal due to injury robbed us of a potentially epic clash. However, unless Liu had been 100% healthy, he’d have been struggling along with the rest of the world in Robles’ wake. Robles would have seen LoLo Jones smash hurdle 9 the night before, and lose the gold medal – a stark reminder of how fickle hurdles can be. Perhaps he took a “conservative” line into the race, but he ran sub-13s looking almost complacent, and he’s the undisputed number 1 now.

Best race of the Games

The best race of the Games comes from the pool, where Michael Phelps almost had his quest for 8 derailed by a very unlikely source. It came in Phelps’ weakest event, the 100m butterfly, which is the only one of his events where he is not the world record holder. That title belongs to Ian Crocker, but it was not Crocker who almost spoiled this particular party. Rather, it was Milorad Cavic of Serbia, who broke the Olympic record in both his qualifying races and swam in lane 4 alongside Phelps.

I’m sure that most of you are aware of how the race developed – Cavic was well ahead at the turn, and seemed to be holding that lead coming into the final 20m. Phelps was closing very gradually, but Cavic really did look to have the race won with only 5 m to go. He led for 99.90m of the 100m race, but at the end, thanks to one final stroke that Phelps managed to squeeze in before the wall, he was able to touch, 1/100th of a second ahead of Cavic. In slow motion replays, it seems impossible that Phelps had done it. The Serbs protested, and conspiracy theories began – it was rigged, they said, as though “real-time” rigging of something was possible to that extent – the stadium timing system registered Phelps as touching first by 1/100th of a second within 3 seconds of the finish – if that was rigged, then technology really is incredible! Had it gone to a photo finish, with a lengthy process of deliberation, then I might have had time for such theories!

However, the electronic system didn’t lie – Cavic reached for the wall from about 2m out, and Phelps got one last stroke in, and the gold was his. It was number 7, and the medley relay completed the 8. But this was the race that nearly cost him his unique place at the head of the tree.

Honorable mention to another event involving Phelps, though he was not the star of the race – the men’s 4 x 100m Freestyle relay featured the USA vs France in a race for the world record. In the end, Jason Lezak produced the relay swim of the century to close down a 0.62 second gap on the world record holder, Alain Bernard of France, and give the USA the title. The top 6 teams all broke the world record from before Beijing, but the incredible final leg, where Lezak closed down a full body length on the world record holder (who would go on to become the Olympic champion) was extra-ordinary.

That’s it for this wrap-up. More to come in tomorrow’s post, with a few more “Olympic Awards” to give out!

Join us then!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Post-Olympic prospects

Sport goes on...Post-Olympic prognosis

Well, I must apologize for the complete absence of posting or replying to any of your comments on our Olympic coverage over the last 4 days - I'm going to blame our absence on a "post-Olympic hangover", which saw us drop from 2 posts a day to none in 4!

The comments and feedback we've received have been fantastic, thank you so much for the support during the Games. But 2008 is but 8 months old, and there's a great deal still to come this year - the athletics season, the Marathons in Berlin, Chicago, New York and no doubt loads more sport to write about and start debates on! So stick around for what will hopefully be a good end to an already spectacular season of sport, courtesy Beijing.

Zurich athletics - the Olympics in one day

But we're back on the road again and looking forward to the upcoming sports action. There is no rest for the athletes from Beijing, because the biggest single day athletics meeting in the world takes place this Friday in Zurich. The "Weltklasse" (world class, literally translated) is often described as the Olympic Games in 3 hours, and this year it features 41 medalists from Beijing, as well as 14 Olympic Champions.

There are also some mouth-watering "rematches" to look forward to - Merritt vs Wariner at 400m, Lolo Jones vs everyone in the 100m hurdles, and Blanka Vlasic vs Tia Hellebaut in the high jump. Other athletes looking for post-Olympic "redemption" are Sanya Richards (400m) and Alyson Felix (200m)

There are also appearances by Kenenisa Bekele, fresh from a double gold in Beijing, Yelena Isinbayeva, fresh from (another) world record, and the Kenyan women who took out gold at 800m (Palema Jelimo) and 1500m (Nancy Langat, though in Zurich, she'll be running the 800m, which could spice it up a little). Top of the bill though should be Usain Bolt, who has said he's "not tired" from his triple-medal winning, world-record breaking exploits in Beijing. Whether another world record is on the cards is difficult to say - I doubt it, given the conditions, the travel, the timing of the season, but with Bolt, who knows?

His coach is reported to have said that had he not slowed down, he'd have run 9.52seconds, which I think is on the extreme side of hyperbole, given that he'd have to find probably 0.2 seconds in the second half of the race, and his Beijing celebrations likely cost him no more than 0.1 seconds (though one commenter, who claims to have "an expert eye" reckons it was more than this). I think I'll trust the data, and not the "expert eye" - expert eyes are subject to bias and sensationalism, which seems to flying around lost these days...

The only two remaining contenders for the big jackpot of $1 million are Jelimo and Vlasic. Vlasic looked all but unbeatable until Beijing, so the pressure is on her to regain the ascendancy, while Jelimo looks, well, pretty close to unbeatable unless she falls horribly off the pace (she'd need to dop 2 seconds to be caught by the second place runner, such is her dominance).

In any event, we'll certainly be following the action and bringing you any news - world records in the distance events might be on the cards - Bekele looked so good over the last 3000m of the 5km that I wouldn't dismiss the chance of a real attack on that time. But, the big issues is travel fatigue and the same post-Olympic malaise we've been suffering from!

Looking back on the Olympics

The other thing that needs to be done is to look back on the Olympics a little more reflectively. Everyone will of course take their own top moments out of the Games, and for most, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt will top their "Highlights" reel.

However, if one looks a little harder at the "whole" of the Games, there are some pretty interesting stories to be found, and over the course of the next week or so, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of those issues.

Among them will be:

The cost of Olympic success?
My country, South Africa, won a glorious SINGLE silver medal, which has caused an outcry over here (hopefully, action will be taken). China on the other, topped the table with a staggering 51 golds, and Great Britain had their most successful Games in 100 years. We'll have a look at the strategies and systems adopted with a bit of scientific and management eye in the coming days.

The great Olympic nations: Who is the most successful Olympic nation for its size and economy?
China won 51 gold medals. Of course, you say, they have 1.3 billion people, they should win a truckload. The Bahamas on the other hand, won 2 medals with about 300,00 people, that's an impressive performance. We'll look at POPULATION PER MEDAL and also GDP PER MEDAL, in what is quite an interesting analysis. The results may surprise -

Swimming world records: Where to next?
Swimming world records fell at an almost unprecedented rate in Beijing - there were 25 world records, and only ONE Olympic record was not broken. But that doesn't tell the real story - there were at least 3 races where the team coming FOURTH broke the old world record but did not win a medal! Of course, we expected that would happen, given the Speedo LZR swimsuit's impact on performance, and the pool, but we now need to have a look at what it means for the sport of swimming.

Our own "top" lists
Of course, we have to make up our own list of reflections - greatest performance, best athlete, biggest disappointment. That's the fun part, but we'll certainly give it a crack in the coming days, perhaps first up.

I'm sure other cool topics will come up in the course of discussion, so we'll keep it open for now and say join us for that in the next few days for more Post-Beijing discussion, and of course, comments from the world of sport. The show goes on!


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Beijing 2008: Men Marathon report

Brutal running in Beijing as Sammy Wanjiru claims marathon gold

The Men's Marathon in Beijing was, to be blunt, brutal. In temperatures at least 10 degrees higher than we typically see in the Major Marathon Series, the Kenyans and Ethiopians decided that they were going to run it like a paced race anyway. In an incredible display of front running, the Africans shattered the Olympic record (2:09:21 from 1984) by almost 3 minutes, with Sammy Wanjiru, the world half marathon record holder, claiming gold in 2:06:32.

How it unfolded
: Race times and analysis

The table and graph below summarize the splits and pacing during the race.

The set off at WORLD RECORD pace for the first 10km, running through 10km in 29:25, which is not supposed to happen in a championship marathon, especially when the conditions are supposedly not conducive to fast racing.

The field was shell-shocked when the Kenyans, led by pre-race favourites Martin Lel and Sammy Wanjiru, took the lead and reeled off kilometer after kilometer of sub 3:00 kilometers. The group was blown apart, and by 10km, there were only about 10 men at the front of the field. Ryan Hall, one of the pre-race favourites from the USA was not one of them - in fact, he was dropped off before 5km, perhaps a deliberate pacing strategy, as he went on to finish in 10th place.

Not surprisingly, it was the Africans who did the running, and the last European challenger was Martinez of Spain, who was gone at about 15km. From 10km to 15km, the pace visibly slowed, which allowed a number of athletes to rejoin the lead group after being dropped by the spectacular early pace.

However, the Kenyans clearly decided that this would not do, and Wanjiru threw in an aggressive attack at 16km, which split the lead group for good. It left the Africans to sort out the medals over the second half of the race. Given the searing early pace, second half surges were not dramatic - it was more a case of slight, subtle changes in pace doing a great deal of damage, because the race became so attritional. So rather than attacks, it was a "survive until you die" second half.

From 25km onwards, the pace dropped somewhat, but by then the damage had been done. Deriba Merga of Ethiopia took the reigns as the most aggressive runner between about 25km and 30km. He attacked on repeated occasions, helped by Yonas Kifle of Eritrea, and their moves seemed to be putting Jouaid Gharib of Morocco into trouble, while Wanjiru and Martin Lel were able to track every attack.

Surprisingly, however, Lel was dropped by a Merga move at about the 29km mark. Many people's favourite for the race, Lel was perhaps a victim of his own aggressive front running, because he was gapped by over a minute in no time at all, falling back to fifth place. He would go on to finish in fifth, after consolidating and settling down to a more consistent, slower pace, but it was something of a surprise that he lost contact so early.

The decisive move at 35km

The Merga attacks left three in the front - Merga, Wanjiru and Gharib, who was yo-yoing on and off the group every time there was a slight surge. At this stage, surges were very subtle - no one was blasting 2:50 per kilometer pace - it was more attritional than this.

Wanjiru looked easily the most relaxed in the group. At about 37km, he made what was the race's decisive move. He went to the front, threw in a fierce kick that lasted perhaps 100m, but it was enough to end Merga's challenge.

Gharib was able to pass Merga for second, but Wanjiru grew his lead consistently. He opened up 18 seconds between 37km and 40km, and was never going to be challenged. Merga, meanwhile, blew spectacularly - having been in contact at 37km, he was 2:00 down at 40km, losing 40 seconds per kilometer at 3:00/km pace. Unfortunately for him, that blowout meant that he was going to be reeled in by Tsegay Kebede, his fast-finishing Ethiopian countryman, for the bronze.

But Wanjiru was the man of the day - a 21 year old, running in only his 3rd marathon, took the Olympic field and simply ran them off his heels. It was insane running, he set off at a pace that everyone must have thought was completely suicidal. And of course, he did slow down, as the graph shows, but his "slow" was still 2:07 pace, and he was just remarkable.

Kenyan tactics deliver gold

And so with that, Wanjiru becomes the first Kenyan to win Olympic gold at the marathon, which is amazing, considering their dominance of the big city marathons. Perhaps this was the motivation behind the aggressive tactics they adopted. Ryan Hall described the pace as "insane", which it was. But it was not suicidal, it was a statement of intent right from the start, and no one was able to match Wanjiru.

The heat and humidity - remarkable physiology overcomes the pre-race speculation

Wanjiru's performance and overall time made a complete mockery of the pre-race speculation about pollution, heat and humidity. The pollution has done nothing to the athletes in Beijing, though they have been lucky with some rain and weather that has reduced its levels, apparently. As for the heat, the women got lucky with a rainy day, and for the men, it was apparently not as humid as was predicted. However, apart from Wanjiru, the conditions defined the race, and I dare say that Martin Lel came unstuck thanks to the heat and the tactic of fast running early. Then again, so did everyone else, as we'll show shortly.

First, it's amazing to consider how these elite runners defy the normal physiological "logic". People so often freak out over the risk of heat-stroke and dehydration, and then the world's elite come out and run sub-3:00 per kilometers in conditions that the 'expert' scientists tell us is dangerous. If anything, it should be a lesson on how remarkable the human body is, and a telling statement that when everyone warns you that your life is in danger when it's warm, they're reacting to marketing, not science.

Last year, the Chicago Marathon was run on a warm day (similar to Beijing, I'd guess) and the sports doctors were telling the world how dangerous it was after many athletes failed to tolerate the heat. We wrote an article at the time that heat-stroke was almost a physiological impossibility, and the only impact on athletes is that they feel much worse running their normal pace, and therefore slow down. Today, the elite athletes showed just how remarkable physiology really is. They were slowed by the heat, and maybe 2 minutes' improvement can be expected on an ideal day.

The impact of the heat on the Beijing race?

To appreciate just how the heat impacted the race pacing, consider that only ONE athlete in the race was able to run a negative split. That was Ruggero Pertile of Italy, who did a 67:17 - 66:36 split to finish 15th. Of the men in the top 10 (who chose to run the incredible early pace and covered the first half in 65 min or faster), it was Wanjiru who came closest - he did a 62:34 followed by a 63:58 (a + 1:24 difference).

The rest of the top 10 had an average first half of 63:16 and an average second half of 67:19. The average difference was therefore + 4:03, which is a huge positive split across for 2nd to 10th. Considering that most of the top 10 are sub 2:07 runners (and thus "comfortable" at 63:12 pace), you can see how the heat impacted the performance. That was ultimately the difference - Wanjiru's relative ability to sustain the pace in the heat (it's also worth nothing that 1st, 3rd and 4th where three of the smallest men in the field - the smaller you are, the cooler you stay).

A final statistic is that 21 men ran through halfway in 65 minutes or faster. Only 2 managed to break 2:10 - Wanjiru and Gharib. That's what the heat did - it forced the pace to drop, but no one died and there was no heatstroke, a lesson for sports physiologists everywhere...

As for the tactics, I honestly thought that the loss of Robert Cheruiyot to injury would change Kenya's tactics, and that we'd see a slower first half and brutal second. But that's just how good Wanjiru was - he decided he'd run sub-2:07 and that no one would match him.

Turns out he was right. Any bets on the world record next? Either Wanjiru or Lel. It seems risky to bet against it...


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bejing 2008: Doubles and Marathon preview

A "double-double" on track and a brief preview of the marathon

Well, the Beijing Olympic Games are drawing to a close. Only one big race to go, and that is the Men's Marathon, which will bring the curtain down on a spectacular Games. We've tried hard to keep up with the action (and failed!), but these Games have produced some of the great Olympic moments.

Hopefully, there is one to go, when the best Olympic Marathon field ever assembled take on the Beijing course tomorrow. Below is a short preview of the race, but first, a quick recap of two magnificent doubles on the Beijing track.

Tirunesh Dibaba: The Royalty of track running

Tirunesh Dibaba last week won her first Olympic Gold medal over 10,000m when she held off a spirited challenge by Turkey's Elvan Abeylegesse. Her final lap of just outside 60 seconds was majestic, as is just about everything else about Dibaba. She is the most elegant, beautiful runner to watch - no female athlete in history has looked so comfortable and "royal" running at 60 seconds/lap speed.

On Saturday night in Beijing, she produced another performance worthy of track royalty when she won the 5000m race, defeating Abeylegesse and her compatriot Meseret Defar in a great race. It was a tactical, intriguing affair, one of the few long distance track races in Beijing where the "script" was not followed.

The early pace was astonishingly slow - the first kilometer was covered in 3:39! There were some subtle shifts over the course of the next few laps, but the real action began with three laps to go. That's when the pace was suddenly increased, thanks to Dibaba pressing Galkina at the front. Abeylegesse took over with two laps to go, and then it was the Dibaba show on the final lap.

The final 1200m were covered in 3:10. Just for comparison, the final 1200m of the women's 1500m final were covered in 3:09, and so the 5,000m women finished their race with an Olympic 1500m equivalent! It was remarkable, and it was Dibaba who initiated the pace. It was clever running, she knew that her biggest chance would come with a fast finish off a fast pace, and she ran it perfectly.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Meseret Defar didn't challenge Dibaba over the final 200m. Instead, it was Abeylegesse who took silver, a deserved medal for a super courageous and gutsy runner, who set up the 10,000m race with her front running as well. Defar took third, and seemed to be limping during the victory lap, perhaps as a result of being spiked during the middle part of the race, when they were running 17:00 pace!

But Dibaba becomes the first woman to double (admittedly, the 5000m event is only 4 olympics old), and she is now surely the greatest long distance female we've seen, all at the age of only 24! She's a world record holder, world track and cross country champion and an Olympic champion.

Kenenisa Bekele - the king of the track

Not to be outdone, Kenenisa Bekele, also of Ethiopia, ensured a clean sweep of the track titles when he brutally dominated the field in the men's 5,000m final. Bekele, already a two-time Olympic champ over 10,000m, clearly learned his lesson from the Athens 5,000m final, where the pace was incredibly slow until the final kilometer, playing perfectly into the hands of Hicham el Guerrouj, who used his 1,500m speed perfectly to claim gold.

Tonight, Bekele was again up against a 1,500m champion in Bernard Lagat, and so he decided to take the pace on early and run the sting out of Lagat's legs. It was the kind of race Bekele should have run in Athens, where he instead allowed the pace to fall horribly in the middle of the race, and el Guerrouj must have been sitting there wondering why Christmas had arrived early. Athens was a 3,500m warm-up jog followed by a 1,500m race. Tonight in Beijing, Bekele made sure it was a 5,000m race!

Bekele was simply magnificent. A slow opening 600m (72 seconds for the second lap) saw Bekele go to the front and put in a 62 second lap (2:45 for the first kilometer). He held that pace pretty much for the rest of the race. He did receive some help from his Ethiopian team-mates, but the truth is that they did perhaps three laps of pace-setting between them, and for all the talk by the commentators of a "team effort", this was effectively a one-man show.

Bekele was in front from the start, and took the lead for good with just over 5 laps to go, and was never passed again.

The pace was progressively ramped up, and Bekele ran his last five laps in 59.96 - 61.36 - 60.84 - 60.94 - 53.87.

That searing pace did the job - Lagat dropped off with three laps to go, hampered by a loss of training caused by a calf-injury earlier in the year. The only three able to survive at Bekele's tempo were Eliud Kipchoge and Edwin Soi of Kenya, with Moses Kipsiro of Uganda hanging on at the back of the lead group of four. However, when they hit the bell, Bekele shifted up yet again. Everyone else had no more gears, already running pretty close to maximum. Bekele poured it on with 300m to go, and within 100m, the lead was 10m. It grew even more over the final 200m, and Bekele even had time to gesture to the crowd with 100m to go!

A smile was on his face from about 120m to go, and Bekele ripped the final lap in sub-54 to emulate Miruts Yifter, the last man to win the 5,000m-10,000m double.

Bekele is truly extra-ordinary, like Dibaba on the women's side. After his 10,000m race, we bemoaned the lack of competition, which allowed that race to become something of a procession. This 5,000 m final was a little different - the Kenyans were certainly game, and Kipchoge looked quite good in taking silver, as did Soi for the bronze.

But this was Bekele's coronation, and he delivered the perfect race, both tactically and physiologically. No one stood a chance.

Men's Marathon preview

This is going to be a short preview, because the race is so wide-open that if we tried to be detailed, it would degenerate into a rambling commentary on about 20 competitors!

So instead, I thought I'd just throw out a couple of thoughts ahead of what is surely the most competitive Olympic marathon ever. It contains the London and New York champ (Martin Lel), the world record holder over the half marathon (Sammy Wanjiru, also second in London), Goumri of Morocco, a host of Ethiopians including the Paris champion Kebede, as well as Ryan Hall, the US champ who featured strongly in the London race earlier this year. Only Haile Gebrselassie is missing, having chosen to miss this race because it's close to the Berlin marathon (or was it the pollution...? No, that was just the party-line excuse, this was all about the Berlin pay-day)

The big talk leading up to Beijing was the heat and humidity. It had no effect in the women's race, because it actually rained and was relatively cool, though the humidity was high and uncomfortable. For the men, the weather might be more of a factor, since it's predicted to be a fine day in Beijing. However, because of the early morning start, I suspect that it won't be quite as bad as was initially thought. Certainly, these men are quite comfortable running in the mid-20's, and that is likely what will be encountered.

More to the point, this race will not be about world records, so fast running is not relevant to the discussion. I suspect that the early pace will be slow - perhaps even a 66-something to halfway. Kenya lost Robert Cheruiyot in the week before the race (injury) and so their team is greatly weakened and this may have forced a change to their race plan, because Cheruiyot loves running off the front, as he showed to win Boston this year. His replacement, Luke Kibet, is the world champ from Osaka and likely good in the heat, but he doesn't quite have the credentials of Lel and Wanjiru, the big favourites.

Given that the stakes are so high, and the teams so small, I can't see anyone sending men out to set a pace that will cost them their own medal until much later in the race. Therefore, the early pace is likely to be slower. However, as with the women, the surges should start coming before halfway, particularly if it is slow.

Unlike the women, however, I don't think that anyone significant will be allowed to get away from the group early, and so a repeat of Constantina Dita's final 21km solo run is unlikely. I'd think that given the conditions and the depth of "racers" in the field, this group will stay together at least to 30km.

Once there, I suppose anything can happen. The Ethiopians have a strong team, with Tsegay Kebede (Paris Champ) and Deriba Merga (2:06:38 man) the big names. They'll likely be buried in the group for as long as possible, but might emerge then.

The race comes alive in the final 10km

We've made something of a habit of abandoning "conservative" previews for these marathons, and going a little over-the-top on our predictions (including trying to guess the winning time...all in the name of enjoyment). So why break with tradition? Here's our guess for the Olympic Marathon.

I'll go out on a limb and predict that with about 10km to go, there'll be a reasonably big group of 8 to 10 runners out in front, and then Ryan Hall of the USA will initiate the race's decisive break. Hall seems an aggressive runner - he blasted a superb second half to win the US trials last year in New York, and he was the man who pushed on in London when the pace threatened to drop just after halfway. So I expect he'll set this one up as well with a surge at around 32km.

The problem is, he's surrounded by some extra-ordinary racers. Martin Lel is the best marathon racer in the world - he's a 60-min half marathon man, a world champ, a Major Marathon winner, and has finishing speed that the world has never seen in a Marathon. Most important of all, he's shown the ability to get it right on the day - three wins in three races (London - New York - London), as well as victory in the Great North Run. That means he's my favourite to win, as he is for many.

There's also the small matter of a 61 second 400m that he did at the end of the London Marathon to destroy Wanjiru, and in New York to beat Goumri. Nobody can match him in a sprint, and so someone is going to have to go from a long way out to win. But, then Lel is also a 2:05:15 man, the fastest in the race. What do you do against that? The answer, if Lel is having a normal day, is nothing. And that's why I'd pick Lel to win.

So once that break comes at 32km, the group is likely to be split and then it's a war of attrition. The drinks tables will again provide much of the drama, and will be the scene for many tiny surges when athletes pass up on water to press the pace. Teams with two guys in the lead group will be heavily favoured by this, and so expect Kenya and Ethiopia to have this advantage. So look for sharing of bottles, but planned surges, just to test the legs out. Unfortunately a lot of that doesn't come across on TV or even in the split times per kilometer, but it might add up to be decisive on the day.

Given the likely tactics and the heat, the Olympic record of 2:09:21 is going to be touch and go. If it's a slightly cooler day, then it's certainly a possibility. However, if the temperatures are in the mid-20's, then I'd say a 2:10:30 is more likely. But a lot depends on the first half - I would guess that the second half will be run in 63 minutes something, so a 66 for the first will see Lopes' record fall.

So the race prediction is Lel to win a hard sprint over the final 400m, finishing in 2:09:05, beating off Wanjiru in a repeat of the London result. The race's dark horse, Kebede of Ethiopia, will claim bronze, and the unlucky fourth will go to a Korean athlete (whose name I wouldn't commit to!).

Of course, this is more likely than not incorrect, but is a bit of fun before the race. One thing we can guarantee is that we'll get the split times and race analysis as the race happens and get it up first thing tomorrow. So join us then! And enjoy the race!


Friday, August 22, 2008

Beijing 2008: Men's 800m

Men's 800m: Anyone's race and a discussion of 800m pacing physiology

The final day of athletics competition in Beijing brings with it one of our most anticipated races of the Games - the Men's 800m event. As we wrote yesterday, the event has already thrown up some huge surprises, because three of the big favourites failed to even qualify for the final! Yuriy Borzakovskiy Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, and Abubaker Kaki Kamis all failed to advance from their semifinals in what must be one of the most open, competitive and unpredictable events in athletics.

The race without the favourites should be fascinating, and any one of the eight athletes could win it. Most impressive in qualifying has been Wilfred Bungei (who has the experience to boot), and so I'd probably bet on him if forced to. But really, any one of the other seven could beat him - look for Kirwa Yego (also of Kenya) to be competitive, and for a "dark-horse", keep an eye on Gary Reed of Canada.

Today's post is not so much an event preview, however, as it is an examination of the fascinating physiology of the event. So here is the physiology of 800m running, which will hopefully provide some more insight on the events that will unfold in Beijing tomorrow.

A tactical game: Pacing and strategy as vital as physiology

The 800m distance is fascinating because it straddles the divide between what people usually refer to as “sprinting” and “middle distance” running. To some, it is the first of the middle distance events, whereas to others, it’s the last of the sprints. Of course, using such jargon can pose challenges, but generally, when people refer to a sprint, they refer to an event where the athlete goes ‘flat out’. This is of course never true, because even in a 200m race, there is some pacing, as evidenced by people who go out a little too fast and end up faltering in the final 40 to 50m! By failing to pace herself properly, Sanya Richards demonstrated the value of pacing in the 400m event, when she got it wrong and was reeled in by two athletes in the final earlier this week in Beijing. So pacing is certainly as vital in sprints as in middle distance races, which brings us to an analysis of the 800m event.

Coaches (and physiologists) have often spoken of an aerobic-anaerobic divide for different events, and they often refer to the 800m distance as being a 50% split for each. That is, they say that approximately 50% of the energy comes from aerobic sources, 50% from anaerobic. This is a contentious issue in itself, one that I would argue with, as recent evidence suggests there is no black and white split between the energy sources. It's more likely, based on recent work, that the aerobic component is far larger - even in 400m running, it's almost 50-50.

What is optimal pacing?

It is often said that the ideal way to run an endurance race is to aim for what are called ‘even splits’. In other words, the first half and second half should be run in the same time. If you are a 10km runner, for example, the ideal strategy seems to be to run even pace the whole way. An underperformance happens when you either start too fast and slow down (called a positive split – the first half will be faster) or you finish very fast, running the second half faster than the first (called a negative split). For most recreational runners, aiming for a negative split is probably the prudent approach, recommended as a safety first option.

To fully appreciate pacing strategies, you have to look at a range of different events, and so we'll look briefly at the track events from 800m upwards. We'll do it in reverse order, and work our way backwards to the 800m event.

The graph below shows the pacing strategy from world records for 800m, the mile, 5000m and 10000m. Of course, we make the assumption that the pacing strategies in the world records are optimal, which is of course not always true. Sometimes, world records are set in tactical races, and that obviously affects the strategy. Sometimes, they are set IN SPITE of, rather than because of pacing strategy. But generally, if you take 30 world records, you can be pretty sure the guy running the time is running on the limit of performance, and so the pacing strategy is at least close to ideal.

10 000m distance – even pace is the way to go, with a fast finish

In the men’s 10000m distance, 34 world records have been set in the modern era. It’s quite clear from the graph that on average, the race is even paced, with a fast start, more consistent period in the middle, and the final kilometer is fastest. In fact, in 33 out of the 34 world records, the final kilometer was the fastest of the race. What this means, practically, is that even the elite have left themselves something in reserve for the final kilometer. You may be thinking that this indicates that the athletes are not performing maximally, because surely, if you have enough for a sprint at the end, you might have been able to go quicker in the middle part? And you’d probably be right, and that's one of the big unknowns in exercise science - what does this reserve mean, and how can it be accessed sooner (or more fully?)

We did discuss this issue in our series on Fatigue earlier this year, and you might spend some time looking at that for futher insights. The very summarized version is that the brain prevents the runner from ever fully accessing muslce motor units until the end of the bout, when the "danger" has passed. The "sprint" at the end is the manifestation of that reserve, but it's not a simple matter of accessing sooner, because it serves an important regulatory function as it protects against possible damage during exercise. The great atheltes go closer to the "limit" than others, it's part (though not all) of their advantage.

Men’s 5000m – similar to the 10000m, the pace is even, with a final kilometer kick

There have been 32 world records in the 5000m event, and the pacing is very similar to that of the 10000m. The first and final kilometers are faster than the middle three kilometers, which again suggests that the middle kilometers are somewhat ‘conservative’. The final kilometer has been fastest in 21 of the 32 world records. In the other 11, it has been the first kilometer that is fastest. So for those wondering about tactics, they are certainly in play, but they have never once produced a fastest kilometer in the middle of a 5km race.

Men’s 1 mile – a much more even pace

The men’s mile event begins to get down into the range where speeding up at the end is a lot more difficult to do. On average, the final lap is run in the same speed as the first lap. In fact, in more than half the world records set, the first lap is actually faster.

There is still a drop in pace in the middle part of the race, but the overall strategy is even, in contrast to the longer races, where the fast final kilometer ensures that the second half is usually faster. So here, in the even that lasts about 4 minutes, we see a subtle change, which has physiological relevance. Because the even pace in the mile suggests we are getting down to the point where speeding up at the end is becoming increasingly difficult for optimal performance. Which brings us to the 800m race…

800 m – it’s not possible to run optimal times with a faster second lap

In the 800m event, 26 world records have been set. The graph below shows the average lap times in these 26 races. It’s immediately clear that the second half is quite a lot slower than the first. Some of you may be thinking, hang on a moment, what about the 200m splits? Unfortunately, they are not available for the 26 world records, but in the ones they are available, they follow the same pattern – the first 200m is fastest, followed by the second, and the pace gets slower and slower.

So this is a departure from what we’ve seen before – suddenly, speeding up at the end of an 800m doesn’t happen. In fact, in the 26 world records, the second lap has only been faster than the first on ONLY two occasions. Therefore, a world record seems to require that you run a fast first lap, and then hang on in the second, but speeding up does not appear to be an option.

Some of you may now be questioning this statement. Among the biggest challenges would be the assumption that you’re seeing ‘optimal performances’. And of course, this is true. If a guy goes out and run 1:46, who is to say that is not optimal? Perhaps it is. However, I still maintain that with this pacing strategy observed in 24 out of 2
6 world records, the best way to run the race is to run the first lap faster than the second. On average, the difference is 2 seconds. This means a first lap of 50 seconds would be followed by a second lap of 52 seconds.

What is even more interesting is that the two fastest second lap times ever achieved in 800 m world record performances were run in 1972 and 1966 respectively. The graph below shows the lap times from all the world records, and if you look at the panel on the right, you will see that the second lap time of a world record performance has not improved in 35 years, since Dave Wottle broke the world record with a time of 1:44.3 (min:s) and a second lap of 51.40 seconds in 1972.

The current world record holder, Wilson Kipketer, has broken the world record on three occasions, with second lap times of 52.12, 52.90 and 51.80 seconds. Therefore, a 3.2 second reduction in the world record in the 800 m event between 1966 and 1997, from 1:44.3 to 1:41.11, has been achieved by running the first lap significantly faster, rather than an improved ability to increase running speed on the second lap.

The Figure below shows the lap times for the 26 world records in the 800m event. The left panel is the first lap, the right panel is the second lap

Another interesting fact is that the second lap is slower even in the Olympic Games, where the first lap is often tactical and slow. In other words, a slow, tactical first lap is still followed by a slower (on average) second lap, despite your perceptions that the athletes are "sprinting" for the line! The average first lap in the Olympic Games finals is 52.8 seconds and the second lap is 53.4 seconds.

What this suggests is that the ability to run faster during the second lap of an 800 m is limited, and so the optimal pacing strategy may consist of a faster start followed by a relatively slower second lap. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you are an 800m athlete, or you are coaching an 800m athlete, if you want that athlete to run their best, you have to plan for a second lap that is about 2 to 3 seconds slower than the first. So, if the goal is 2 minutes, it’s not good enough to aim for a first lap of 60 seconds. It has to be 58, because if your athlete is going maximally, then he should slow down to a 61 something on the second lap, giving him a final time just under 2 minutes.

Similarly, if you want to break the world record, forget about running the second lap in 51 seconds. It’s not going to happen. Therefore, you must plan for a second lap of 52 seconds, which means the first lap must be 49 seconds, or faster. This is also an indication of the sort of speed needed to challenge Kipketer’s world record – you have to be able to run a 400m in 48.5 seconds as part of an 800m race. Your basic 400m speed therefore needs to be down in the 45’s, maybe 46 seconds (but that starts cutting it fine).

So looking ahead to the 800m final…

The 800m final is more likely to be a tactical affair, unless someone has decided that his best shot is to follow in the Women’s champion’s (Palema Jelimo) footsteps and go as fast as possible from the gun. Jelimo found a willing ally in Jepkosgei, which is unlikely in the men's race. So therefore, a slightly slower race might be expected, and this means the race will be roughly evenly-paced.

I suspect the first lap will be run in about 52 seconds (wild guess), meaning that the second lap will probably be run in about 52.5 seconds. You’ll note that this is still a slower second lap, which is really interesting from a physiological point of view – why can you speed up in a 1500m, 5000m and 10000m race, but not the 800m race? Is it a different type of fatigue? Again, I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating – we don’t really know what causes this, and if anyone tells you they do, they’re lying! It’s quite a mystery.

But for the race, it means that the athlete who has the ability to maintain speed is likely to come out on top. In the past, the former Olympic Champion, Yuriy Borsaikovsky, was the master of the "fast finish". I hope that by reading this, you now appreciate that this is not 100% correct – the truth is that he wasn't necessarily the fastest finisher, but rather that he was the least slowing finisher! So his strategy was to hang back over the first 400m, which added about 1 second to his lap time. But he was able to maintain a pace on the second lap that was much closer to the first lap, and appeared to have an incredible finish. I don't have the data, but I would suspect that in his major victories, he ran roughly even splits (between 0 and + 0/5 s), when the rest of the field were running a positive of at least 1 to 2 seconds.

Of course, when Borzakovskiy or anyone else goes out for a fast time, he has to run the first lap in 49 seconds - the speed is "limited" on that second lap and simply can't be much faster than a 52.

Anyway, returning to Beijing, the race will come down to the final 300m, where tactics will be incredibly important. As will speed-endurance – the ability to sustain a fast pace on the second lap, running as close to even splits as possible is a unique physiological ability. That is what makes the race so unpredictable. We saw the fastest man in the world (Kaki Kamis) "disappear" from the race in his semi-final, and so calling it will be difficult. But I'd guess that Bungei comes through, winning perhaps from Reed and Kirwa Yego. Then again, I thought Kaki Kamis and Borzakovskiy would be racing for gold!



Thursday, August 21, 2008

Beijing 2008: Night of drama

Another night of drama on the track in Beijing

It was yet another great night of action in the Beiing "Bird's Nest", and the shocks keep coming. Few would have predicted what went down at the Games tonight. Herewith our comments on the big surprises...

Men's 800m: Favourites are gone!

At the beginning of the year, the 800m race was going to be one of the great races of the Games, because any one of 7 or 8 men could win it. But then at the World Indoor Championships, a dominant name emerged. It was Abubaker Kaki Kamis, a teenager from Sudan, who crushed the opposition in Valencia and went on to dominant the outdoor season as well. He ran the year's fastest time, a world junior record, and beat all-comers in the build-up month to Beijing.

All of a sudden, the big names like Borzakovskiy, Mulaudzi, Kamel, were chasing the teenager. It seemed, much like in the women's race, that it was Kaki Kamis' to lose. How wrong we were. In tonight's SEMI-FINAL, Kamis was eliminated from the final, finishing a very poor 8th in his race. His time was a slow 1:49.19, and we don't know what the exact story was (too early, we'll keep tabs on it over the next hour or two), but he was badly elbowed at the bell, and just seemed to lose all his running after that.

From being in second at the bell, he drifted slowly backwards, and by the time the pace was wound up with 200m to go, he was already well off the pace. A huge surprise, as the pre-race favourite failed to even reach the semi-finals. If that wasn't enough, he was joined on the sidelines by the remaining medalists from Athens - Yuriy Borzakovskiy of Russia and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi of South Africa also failing to qualify for the final. Both just faded out of the race in the final straight, having run reasonable tactical races up to that point. Borzakovskiy's famed finishing kick seemed to desert him, and he was run into third place in what was also a relatively slow semi-final. It was a major surprise, considering that only a week or so before the Games began, he ran his fastest time in years, a 1:42 in Monaco.

Mulaudzi was struggling with flu, according to reports from within the SA camp. He barely squeaked into the semi-final, and just looked listless in this race. He held a good position until the final bend, and was simply run out of it by faster finishing men. No excuses, just not enough speed.

So, the final is without some of its biggest names, but it is no less interesting. Most impressive so far has been Wilfred Bungei of Kenya, who has looked to possess the sprint finish that will almost certainly be needed in the final. He'll race against his own team-mate Kirwa Yego, who won his semi-final and looked pretty good doing so. Perhaps the biggest danger is Yusef Saad Kamel, who carries the fastest time of the year of the finalists. So it will be an epic, competitive race, and we'll preview it properly tomorrow, time permitting.

The Men's 400m final: Not the American you might have expected, as Merritt takes the gold

The Men's 400m was, until the start of the year, Jeremy Wariner's race. The American won in Athens and was unbeatable since. Until LaShawn Merritt starting closing the gap. Towards the end of last year, he was threatening Wariner, and in 2008, he delivered. A victory in the opening Golden League meeting in Berlin was followed by two more wins, the third at the US Trials in Eugene.

But few expected that come Beijing, the same would happen. Even Wariner was confident in defeat, pointing out that when Merritt beat him running low 44 seconds, he had "time in the bank", since he'd run 43.45 seconds.

And that argument might have worked. If Wariner had actually even broken 44 seconds in the final. But astonishingly, Wariner failed in the final, running 44.74 seconds, which for him is a very poor performance. Merritt, on the other hand, came through on the day, and WON the Olympic 400m title in 43.75 It was a new PB for him, and a great coup, to beat Wariner when it really mattered. The size of the victory added to the surprise - at the very least, you'd have expected an epic close finish, but Merritt won by a second, a huge winning margin (though Wariner eased up at the end, and was nearly caught by the finish of the day, from David Neville, who dived full length across the line to win bronze)

Wariner, for his part, will be bitterly disappointed. Back to the drawing board, and his decision to part ways with his long-time coach, Clyde Hart, reportedly over a contractual/financial dispute, is looking more and more ill-fated. It will be interesting to hear the explanations and stories out of this race.

Merritt, however, is a class act. He's only the second man to go under 20 seconds for 200m and 44 seconds for 400m. The other is Michael Johnson. With his winning time in Beijing he also becomes the 5th fastest ever over 400 m. Can Merritt go on to maintain his dominance after the Games? Wariner will be back, and the battle between the two might become one of the sport's great rivalries (which it surely needs).

Women's 200m: Jamaica complete the sweep of the short sprints

In the night's first final, it was glory again for Jamaica, who won gold number 5, an extra-ordinary performance from their sprinters. This time, it was Veronica Campbell Brown who took gold, beating world champion Allyson Felix of the USA with a super-fast time of 21.74 seconds. It was a PB for the Jamaican, and one of the fastest times in years, beating even the 21.81 run by Felix in Osaka last year.

The win, combined with Kerron Stewart's bronze, means that Jamaica wins 7 out of the possible 12 medals in the 100m and 200m sprints in Beijing! An extra-ordinary performance, and when the medal table is eventually finalised, you'll find Jamaica right up there. If you express medals won per person, Jamaica will be right on top.

The relays: USA will not win a medal in the short sprints

The situation gets even worse for the USA. Not only have they failed to win a single gold in individual sprint events, but they will not win either of the 4 x 100m relays either! That's because they failed to get the baton around the track successfully in BOTH their semi-finals. First it was the men, and Tyson Gay and Darvis Patton who put the baton on the tartan at the last change-over. The Jamaican men, anchored by Asafa Powell, won the second semi-final, and so they will be huge favourites for the gold. Unfortunately for all fans, we'll be denied the chance to see them take on the USA, in what might have been a great race.

The same goes for the women. Jamaica succeeded, the USA failed. This time it was Lauryn Williams and Torri Edwards who combined to drop the baton, while holding an enormous lead over the field. So it was 2 out of 2, and the USA will not feature in the finals! It's also the first time in many, many years, that the USA will not win a single medal in any of the short sprints - the 100m, 200m and relays are all gone, and in all likelihood, gone to Jamaica! That must be a first...

110m hurdles: Robles delivers

In what was supposed to the event of the Games, Dayron Robles was unchallenged as he claimed the first of what might be a string of world or Olympic titles. Robles, only 22 years old, is already the world record holder, and looks so easy running sub 13 seconds that one suspects he might take that record down a few more times yet.

Tonight, he dominated the final from start to finish. The event was denied the clash of the Games, when Liu Xiang withdrew from his first round heat with an apparent Achilles tendon injury. The reality is, however, that even if Liu had continued, he'd have been soundly beaten given his preparations, because anyone not in 100% condition cannot challenge Robles right now. A fully healthy Liu might have been interesting, and we look forward to that race in the future.

But tonight, Robles was the king of the high hurdles, winning in 12.94 and looking like he ran a "conservative" race. Maybe he saw Lolo Jones smash the 9th hurdle to lose gold, and decided to rather err on the side of caution and guarantee the gold. He was easily clear of the field, and looked disappointed that he hadn't broken the world record. But tonight was all about Gold, and Robles has his gold medal. He can now look ahead at his legacy - a world title is next, and a few more world records, and given his age, there's a good chance he'll be the man to beat in London too. Liu Xiang, and the rest of the hurdles world, should be worried...

Finally, a preview - one of the events of the Games, coming up: Women's 5000m

Finally, we have a short preview of a race that is bound to be one of the races of the Games. We haven't had time to do many previews, but the Women's 5000m is going to be a special race.

It features 3 Ethiopians, Meseret Defar, Tirunesh Dibaba and Meselech Melkamu, who are favoured to possibly bag a clean sweep of the medals. I would not rule out a "spoiler", perhaps Abeylegesse of Turkey (who ran so bravely in the 10,000m final), or even someone from the USA, but the Ethiopians are the ones to beat.

In particular, it's the clash between Defar and Dibaba that will produce the fireworks. They will deliver one of the races of the Games, if all goes according to script. Defar, the former world record holder, is also the defending champion. Dibaba is the new world record, having broken Dibaba's record, and she's the 10,000m champion.

Both have finishing kicks that have moved women's athletics into a new era - they regularly finish races with final laps of sub-60 seconds, and so we can expect an absolutely spectacular final lap in Beijing.

If I had to guess, I'd go with Defar, simply because she does not have a 10,000m race in her legs. Dibaba was made to work very hard by Abeylegesse in her 10,000m triumph, and that may count against her. I think she's one of the most beautiful runners in the world, so elegant and graceful at speed, and so I will be hoping she delivers, but I think Defar may have the edge.

The third Ethiopian may however hold the key to the outcome, because she's also a fearsome finisher (she beat Defar to win the African title), but may be the one who sets the pace up during the middle part of the race. If it's a fast race, Defar may be favoured, thanks to fresher legs. But whatever happens, expect the two to hit the 200m mark to go locked together, and then to come into the final straight with barely a centimeter separating them. There may even be a third Ethiopian in the mix! The winner should be decided in the final 10m. It should be a great race.


Beijing 2008: Discovering Usain Bolt

Discovering Bolt: Who is Usain, and should we be surprised?

Well, halfway into the athletics programme of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, and the name on everyone's lips is Usain Bolt. The man with the most appropriate name in track and field (a close second is Philip Spies, who was a South African javelin thrower..."spies" is the Afrikaans word for javelin) has electrified the Beijing Olympic stadium, setting two world records to claim the 100m-200m sprint double.

He became the first man in history to break BOTH 100m and 200m world records at the Olympic Games, and when you consider the caliber of athlete who has gone before him (Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis), that is an incredible feat. But more than this, it's the manner of his victories that has set him apart: He won the 100m race celebrating over the line, pumping his chest and playing to the crowd, and the 200m race was won by 0.5 seconds. Truly incredible performances.

It's led many to suggest that Bolt is the "Greatest ever". He may well become that, but it's a typical case of hyperbole "in the moment", as people do tend to get slightly carried away with such incredible performances as they happen. We'll wait until he adds some longevity to his list of achievements - a world championship title, maybe another Games, and then he'll certainly add his name to a list that includes those of Owens and Lewis.

There's no question, however, that when Olympic historians make the DVD of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, they'll have a choice between two "faces" of the Games - Michael Phelps, and Usain Bolt. So who is this guy? And should we be be surprised that he's taken the world of sprinting and turned it upside down, breaking records while celebrating, beating times that were thought to be "unbeatable"? There are some tricky issues that need discussion (doping, rearing its ugly head once again, though we don't have the answer to that one), and I thought a post "Discoveing Usain Bolt" was in order.

Bolt's history: Not entirely "from the blue"

Usian Bolt has had "world class" stamped all over him from a very young age. He was born in 1986, and actually turns 22 today (the crowd sang "happy birthday" to him after his 200m victory yesterday).

According to the IAAF Biography on Bolt, the following table shows his progression in performances from the age of 15. (These times seem to vary from one source to another, so I confess that I'm not 100% confident in them, but I've tried to triple-check everything for accuracy)

The times Bolt produced as a teenager are extra-ordinary - a sub 21 second clocking at the age of 16, and the youngest person to ever claim a medal at the World Junior Championships speaks of some enormous natural talent.

Time progressions

What is interesting is the progression in times over the years. This has relevance for the doping debate, because Bolt has, by virtue of his dominance, now been placed directly in a spotlight of suspicion, such is the world we live in today. We know that sudden, "unexplained" performances are an indication of doping, though finding proof is another story.

Looking at Bolt's progressions, I think it is interesting to see how rapidly his times were falling during his teenage years - a 21.81 at age 15 became a 19.93 at the age of 18. That certainly does predict some impressive times later in his career. An 18-year old who runs 19.90 is quite conceivably a 22 year old running sub-19.5 seconds...could he have been on drugs at that age already? Even the hardest sceptic would not think it likely.

But then Bolt kind of hit a few snags - injury problems were predominantly responsible between 2005 to 2007, and he had a string of disappointing results at major championships. He failed to advance beyond the heats in Athens, and he came 8th in the Helsinki Final with an injury. It seemed that Bolt had reached something of a cross-roads. The three years between 2004 and 2007 produced an improvement of 0.18 seconds. The three before that (2001 to 2004) had given him 0.88 seconds.

We now know what happened at the cross road, because in 2007, he had something of a "breakthrough" year, winning silver behind Tyson Gay at the Osaka World Champs, and he was really the clear second best in the world over 200m last year.

Bolt's explosion - 2008

2008 brought with it a quantam leap, in sprinting terms, anyway, as he suddenly jumped into the next level with his world record of 9.72 seconds over 100m in New York. The rest, as you'll all know, is history, and he's now the dual world record holder.

So can we tell anything from this progression? Well, he's clearly incredibly talented, a junior with a remarkable record, which suggested he'd be a star on the track one day. It's very difficult to use this for anything more than suggestive purposes, because you never know what the ceiling is. Bolt's incredible junior performances, and his rapid improvement from 15 to 18, might be nothing more than a symptom of early physical development. Then again, they do suggest that Bolt is a naturally-exceptional runner, whose future has always been promising, and that the times he's produced in Beijing lie on the journey he began as a 15-year old.

But the big jump forward in 2008 is, for many, a flag that initiates a rather cynical debate, one which unfortunately holds no obvious answers. It is possible, given his early progression, that he was always going to run this fast. The "blip" in the middle might be solely due to injuries and perhaps a lack of focus in those years. Who knows?

Doping: The difficult question

As mentioned, though, the cynics point to his spectacular performances as "proof" of doping. One of our commenters said "This guy is juiced to the gills. You've got to be a complete idiot to not realize it."

While we can appreciate where he's coming from, it's not an entirely helpful way of putting the debate across. In fact, it's destructive to the debate. But unfortunately, the debate would be incomplete without confronting this particular issue, so let's turn our attention to this issue now.

Don't blame Bolt, blame the cheats before him

First things first, when the issue of doping comes up, don't shoot the messenger. Rather save your bullets for Ben Johnson, Tim Montgomery, Marion Jones, Dwain Chambers, and the countless other cheats who have defrauded you (and Bolt, by association) in the past. The sport is unfortunately tainted - there are no major sprint champions in the last 30 years who have escaped suspicion, and many have been caught or confessed.

So Bolt is guilty by association, which is of course not fair. However, because it's become impossible to prove innocence, we rather default into a position of "implied guilt", and we doubt spectacular performances. Marion Jones proved that NEGATIVE test results are meaningless by passing more than 100 tests in her career, and so the fact that Bolt has passed 11 doping controls this year is almost irrelevant to the debate.

Similarly, Bolt (or any other athlete) can appeal to our consciences and human trust all they wish, but Jones, Montgomery, and the many other drug users who have been caught after forcefully denying that they ever used drugs have shown that athletes can be world-class actors too. So while Bolt may deny doping, and do so sincerely, the athletics loving public are at the point where they've seen it all before. Once bitten, twice shy, so to speak.

Now, Bolt might well go on to join the ranks of cheats, if he's ever caught. But until then, I'm prepared to go out on a limb and say that I believe Bolt is less likely to be doping than any sprinter before him. That may be naive (perhaps I want to be naive on this one, it beats cynicism), but I honestly get the perception, watching Bolt run, that his advantage lies not in the power and strength of sprinters before him, but in his co-ordination and some level of neuromuscular advantage which I must confess I can't fully pin down.

So while it is a 'bald assertion', Bolt alone doesn't arouse the same level of suspicion, partly because of his appearance, his running style, and because his prodigious talent as a junior doesn't create the same doubt one would get from the sudden emergence of a sprinter.

However, Jamaica's dominance in the sprint events doesnt' do Bolt's case any favours. Jamaica have now won EVERY SINGLE short sprint at the Beijing Games - the 100m and 200m titles for both men and women belong to Jamaicans. In fact, out of a possible 12 medals, Jamaica now own 4 golds, 2 silvers, 1 bronze. They also have the 400m hurdles champ for women, and should win the relays too. For such a tiny island to dominate to that extent is generating a great deal of suspicion, thanks to the events they happen to be winning. One argument is that the people are just "born sprinters", naturally endowed with some gene that allows them to run faster than anyone else. But then, the same gene pool has been there for decades, and Jamaica has never been this dominant. Good, yes, but not to this extent.

So I for one am dying to know what is happening in Jamaica. I'm not suggesting they're cheating, but whatever they are doing, I'd love to know, and to implement it elsewhere.
At the risk of losing my scientific objectivity, I do believe it to be possible that they might be so dominant without doping. But while I think that, there's this nagging voice at the back of my mind reminding me of just how many major champions over 100m or 200m have been dopers, so why should this be any different? Success as sprinting is an automatic "flag", thanks to the exploits of Marion Jones, Ben Johnson and the like. So while it's not a specific slight on anyone (regardless of where the medals were headed after Beijing, the same debate would be in play), it's a flag that will cast even more scrutiny on Bolt's performances...Let's hope this flag denotes coaching excellence and great genes, not systematic doping.

But returning to Bolt, we have to wait out to see what his future holds. As I said, I am less sceptical of Bolt than of any other sprinting champion, and don't believe that he is doping. I may be proved incorrect (and "idiot", even, according to some), but I think there comes a point where you have to view performances with a bit less of a cynical view, until provided with reason to do otherwise.

So what then, is the key to Bolt's brilliance? As mentioned, neuromuscular factors are surely involved, I believe. I've not seen such an elastic runner before, and I suspect that Bolt's advantages stem from a superior stretch-shortening cycle function, which allows energy to be stored and used more effectively. We know from research that power output is proportional to the amount of energy that can be stored and released from the muscle-tendon junction during the muscle contraction. Add to this certain anthropometric measurements, and perhaps there are justifiable, credible reasons why one athlete can run a 19.30s time naturally

Who knows? The only thing we do know is that if Bolt is one day tainted or caught, it might well be one of the biggest blows the sport has ever taken. Let's hope that day does not arrive.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Beijing 2008: Men's 200m

USAIN BOLT: 19.30 s World Record!

Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world. Ever. No question. The debate around whether the 100m or 200m record holder is the fastest man on the planet is now irrelevant, because they're the same person! The only question now is which performance is more spectacular? And over the next day or two (the race has just finished, 10 minutes ago, so this is hot off the press, so to speak), we'll get hold of some data and look at that very question, so check in later. For now, a brief description of the incredible performance...

Bolt lights up Beijing - a rare record double

Usain Bolt shocked the world on Saturday, when he ripped a 9.69 second time to claim the 100 m Olympic title. It was not so much the win (he was the world record holder, after all) as the manner of the victory that was spectacular, because he did it celebrating over the line, costing himself perhaps 0.05 seconds (maybe more, maybe less, I'd guess a 9.64 s was probable).

Tonight, there were no premature celebrations, just the fastest 200m race in history. He got off to a good start, and ran an impressive bend, building a lead of around 3m by the time he entered the straight.

And then he got into his running! He opened that lead up, leaving behind the American challenge and Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles as he pushed on to finish in an incredible 19.30 seconds! Second went to Martina (after his 4th in the 100m race), 0.5 seconds back, while Wallace Spearmon finished third, but was then disqualified for running out of his lane, and so the bronze went to defending champion, Shawn Crawford of the USA. There was then late drama as Martina was also disqualified (following an appeal by the USA) for running out of his lane, which meant that Crawford got silver (having finished 4th) and Walter Dix got bronze. Sad for Martina, because 4th in the 100m must have been tough to take, but this result will be devastating (Thanks to a reader for pointing this out after we'd done the initial post)

But make no mistake, this was all about Bolt. Ever the entertainer, he left the celebrations for after the race today, clearly focused and working hard to crack that world record. He even dipped at the line, which probably gave him the record outright! In so doing, he becomes the first man to hold BOTH 100m and 200m world records since electronic timing began! (Don Quarrie, another Jamaican, was the last person to do this, but did it when timing was a mix of hand and electronic)

Basic race analysis, with more to follow

It's so early that we don't have much in the way of analysis yet - if anyone knows the 10m split times, please let us know, I'll get onto it immediately. But I can tell you that Bolt took 42 steps in the first 100m, and 38 in the second 100m. That compares to his 41 steps to win the 100m title on Saturday. So his bend, where the step length is often shorter thanks to the turn, was actually not compromised much - the split times will reveal an interesting story about this first half. If I had to guess, I would say that he did a faster first half than Michael Johnson in 1996.

Comparison with Johnson?

You may recall that when Johnson broke the record, he did the first 100m in 10.12, and the second 100m in 9.2 seconds. I would suspect that Bolt's first 100m will be under 10 seconds, given the similarity in stride length compared to Saturday's 100 final. His second 100m will obviously also be under 10 seconds, but not 9.2 seconds like Johnson. Again, this is a guess, but I'd say it's likely that Bolt did around 9.90 and then 9.40 seconds. All we need now is the split times to either prove or disprove that!

A headwind - is there room for improvement?

Perhaps most remarkable of all, he did it into a slight headwind - 0.9m/s! That means, I dare say it, that we can look forward to another Bolt WR in the future, as he likely has a tiny amount more in the bank!

For now, Bolt is the man of the Games, along with Michael Phelps. He has electrified (pardon the pun) the world of track and field, and is suddenly the biggest name in the sport. His agent's phone, still ringing from the 100 m race, will now be ringing off the hook in the weeks to come as everyone will want a piece of Bolt.

It's amazing to consider how meteoric his rise has been. Who would have believed, just four months ago, that by August, we'd be referring to a dual world record holder over 100m and 200m? Michael Johnson's 200m world record was regarded as "indestructible", and few would have picked Bolt to break the 100m record.

Yet he's done both, with panache and style, and Jamaica are the kings of the track (they won the only other gold on offer tonight - the women's 400m Hurdles).


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Beijing 2008: 400 women, 100m H and 1500m Men

Night of drama in Beijing as pre-race favourites "blow it"

The drama of the Olympic Games is not simply in the prestige associated with gold and the fact that the world's focus is on the athletes for the two-week period. It's also that it happens once every four years.

For that reason, the stakes are that much higher. At the risk of committing sporting sacrilege, the problem with sport today is that there is too much of it. Many sports are in danger of suffering a "credibility crisis" because they saturate us with competition after competition, and ultimately, those competitions become meaningless, devoid of any signficance. A beaten athlete knows that the next tournament, title or trophy is just around the corner, and the impact of failure and success is diluted as a result.

Not so for the Olympic Games. Athletes must wait four years for a shot at Olympic Gold, and so the potential glory, and the heart-break as a result of failure is that much greater.

Which is why tonight's action from Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium was so dramatic. Because in a period of about 20 minutes, two athletes, one heavily favoured to win the Gold and the second coming within 10 m of claiming it, were denied by their own errors. They can do nothing but wait until London 2012, and hope for their shot at gold.

Women's 400m - Richards gets the pacing wrong

First it was Sanya Richards, of the USA. The world's best 400m runner for two seasons now, and completely dominant during the European season, she missed out on gold at the World Championships last year thanks to her failure to make the US team after a bout of illness. Beijing was to be her redemption. . . or maybe not, as she started her final way too fast.

If anyone has the precise splits from the race, please let us know and we'll plot them for all the women. But Richards went off like a 200m runner. She built up a huge lead over the first 200m, eating up the stagger on the athletes outside her. Coming around the bend, with 120m to run, her lead was upward of 6m, and the big challengers (Ohuruogo and Williams inside her) were even further behind - perhaps 10m back.

And then the wheels fell off. As is typical in a 400m race, the pace got slower and slower, but the result of Richards' fast early pace was that she went backwards far faster than anyone else. Her lead vanished, and became a deficit, and in the end, it was Christine Ohuruogo of Great Britian, the 2007 World Champion, who finished strongest to claim the title, with Shericka Williams second and Richards third in a very disappointing 49.93 seconds - slower even than her semi-final where she eased up in the final 50m.

Ohuruogo's winning time of 49.62 seconds was very slow - you have to go back many years to find a women's Olympic 400m title won in such a slow time - at least to 1980 (drugs had a lot to do with that, admittedly). Credit to Ohuruogo, however. She's clearly a big championships runner, having won in Osaka as an outsider, and repeating that here - few expected that she'd triumph, but she got it right when no one else could. Richards, for her part, will be desperately disappointed with the result. She's dominated women's 400m running for two years, being unbeatable on the European season, and still has not one major individual championship medal.

Women's 100m hurdles - Lolo Jones does the job, but loses out at the end

One of the most dramatic moments of Olympic history that I can recall was Gail Devers' 100m hurdles race in Barcelona in 1992. She had the race won, and then hit the last hurdle, losing her balance and eventually falling over the line to see the gold medal (all the medals, actually) disappear from her grasp. She was lucky, because she had the 100m sprint to make up for it.

Not so for Lolo Jones, who did a Gail Devers in Beijing, as she stormed away from the field in the 100m hurdles final, and then hit the 9th hurdle hard. It stopped her in her tracks, she lost all momentum. And while she stayed on her feet, her error allowed the rest of the field to catch her as they jumped for the final hurdle of the race. Jones had lost the momentum, and it was too late to recover, and she crossed the line in 7th place, having been a sure gold medalist only 20 m earlier!

It was a moment of drama and tragedy for Jones, but illustrates just how fickle the hurdles events are (that's also a reason why Liu Xiang's withdrawal is so disappointing - it denied us great theater in his race against Robles over the technical high hurdles). Jones had a look of anguish on her face as she dipped, she knew what she had within her grasp, and she knew she'd lost it. In the unforgiving Olympic cycle, that means a four-year wait and no small amount of regret. In the end, the race was won by Dawn Harper, also of the USA, which at least meant the USA got the gold. For Jones, it will be little consolation---she'll know that she deserved the gold, had all but won the gold, but has nothing to show for it.

I guess that's both the beauty and the sadness of Olympic competition. A great night of athletics in Beijing, though!

Men's 1500m - Ramzi steps forward

The final track event on the programme was the men's 1500m final. This is one of the most open events in all of athletics at the moment - ever since Hicham el Guerrouj bowed out of the world stage after his double gold in Athens, no one has really stood up to claim his crown.

What has happened over the last four years is that numerous "pretenders" have come forward, each one claiming major victories and running impressive (though not spectacular) times, but no one has provided the consistent level of performance that we saw from el Guerrouj or even Morcelli before him.

And so it's perhaps fitting that tonight's Olympic 1500m final developed the way it did. It was a race without "purpose", in so much that no one really took the race and stamped their authority on it, apart from Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain, when it really mattered at the end. He is the one man who has shown big-championship credentials, having claimed the double over 800m and 1500m in Helsinki. He disappeared after that, and had a very poor 2007, but is now back and can add the Olympic gold to his major medal haul.

Abel Kiprop went to the front early, and ran the first 400m in a respectable 56.48s. But then they slowed it down, and covered the second lap in 59.58 seconds. The pace then stayed moderate, and Ramzi was comfortably poised to strike on the last lap. It was much like the Men's 10000m final, where guys were going to the front and then doing nothing to the pace, with the fastest runner in the field sitting contentedly in the group.

Ramzi moved clear with 250m to go, and his 800m credentials came through. With 200m remaining, he was never going to be beaten, and though Kiprop tried gamely, Ramzi entered the home straight with 2m, and finished with 1.5m. His final 400m were covered in 53.15 seconds, which is fast, but not spectacular. In the end it was his strength and sustained speed that carried him home.

Silver went to Kiprop, and bronze to Nick Willis of New Zealand, something of a surprise. The victory was not as surprising, however, and Ramzi inherits the title left vacant by Hicham el Guerrouj. Whether he can hang onto it is another matter...time will tell.