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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Comeback and reincarnations

Bouncing back: The return of Powell, Fed, and... Lance...!

It's been a week or two of comebacks, and re-incarnations in the world of sport. We look at three of them:

Asafa Powell: Bouncing back from Beijing and entrenching his reputation

First, Asafa Powell bounced back from his disapointing Olympic 5th place to run a scorching series of races. He first ran 9.85 in the pouring rain in England, then won in Lausanne in a PB of 9.72s, and then narrowly lost to Usain Bolt in Brussels (9.83s), before capping it off with a 9.77s and a 9.82s in Rieti, Italy.

Every single one of those times would have won Powell a silver medal in Beijng, where it was probably an even faster track in even better conditions (many of the above times were into head-winds). Yet Powell choked on the biggest stage, and will once again receive the "Choker of the year award" at the end of 2008. How he didn't at least medal in Beijing is incredible, and the problem for Powell is that every single time he steps out onto the track and blasts a sub 9.80s time, he only serves to consolidate this label. His own words were something to the extent that he may not be a Championship runner, which is the first step to defeat - admitting it. There's no reason why he would not be able to produce these performances in the Championships, though he cites fatigue as a reason.

But then, last last week, he ran Brussels on Friday, two races in Rieti on Sunday, and ran them all in 9.83 or faster. At the end of a long season - there's no fatigue there. So Powell has a block and will be the fastest man to NEVER win a major title, unless he figures it out. As it is, he may have missed his chance, because it's not as though a certain Usain Bolt is going to get any slower in the future.

Bounce back number 2: Roger Federer

On the hard-courts of New York, the "Fed-Express" returned to winning ways to "save" a season that would otherwise have seen him miss out on a Grand Slam title for the first time in many years. He won the US Open beating Andy Murray in the final.

As for Rafa Nadal, the number 1 man in the world, he was taken out by Murray in the semi-finals. And when I say "taken out", I mean it in the truest sense. From the first point of the match, through the rain break, and after, Murray demolished Nadal. The reality is that anyone other than Nadal would likely have won about 5 games in the match. It was one of the most lopsided contests I've seen, and how Nadal took it to four sets beats me. Murray was either ridiculously brilliant, or Nadal was very ordinary as an attacking force.

His defence was brilliant, and he was digging a trench about 5 m behind the baseline, chasing from left to right while Murray stood there enjoying target practice. But on attack, Nadal seemed almost impotent. I have to say, even at the Olympic Games, he looked the same - I couldn't believe he beat Djokovic in the semi-finals, because his attacking game was non-existent. It was not the same Nadal as at Wimbledon, who cut off angles, took balls early and dominated play. Nadal seems to be a lot more "conservative" on the hard courts, and I suspect that he needs to learn to flatten out his groundstrokes a little if he wants to challenge on this surface in the future. Because Murray, Djokovic and especially Federer all have more firepower in their arsenal and Nadal's defence, brilliant as it is, won't stand up to that throughout a two-week tournament.

Then again, perhaps it's just fatigue - who could blame him, he's won just about every tournament bar two since April, and so the end of a long season might account for his apparent lack of "potency".

As for Federer, he'll be relieved to have regained some form of ascendancy. Federer has responded brilliantly to the challenges thrown down this year. He's been beaten by "ordinary" opponents (Blake, Stepanek, Karlovic etc.), and annihilated by the top players (Nadal, who crushed him in three sets in Paris, including a 6-0 smashing). Yet he's managed to end on a high note, and should now go on to win another couple on the indoor circuit.

Perhaps. There are still chinks in his armour, and I think the top players recognize this. He'll have his work cut out and unless he learns from this success (which is a very difficult thing to do), he'll find that the gap continues to narrow (and maybe even grows the other way - Nadal is already ahead, Djokovic and Murray are closing). It should make for an interesting 2009, because now there are FOUR great players at the top, assuming Murray can sustain his current level.

The comeback: Lance Armstrong in 2009?

Finally, perhaps the most radical announcment, which, if it had happened five months ago, would have been dismissed as an April Fool's Joke (and not even a good one)! Lance Armstrong is coming out of retirement and will race in the 2009 Tour de France.

I was going to write about this when the story first broke on Tuesday, but resisted the urge out of a nervousness that we'd be falling for what was an elaborate publicity stunt! However, it seems not to be that, although facts have been a little slow to emerge until much more recently.

You can read the news article here and here and and more tongue-in-cheek (quite funny) report here, so we won't give you the details of the plan, but rather give a couple of comments on it.

Firstly, the big question is can he return in good enough condition to WIN the race? Age is of course the big thing against him - the oldest ever winner of the Tour de France was Firmin Lambot, aged 36 - Armstrong will beat that by a year IF he can win the Tour. However, that kind of talk is far too premature, considering a three-year break from the sport entirely. More than likely, he'll return in the spring of 2009 and test his legs and then see if he's in the kind of shape to challenge. One thing I think is sure is that he'll either ride it as a procession (to raise awareness of cancer) or he'll compete at the front - no half measure. And the first two months of 2009 will determine which it is, regardless of the speculation going on now.

The nice thing for Armstrong is that he's in a no-lose situation - if he "fails", then it's fine because no one really expects him to win after that long a break, at that age. He can also say it was never intended to be a winning return, but a crusade to raise cancer awareness. If he wins, well, then his legend is even more established. So it's all about managing expectations, which I suspect he'll do better than most.

The three-year break from cycling, plus the fact that Armstrong missed out two seasons for cancer treatment back in the late 1990's are possible factors that suggest that 37 is not really 37 - his career has been five years "shorter" than it would be for a similarly aged rider without those breaks. That may count in his favour slightly. Then again, if he does return in competitive shape, it will mean that he has managed to stretch a competitive Tour career out over 10 years, which is incredible longevity, regardless of the break. The biggest factor is still that with age, one does lose muscle mass, and the ability to recover after training (which is perhaps the key to success in the Tour - single day races don't have quite the same problem).

Then of course, there is the doping issue, which can't be ommitted from a discussion on Armstrong. Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France Race Director has already emphasized that Armstrong will be subject to exactly the same tests and requirements as any other rider - no surprise there, I'm surprised that the media even reported on it, it would seem that obvious. What will be interesting is to see how it plays out, because there's no doubt that the testing processes and control from authorities is now much tighter than it has ever been, certainly since Armstrong rode off into the sunset after his last triumph in 2005. What impact with that have?

Who knows, it's rank speculation at this stage...it doesn't seem to have affected Astana and Johan Bruyneel, who is the man with the Midas touch when it comes to producing world class cyclists and champions, and the team Armstrong has been linked with. That in itself is cause for suspicion - I dare say it would be possible to build an entire team out of riders who tested positive only AFTER leaving a team managed by Johan Bruyneel. Many were Armstrong's former team-mates, whose performances suffered despite the use of doping products...

All these kinds of debates will start anew as a result of Armstrong's return. He's already pushed the Vuelta Espana off the news pages, and come July 2009, he'll be the big story of the Tour, if he takes to the line. Good for cycling? From a marketing, media, and exposure point of view, yes, absolutely, though one can see how the issue will polarize people who follow the sport, and possibly the peloton.

More comments to follow, I'm sure...



Anonymous said...

First off, great blog.

Now, I'm pretty sure Bolt ran in Zürich and not Powell. At least I remember watching Usain do his dance for the crowds :).

Greetings from Zürich.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi there

Oops, you're right. Powell's was in Lausanne, not Zurich...! I've changed it now, so people who read this will wonder what you were commenting on...!

Thanks for the save! And for reading!


Anonymous said...

Bolt's 9,77 in Brussels was run in cool, wet conditions into a headwind, and with a reaction time of 0,233, if I remember rightly! It would be great to see the splits on that ...

steve said...

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the latest news about Armstrong, that some of the research on his muscular efficiency improvements was flawed:


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Steve

Yeah, interesting development on the Coyle paper. When that paper came out, there was a great deal of excitement about the findings. But when the results and conclusion were seen, it was brutally criticized, because scientifically, it was very ordinary. Interesting data, but completely untenable conclusions were drawn.

The paper actually became something of a running 'joke' within my university - a shining example of science corrupted. How it got published was beyond many...but it was Armstrong's name plus Coyle's affiliation within the scientific community that got it published. But it should never have been, it was really so poor.

And then when it popped up as part of Armstrong's defence in his trial, it was even worse! To use that research as a legal defence, particularly to say that "Armstrong didn't need to dope to win" was like slapstick at the end of a stand-up comedy routine, it was just untrue...

So I'm not all that surprised that it's now been criticized in the academic community and forced a retraction. The fact that the data has been criticized is interesting, it brings it even more into question. It should have happened a long time ago...

This whole concept that some scientific study can pinpoint the reason why one guy (Armstrong, in this case) is so much more dominant that others is completely fallacious. It happens all the time - the marketers "spin" the science - he has a bigger heart, better lactate clearance, bigger lungs, more fast twitch fibres etc.

The reality is that if you did this kind of physiological testing on the top 50 cyclists in the world, you'd be hard pressed to rank them based on their measurements alone. In fact, you'd have more luck if you threw a dart into a list of their results! The truth is that the media (and Coyle, in this case) have "spun" the science to create the perception, and it's great when it gets exposed like this.

The same happened for Oscar Pistorius, incidentally - shaky science meets clever public relations, and everyone gets decieved...


Unknown said...

What impact will the doping and testing controls have on Armstrong? NONE, he was already one of the most tested athletes in and out of competition 3 years ago. Based on the letter sent out by the LAF, Lance is returning to draw attention to cancer awareness. To even consider doping would be ridiculous; there are millions of people around the world that are inspired by his efforts.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jen

Indeed. Then I'm reminded that Marion Jones passed 150 drug tests in her career, and then eventually broke down and confessed because of the threat of federal prison, and suddenly all that testing didn't seem to potent anymore...I'm afraid the tests mean little.

And a letter stating intention is meaningless too - talk is cheap, unfortunately, and the world of sport has witnessed too many "Oscar-winning" performances to take words of athletes with a great deal of sincerity. Marion taught everyone that lesson. She wasn't alone. Whether Armstrong is the same, I don't know. It polarizes the world, but can I just say that the fact that he inspires millions of cancer sufferers is a completely separate issue to the doping one.

Yes, he's an inspiration. but it doesn't in anyway grant him indemnity from doping suspicion - the two issues are not intertwined.


Anonymous said...

Hi Ross an jonathan,

In connection with the Lance Armstrong comeback, a fierce scientific debate on a n article in J Appl Physiol on Lance has reopened. How about a post on that issue ? I guess its a topic that would interest many people in the sports science world! If you dont have access to all the J Appl Physiol articles and letters, let me know through the forum and I will send them through..


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi there anonymous

We're on it. In fact, have a look up the list of comments to this post, and find my response to Steve - it is the fifth one down.

That Coyle paper was a complete farce when it was published. Like I said, it became a running joke at my University (and at other conferences), held up a shining light to scientific credibility gone wrong.

So we're planning that post, for sure. I've actually started writing it, but I'm going to wait until Monday to put it up, so that it's there for the week, since these things get lost in the wash over weekends.

Thanks for reading, and hope next week's debate is lively!

Chat then!

Ron George said...

Thanks for the comment on Coyle's research study. I never read this paper but I'm trying to get my hands on it. Meanwhile, something for your team.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Ron

That's brilliant, thanks. Very funny!

Let us know if you need the paper and the letters that were written about it. We can mail them to you.

THanks again!

Anonymous said...


I like your simple analysis of the
Bolt race, and think that the analysis of Eriksen et al is unconvincing.

I've taken a closer look at what they did. Two points:

1) Small point: for some reason they estimated the split times from TV screen shots, instead of using the IAAF official splits. Maybe because the splits for Thompson were not available?

In any case, the plot


compares IAAF splits for Bolt to the ones that they derive.
They are close, but their data has Bolt consistently ahead of
the IAAF distance at each time. This may bias their results a bit.

2) But the major problem: their assumption that Bolt could have maintained either
the acceleration profile of Thompson or beaten it by 0.5m/sec^2, if he had not
celebrated at 80m. The problem is that at 80m Bolt has a higher speed than Thompson,
and it takes more force to maintain that higher speed.

The figures in


are instructive. They are the distance, speed and acceleration estimated curves from
their spline models, fit to their real data (no projections). I did my best to match
their stiffness penalty. (I used smooth.spline in the R package, with df=5).
My top left panel looks pretty similar to their fig 3(left panel)
as it should. At 8 sec (80m) Bolt has a greater speed than Thompson, but his acceleration
is less. Maybe he could have maintained Thompson's acceleration
profile, but it certainly does not look like he could have beaten it by 0.5m/sec^2.

Overall, I think that your approach- comparing "Bolt to Bolt" in different intervals, is more
credible than comparing Bolt to Thompson.

Rob Tibshirani

Ron George said...

Ross :

Please email at rg_7785@hotmail.com. Thanks for the input!!

Anonymous said...

Everyone- please ignore my previous post- I'm still working on the details and may repost in a few days