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Friday, November 28, 2008

Swimming vs athletics debate

The debate continues: Some of your comments on swimming and athletics world records

Yesterday's and Monday's posts have certainly inspired some really great comments. Thank you to all of you who have thrown your opinion into the 'ring' and added to the debate on the athletics and swimming world records.

The limit to world records: Yet another predictive model

Speaking of world records, a very interesting study was announced today - it is a (yet another) model that looks at the limits to human athletic performance. This is about the fourth one this year, some have said we've almost arrived at the human limit, others have somehow suggested that man should run 100m in 6 seconds!

This particular study predicts, among other things, that the Men's 100m world record will one day hit a limit at 9.48 seconds, and that the marathon record could improve by 4 minutes 23 seconds.

It also suggests that the WOMEN's 100m world record could drop as low as 10.19 seconds. Now, I'm open enough to give the first few predictions a chance, but when I consider that final prediction, that women will run a full 0.30 seconds FASTER than a record which has stood for 20 years and is seriously suspect with regards to doping, then I lose a great deal of confidence in the validity of the predictions.

I haven't had the time to look through the study and its predictions in great detail, but I am aware of it, and I will certainly post in more detail on it during the next few days, perhaps early next week. My first reaction is that it's another case of "can't see the wood for the trees", much like the ridiculous statement by Prof Peter Weyand that humans should run 100m in 6 seconds because Cheetahs can (the same Prof got involved with cheetahs of a different kind when he lent his "expert" opinion to the defence of Oscar Pistorius)...!

The debate on athletics world records

The debate on world records is appropriate, given our last few posts, and so I'll keep the theme alive next week when I look at that latest round of predictions. For today, however, because many people don't read the comments to the posts (they either receive the post by email or just read once and don't return often), I thought it would be an interesting change to actually post some of the comments, in the name of facilitating a bit of "two-way" conversation (as much as is possible through a post-comment format!). And, I have to confess, it gives me an easy post on a lazy Friday afternoon!

So here are some the excellent posts and comments we've received, with my brief comments in maroon. Thanks again!

From Scott:

That strength in swimming is important should be obvious when looking at an elite swimmer’s body. The ability to move efficiency through the water is, by expert consensus, even more important. A case in point would be Janet Evans, all forty odd kilograms of her when she raced, and the long standing records she set. Another example would be Michael Phelps’ extraordinary kick which comes about because the extreme hyper flexibility in his ankles and knees are unmatched by his peers (Mark Spitz, incidentally, enjoyed hyper flexible knees).

My personal theoretical model of efficiency has efficiency playing a relatively minor role in the lower power output ranges (I’m thinking here of a higher power to displacement ratio along the lines of gymnasts) but growing steadily as power output increases (and power/displacement drops). At some point, however, perhaps at the point where water resistance starts creating turbulence and the related drag, a significant drop in the benefits realized from additional power is seen and efficiency jumps to become the overwhelming dominant factor in determining ultimate speed. Admittedly my only justification for this rests on the fact that doping has proven far more efficient for women compared to men, and the fact our closely related genetic cousins the great apes, far more powerful than we could ever be, can’t swim at all. It may well be weak but it is a model that parallels some of the facts, including why strength doping seemingly has a lesser impact on swimming than athletics (at least for males).

This all leads to the statements I’d like to make (again just my own opinion):

  1. I don’t think pool technology has advanced in any significant manner since 2004 Athens;
  2. Inge de Bruijn’s records are considered by many to be a product of doping;
  3. The new swimsuits are acknowledged by virtually every expert not under contract as a Speedo “consultant” to be the cause of the recent avalanche of world records;
  4. The current debate is whether the new swimsuits are, in fact, devices and therefore illegal under pre-existing rules (not unlike IAAF’s banning of “stored energy” running shoes);
  5. It has been submitted by many the one thing which can indicate a device is at play is seeing certain individuals benefit more from the item in question than others (i.e. a tool which compensates for a specific deficiency). Increasingly elite coaches are identifying the impact of the new suits is not evenly spread as certain swimmers have clearly gained an advantage, and that those swimmers can be identified by body type and known weaknesses; and
  6. If this is true (and this opinion is growing by leaps and bounds amongst the swimming community) then any record set using these suits would be illegal under the rules existing at the time and therefore would be struck from the record books.
One can see why this controversy is getting very close to the boiling point.

From mcgrathe: A sobering look at the records in women's athletics

I especially got drawn in by the question of the credibility of the athletics records. Clearly (in my opinion) Dibaba should be the record holder over 5 and 10K on the track, but the 10K record is so far fetched, nobody even thinks about it anymore. It's difficult to know what to do in cases such as this though. Can you just decide to throw out all the dodgy records in the sport? Unfortunately, in Women's track & field, there wouldn't be much left.
Having a trawl through the records, it looks very very bad.
100m - FloJo - dodgy record
200m - FloJo - dodgy record
400m - Marita Koch - 1980s eastern bloc & well documented
800m - Jarmila Kratochvilova - always in the shadow of Marita Koch - enough said..
1500 - Qu Yunxia - 1993 turtle blood performance set in Beijing...
5000m - Dibaba - probably wouldn't have got near the record except that up to the mid '90s the 3K was the championship event and Wang Junxia set that in Beijing as well
10000m - Wang Junxia, 5 days before her 3K record and 42s faster than the old record. Still 23s faster than anyone else ever.
S'Chase - Gulnara Samitova. Similar to the 5K, new enough to probably be clean
100H - Yordanka Donkova, 1980s eastern bloc
400H - Yulia Pechonkina - could this be a clean record?
Shot - Natalya Livovskaya, 1980s eastern bloc - 4 furthest throws ever?
Discus - Gabriele Reinsch, 1980s eastern bloc
Javelin - Barbora Spotakova - same as 5K and S'chase as a new javelin was introduced in '99. The old record was Petra Felke (E Germany in the '80s)
Hammer - Tatyana Lysenko - her furthest ever throw doesn't count because she was caught on drugs.

Maybe this is why so much is made of Isinbayeva in the Pole Vault - it is a long time since a woman has come along capable of delivering WR or near WR performances on a regular basis at Grand Prix meetings.

It's an impossible problem to fix though. Even if you wipe all records older than say 15 years, you still end up with a few dodgy records. The 2nd fastest time over 100m belongs to Marion Jones for example. None of the top 10 shot putters are believable. Yet it would be great if records were returned to where athletes truly believe they have a shot at breaking them. At the moment, only a handful of women can have any notion about getting close to a WR in any event.

And a final one from Derek, providing an interesting (and certainly very valid) counterpoint to the swimming debate.

I think swimming is enjoying much more popularity today, because of the suits. People who never cared about the sport before ( like me) are now paying attention (like me) and people who never have watched Olympic swimming in the past (like me) are all of a sudden became very interested in watching the sport (like me). The way I see it, is that comparing athletics records to swimming records is a little like comparing apples to oranges. When a world record is broken in a sport, it is good for the sport, because it brings more media attention, and possibly opens the “pool” of perspective athletes. It’s impressive when a world record in athletics falls, because we know, like you’ve mentioned, that many are tainted. This is also one of the reasons why, in many cases we automatically (and blindly) suspect that the person who broke the record is doping. The human logic, correct or incorrect, thinks that, if the previous record was set with dope, then the athlete who broke it must also be doping.

On the other hand, in swimming, it’s a slightly different story. We know that the records are broken because of “the suit”, assuming that doping isn’t a factor of course, and as we discussed, maybe the playing field isn’t too level at the moment because of the price of the suit and sponsor contracts. My argument is that in the case of swimming, we are talking about technology. The price of technology always falls with time. What was once too expensive for small nations will be completely accessible before the next Olympics. Sponsorship shouldn’t be a problem, because they (companies besides Speedo) will try harder to develop something that will give it competition. I may have the names mixed up, but I understand Arena came out with a suit called the LZR, but it couldn’t match the Speedo suit. They were under pressure to come out with a suit quickly. They didn’t have time to develop to their capability because they were losing sales. I wouldn’t be surprised that they were unaware that Speedo was developing their suit. Now that the Olympics are over, they have more time to do research and come out with a better suit that will (hopefully) give some competition to Speedo.

Another reason why I think the swim suit is good is because no one can deny that it is good that the drug influenced records from the ‘80’s are gone. I would much rather have “swim suit” induced records than a drug induced record! That being said, I’m waiting for a huge break through in shoes so that we can cleanse the athletics record books!

That being said, I think FINA needs to take a better look at their rules so that something like this doesn’t happen again. I don’t think they should take ALL of the blame though; it’s pretty hard to guess the future. I am aware that they had the chance to do something about it when they met back in the spring I thing It was.

On a different subject, you said “…Usain Bolt in Beijing, and the east African runners (whether these are drug-assisted is another story entirely!)” I would sure like to hear your opinion on this subject!

As for that final request, well, let's leave that one for a rainy day! We did discuss Usain Bolt's performance in the context of doping at the time, you can read that article here (it got some hostile debate going - here's to opening that up again!). As for the east Africans, I may be naive, but I know that most of them train in areas without electricity, and without electricity, you don't have fridges and technology to store drugs, and so I suspect (without proof, entirely based on the people I know within Kenya and Ethiopia who are involved with their best athletes) that they are clean. But that debate is for another time!



Anonymous said...

Hi all,
Great resource, thank you.

Have you given any more thought to the running action of Bolt? To my untrained eye his running style seems very loose, free-flowing and exudes "chi"/energy. I had become so accustomed to seeing massive, heavily muscled and robot-like sprinters that it was a shock seeing him run. Somewhat akin to what Nureyev did for ballet. Have you analyzed his gait in an effort to characterize the mechanical differences which may be big contributors to his running performance?

John O, Maryland, USA

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI John

Thanks for the mail.

No specific mechanical analysis that I know of. I'd be intersted to know how one would go about confirming the hypothesis that it's "Chi", because there's no benchmark against which to compare Bolt. I mean, would we look at the knee extension angle at push off and say "It's Chi", or do we look at the landing point of the foot (because I guarantee that every sprinter lands on the forefoot, and within a pretty narrow range from their centre of gravity). So scientifically, there is no way to confirm that.

My feeling is that what sets Bolt apart is not technique, but neuromuscular characteristics. He is more elastic than other runners, and I also suspect that the relative proportions of his various body segments create the appearance of something very different. But my experience of mechanics of running suggest that Bolt is actually not that different - his stride parameters are likely to be very, very normal. So much so, that if I showed you his characteristics alongside 10 other sprinters', you'd be unable to tell them apart.

Rather, his difference is the elasticity, something in the nerve-muscle-tendon that confers that extra-ordinary 'bounce' and loose style, which you point out.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget that swimming records fall every year, also when suits couldn't be blamed. In the olympic cycle 1997-2000 41 long course (LC) WR were broken in olympic individual events, more than a half of them during the Olympics. The same number of 41 LC WR were broken in the next olympic period leading to Athens OG.
These number has been almost doubled during the last olympic cycle, in my oipinion (and probably in anybody else's) due to the suits. But the number of WR broken since the 96 OG (just 12 years in history) are more than 150 only in olympic individual events. A fact that can not be eluded.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ross,

Thanks for the reply. My chi reference was not meant to be a measurable element but rather trying to put words to how he effortless he appeared....not very scientific but it made a big impression.

Neuromuscular characteristics. Any noninvasive way of measuring those parameters and testing your hypothesis?


Anonymous said...

Hi there!

I just wanted to mention (if you haven't noticed already) that a lot of world records were broken again today at the swimming European championships (and more to be expected). So are these better suits now than there was in Beijing or have the athletes really improved?

Also, big headlines today on Finnish news sites when Hanna-Maria Seppälä broke the 50m freestyle Finnish record, but frankly I wasn't that impressed after reading your posts. Should I be?