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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Swimming vs athletics

World records in swimming compared to records in athletics - interesting observations

Two days ago, I did a post looking at the absolute "cleansing" of the record books in the sport of swimming this year. 70 records in 2008, 66 Olympic records in the recent Beijing Olympics, and swimmers who began the year as world record holders (think Alexander Popov) suddenly find themselves outside the top 10 in that same event by the end of August! It has been an unprecedent explosion in the sport, one which I do believe is bad for the credibility of swimming.

That post got some good feedback and questions, and hopefully prompted some thought about the causes. There are some who have claimed that this astonishing "record-rush" is the result of better training and better athletes. Yet that implies that swimming legends like Alexander Popov, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Ian Thorpe, Janet Evans, were "inferior" only a few years ago. The problem is the timing, not necessarily the concept - evolution in training, generation of better athletes, only works when you look back over many years.

For example, we can compare the current marathon world record holder, Haile Gebrselassie, to Jim Peters, who held it in the 1950s, and then it's appropriate to say "better athletes and better training". The fact is that great swimmers who were world record holders at the start of 2008 (like Alex Popov) are now not even in the top 10 in their events! Better training, which by nature tends to evolve slowly, especially in a mature sport like swimming (this is not BMX racing with rapid growth opportunities), doesn't demote you from best EVER to outside the top 10 in a few months.

So I firmly believe that the suit is a large part of the "problem", whether it's a placebo effect or a real one (I believe it to be real) is another debate. But the latest news is that the USA are pressing FINA into banning the full body suits, and as mentioned the other day, the big swimming nations might yet step in to 'save the day' for swimming.

The influence of doping: Swimming flies under the radar

One interesting aspect of this debate is that little mention is made of the possible impact of doping in swimming's record-explosion. If it was cycling or athletics, the noise would be far louder, the accusations far more frequent and much more intense.

I have no doubt that doping happens in swimming, just as it does in all sports. But massive doping scandals are conspicuous by their absence - the Chinese swimmers of the 1990's are perhaps the most recent large scandal. Jessica Hardy missed the Olympic Games for a positive test, Ian Thorpe defended himself for an alleged EPO positive, but other than this, I can recall few high profile cases.

I suspect that a big part of the reason for this is that doping is far less beneficial for swimmers than it seems to be for track and field athletes. This is not simply a bald assertion, it is a conclusion drawn from the analysis of world records, which I discuss below. So before leaping onto the attack, consider the follow story, told by numbers:

World record evolution and what it means for doping

The table below shows the average age of the world records in men's and women's swimming events at the closing of the Beijing Olympic Games. They are the same tables I showed in the previous post:

  • In men's events, the average age of world records was 1 year, 1 month.
  • For the women, it was 8 months. That was thanks to the incredible events of Beijing, where a total of 21 world records were broken.
  • The result is that when the 32 events are combined, only 4 of them have records that are older than three years.
Now look at the same analysis for athletics (both track and field):

  • For men (a total of 21 events) , the average age of track and field records was 8 years and 11 months
  • Of the 21 records, 16 are older than three years. The age has actually been greatly reduced by Usain Bolt's Beijing performances, because he took out a 12-year old record (MJ in the 200m) and also helped the relay team break a 16-year old record.
On the women's side, it's even more pronounced:

  • The average age of world records is 14 years and 9 months. That is an incredible 22 times older than the swimming records (14 yrs 9 mths compared to 8 mths)!
  • 18 of the 21 records are older than three years
The graph below shows this comparison:

So what does this mean? Some observations and ideas

The more astute among you (and we know that all of you are particularly astute!) have by now scanned those athletics tables, and you will have noticed the number of records that date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s - men's and women's field events in particular are dominated by records set in this period. I think it is unquestionably known that athletes of the 1980's, especially in women's athletics, were quite "reliant" on anabolic doping products!

In fact, across both men's and women's athletics, it is only really the men's track events where any world records have been set in the last ten years, and those are courtesy first of Usain Bolt in Beijing, and the east African runners (whether these are drug-assisted is another story entirely!)

Implications for swimming

So what does this have to do with swimming? Well, you've by now already come to the conclusion that athletics records are so "old" because they are influenced heavily by doping that was undoubtedly pervasive in the 1980s and early 1990s.

But, the question you might ask, is "Why do the swimming records not reflect the same pattern?" It is again difficult to argue that the swimmers of the 1980's and early 1990s were NOT doped. We know that the eastern Bloc nations, in particular East German athletes, were heavily into drugs at this time - this applies to both swimmers and athletes. Yet the drug-induced records from the pool are now long gone, ancient history, replaced by the records set in the "new era", thanks to newly designed swimming pools, training methods and, in particular, swim suits.

There are many possible implications and arguments about this. I believe it suggests that the impact of technology in swimming dwarfs that of doping. This is clearly not the case in athletics, because records exist that may survive forever - can we ever expect to see a woman run under 47.60 seconds for 400m, for example? Perhaps "forever" is too strong a word, but what is certain is that the track and field records have withstood all the improvements in equipment and training since the 1980s.

Swimming, on the other hand, has leapt forward, and I do believe that this is an indication that doping is far less significant to swimming performance, which is the statement I began this analysis with. The reason for this, I believe, is that swimming is such an "inefficient" activity (even the world's best swimmers are only 7 to 9% efficient, I'm reliably informed), that any technology that reduces drag in the water has an enormous effect on performance. On the other hand, drugs which improve strength and power (as the drugs of the 1980s would have done) may have a far smaller effect, with so much of the gains being lost to the inefficient swimming stroke.

This is an oversimplification, and the obvious argument is that doping may be very effective, but is "masked" by the added introduction of technology. If they've been doping for years, technology would still move the event forward when it is introduced. I'd be keen (as always) to hear your views and opinions on that statement.

Is track and field lacking credibility in a different way?

The final point, an extension from the previous post, is that if swimming lacks credibility because its records are broken almost at will, then does athletics lack credibility when some records are so superior that it may take two or three generations to come close?

One might argue that in the case of women's athletics in particular, world records are equally meaningless, just as they are for swimming, though for a very different reason. If I was a female 100m runner, I'd certainly be more than disgruntled that the world record in my event is almost 0.5 seconds faster than most women will ever run. That is perhaps just as bad.

I have a feeling that IF FINA does ban the suits, we may, in 20 years time, find that swimming is in the same situation as athletics is today - its world records are "meaningless", simply because they are so out of reach that rather than being a trivial subtitle to the race (as they are now), they are a remnant of a previous time, where doping (technological or pharmaceutical, depending on the sport) was rife.



Unknown said...

I generally agree that technology has had an impact on performance in swimming that is quite similar to the one it has had in pole vaulting but given equal efficiency, the swimmer with more "horsefishpower" wins. If doping gets you 2% faster in track&field, It should also get you 2% faster in swimming. Unless swimming has other aspects I am unaware of.

Recall that we have also had 10+ year old records in swimming, before the 2000 olympics mostly, after which stuff started to happen. Without technological breakthroughs, some could have been alive and kicking today.

Swimming is not in the clesr, it is only that the audience is more naive imo. The fact that wearing the proper swimsuit makes you a winner is an illusion, at one point in time, you will have to compete against equal tech. I don't expect that anybody(athletes) could have fallen for this.

By the time of the Beijing olympics, most advantages anybody had had been neutralised, and the playing field was generally levelled at the elite level.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Mircea

THanks for the comments. I agree that all things being equal efficiency wise, the "stronger" swimmer will win and so doping might have an effect. But I disagree that a 2% would be the standard improvement across two different activities. The obvious example of this is that anabolic steroids will improve weight lifting performance by more than they improve running performance, because the nature of the activity is so different, and the impact of these other factors becomes much more pronounced. The efficiency issue of swimming means that pure strength gains are not directly translated into performance gains - the performance is multifactorial, and the biggest factor is efficiency, which is why the suits and other technological advances have outstripped doping advances of the 1980s in swimming, but not athletics.

The fact that the records started falling after 2000, when the technology came along, actually proves my point that technology, not doping, is the biggest driver, and outweighs doping in terms of its impact on performance.

And then as to whether the audience is naive, that's an interesting one. It might be true. I suspect that people within swimming are just as aware, and perhaps those outside are not. Then again, one could make the argument that people outside swimming, who don't know about the technology, will be the first to point at doping. So it works both ways.

Finally, I don't think anyone has ever suggested that wearing the suit creates the winner. And you're quite right, all things being equal in terms of technology and equipment, the best swimmer will still win, and doping might be part of creating the "best" swimmer. But I think that technique and efficiency are so much more important, that a doped swimmer will very often fail to be a "good" swimmer, simply because the good swimmer can find such huge improvements thanks to technical matters (not just those relating to the suit.

Look for example at how dominant Phelps was at the turn-phase of his races - he was able to gain 1 to 2m leads just in the 10m around the turn. What doping confers that advantage? So my point is that technological factors (and I've highlighted the swim suits) exert a greater influence than doping. There is no way to prove this, of course, so it remains my opinion.


Scott said...

I’ve been deeply involved in the new swimsuit debate from the start and appreciate your efforts as an outsider trying to understand the turmoil the swimming world is in right now over these suits. I think your “inefficiency” hypothesis is very plausible, at least because it pretty well follows my own theory on this built up over the past couple of years. 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.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Scott

Thanks, what an excellent post. It really does add so much to the argument. In fact, I think I'll post your comment as a post all by itself, it's excellent!


mcgrathe said...

Good article guys, 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.

When you really delve into them, there aren't many legitimate records out there. The javelin, 5000m, steeplechase and pole vault (not mentioned above) are all less than 10 years old, but virtually everything else has been contaminated by the eastern bloc '80s and the Chinese '93 season.
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.

Anonymous said...

Consider the hour record in cycling.

From 1984 when Moser set his record with a disc wheel it was clear that technology was a big part of it, and from 1993 to 1996 Obree and Boardman battled it out on progressively more and more extreme bikes. It was exciting.

Then the UCI decided they'd have none of all that technology and effectively created a new ruleset for the hour record, I think they call it the "Athletes Record", forcing the riders to ride bikes almost as aerodynamically inefficient as what Merckx, Coppi and Anquetil rode. Very exciting.

As an amateur you're still allowed aerobars and other fancy aerodynamic tricks for the hour record. Just not as a pro.

What if FINA did something similar? (I don't think they can or will).

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys. Great Comments!

Let me to suggest that if swimming is more dependent of aerobic metabolism, probably the better doping option is EPO or similar. Another dopping possibility refers to have a fast recovery as swimming training is actually achieving a great volume. The later is opposite to other sports like track and field or similar as the mechanical stress that an athlete could mantain along the season is far less than a swimmer.

Sorry for my English.


Anonymous said...

First of all, like always, good post guys. During this whole swimming debate, I have kept my opinions in the shadows, because I’m probably the worst swimmer on the face of the earth. I can’t keep quiet any longer, though. A number of times you’ve mentioned that these suits and new records are bad for the sport. I appreciate that you’ve given very good reason, and have supported your opinion. I respect your opinions, and in general I agree with every thing that you’ve said up to this point, BUT I also see a different side to the story.

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!

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the double post, but i have a very controversial idea. I think that we should really get the doping under control in Athletics, then reset the record books from zero. Erase everything, because it wouldn't be fair to erase what we think might be dodgy and keep what we think is clean.

I know that this isn't fair to those who have clean records, but most of those that have clean records are still active in their sport, and if you ask Haile, or Ms Tirunesh or Usain Bolt, I don't think they would might re-doing their records in order to have them documented in a "clean book".

Scott said...

Amaestrador dicho bien. You are absolutely correct about the potential of drugs targeting aerobic metabolism for swimming. It would cause an instantly transformed sport. This doesn’t seem to have happened however, and I’d speculate there are two primary reasons. The first is that medical research into improved aerobic capacity is well advanced because of the huge market potential of such drugs, and this likely makes it difficult to design a new, previously unknown drug capable of escaping detection. Furthermore the manufacturer would insane not to put it on the open market and make a thousand times the profit than the money which could be realized pushing it on the black market. Consequently FINA and WADA’s efforts has been devoted to identifying drugs normally prescribed to asthmatics (coincidentally elite swimming has approximately twice the number as asthmatics as the general population). I speculate the other reason is the very narrow physiological niche swimming falls into. EPO and the other aerobic enhancers ‘promoted’ by cycling provide benefits for a range of performance far outside the needs of the general population and as a result designing custom drugs for boosting cycling related performance is both scientifically feasible (no competition) and financially viable (no alternative market). Thankfully I believe swimming can’t piggy-back the much larger sport because cycling’s extreme endurance aspect precludes swimming from deriving any real benefits. The longest lasting race at the elite level in swimming is well under twenty minutes (with the notably exception of open water racing), with the bulk of racing carried out in a relatively narrow range of one to four minutes – far too short a time to derive any real benefits from EPO doping or its related cousins. And should someone in open water swimming attempt EPO doping or any of the other methods which had found favor in the past in cycling – well the detection methods for finding them are equally as well developed. So doping up to this point has seemed to be restricted to improving strength and the individual's training capability. Up to this point.

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott. You are right in your comments but I disagree with some aspects. Firstly, I disagree with the limited influence of EPO or other oxygen transport enhancer drugs as the duration of the events is not related to influence of oxygen transport factors in VO2max and/or critical velocity. Furthermore, as swimmers: have a very high percentage of slow twitch fibers, perform in slow motion regimen (compared with field locomotion), and in a body position that reduces the influence of central factors (i.e. heart physiology); probably they would obtain great benefits of such drugs. Think that they need to warm-up during a greater time than other sports because they need to fully activate aerobic metabolism. Also, don´t forget the potential benefits of recovery enhancer drugs (probably combined with oxygen carriers).

On the other hand, I suggest that there is not relationship between white/black market, and the effort of sport federations in to pursue doping because every sport has its own idiosycracy (e.g. "doping culture") with respect to this topics.



Unknown said...

To Scott and Daniel

I have said this before in another comment. Testing is quantitative, therefore, you can always get away with stuff that's "detectable". In fact no drugs are undetectable, just unknown and therefore untested, or synthetic versions of naturally occuring substances that are transparent, or, if you like, undistinguishable from the real thing.

The contribution of aerobic power in 400m sprint/100m swimming(any stroke) is generally underestimated.

Now I'm helping Ross, actually. It is possible that blood doping has in fact a lower impact on swimming because this sport though very aerobic, does not allow you to ventilate your lungs properly. Backstroke is also affected, to some degree. If anything, count the time spent underwater during the turn phase.In general, the more you try to breathe, the less efficient you get, so you win power but in the same time you drop on efficiency. To gain anything from the extra oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, you need to breathe more air into your lungs, and that can be a problem. There might not be any incentive for swimmers to get ridiculously high hematocrit even though they could probably get away with it.

Get a forum or something! That' what this site needs.

Anonymous said...

This vast improvement in swimming compared to track and field may be explained by other reasons than the use of drugs or swimming suits alone. For one T&F has had a vastly larger number of participants over the past century. The limits of human performances (with or without drugs) have been reached sooner in this sport. African and Caribbean athletes have made those limits more attainable in light of the fact that these places have few other sports options. Running, a relatively “inexpensive” sport, has encouraged third world nation to participate in it en-mass. Running is the only Olympic sport where poor nations have a chance to win any medals. In fact all the man’s running events were won by third world countries’ athletes except for the 400, 400 hurdles and 1600 relay (not to mention the 2nd and 3rd place where the picture looks very much the same) . In light of the intense competition from these two regions, European, American and Asian countries have focused on other sports, like swimming, to win Olympic glory. For this reason, swimming, the distant cousin of athletics, has experienced a resurgence in popularity in the past 20 years (made easier now by 8 times winner Michael Phelps) . An increased number of participants from a larger geographical pool, plus an emphasis on the science of the sport as it has never seen before has made it possible for records to be broken at such a whirl-wind pace. It is conceivable that these records will eventually plateau as they come closer to the human limits within 10 to 20 years.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Lou

Your argument works all the way to the end, but then fails because you attribute the breaking of the world records to the increased participation and hence competition between nations. Problem is, all the records that were broken have been broken by about 3 countries. Perhaps one or two isolated records, but for the most part, the USA, Australia and Great Britain have been responsible for the records. So to suggest that it's because of some sudden increase is missing the point completely. It is something sudden - the sudden arrival of swimsuits.

Also, you might note that we never suggested that it was doping. In fact, just the opposite.

But the point is, the records in track and field did fall as a result of an expansion in the number and nature of the competitors (witness the explosion in distance running from the 1980's onwards). But you could track this, because the number of nations winning and breaking records increased. The same hasn't happened in swimming, it's the same people, and they all train at the same universities, so the argument doesn't work.


Anonymous said...

Ross, thank you for taking the time to answer me…I agree with what you said about the expansions of running in the 1980’s and the concomitant record-breaking avalanche. However let me explain some misunderstanding. While true that world-class swimmers have come from the same traditional regions, as you said, (which is exactly my point). My take is that a talented young man or woman from Europe, Asia, and North America who wants to go into sports these days is much more likely to be “herded” toward events like, swimming, tennis, volleyball, basketball, canoeing, fencing, equestrian, modern pentathlon, what have you, in short, anything but running. I believe that the people of these regions, in spite of the occasional running sensation, have pretty much given up on competing against African or Caribbean athlete in running and focused on other sports thus allowing for the expected improvement in the performance of those sports. For instance, a tiny nation like Finland dominated long distance runners in the 1920’s and 30’s, (with a minor resurgence in the 70’s). They were also second to none in the javelin throw during the same periods. Even the Japanese won the triple jump title in 3 Olympics in a row from 1928 to 1936. In short, when there is a concentration of effort there's going to be success in both Olympics and world record times. I can just see a young Michael Phelps approaching the athletic director of his university and asking him how to train to become an Olympic runner. I’m sure his entreaties would have met with more than a few condescending derision. “Listen, son. Your may wanna think about another sport. In fact, we may need a strong fellow like you on our 8 man rowing team. Unfortunately, the levy is dry, so why don’t you walk on by the pool and ask the swimming coach whether he needs an extra man for his medley team.”