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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

High pressure period notice

Sorry for the silence, but...

I just wanted to drop in a short post today to say apologies for the silence over the last week, a week which saw the Comrades Marathon being run. Normally, that would be a staple diet for us here on The Science of Sport, but this time was different. Jonathan is in the USA, where coverage is non-existent, and I've been in the UK where it is equally comprehensive! So the Comrades came and went, and, not surprisingly, was won by foreigners. The only surprise was that the men's winner was not Russian, but Zimbabwean, Stephen Muzhingi taking the title in 5:23:26. It's a super fast time, and that's really all I can say about it, since I've seen only one report on it!

I've been with the SA Sevens Team for the last week, and we still have one week to go in the World Series, with a tournament in Edinburgh to come. Those who are following the sport will know the situation - within touching distance of the world series win, and so it is an important week. Time is limited, as is internet access, so bear with us during this period of "quiet"! The situation is that the team needs to win only a point in the final tournament to claim the title. However, we're going out for all 20 and the tournament win. If you asked the players to honestly assess what it would take for them to return to SA satisfied (not happy, just satisfied), not one would say that a Series win alone would be sufficient - we lost in the semi-final against NZ yesterday, and it was a sign of where we've come that this was a huge disappointment, such are the expectations of the players.

I'll do a post on the trip, the science behind it, and other sports news, as soon as the dust has settled!

Until then, if it's news and good commentary on running you'd like, don't forget to tune into LetsRun.com - they miss nothing and report it better than anyone else!

We'll be back soon, because the European athletics season starts now, and the French Open builds towards its climax! Join us then!


Monday, May 18, 2009

Sports News snippets

Bolt breaks the 150m world record, Nadal loses on clay

A short post today on some sports news from the weekend.

First, and perhaps most exciting, Usain Bolt, he of three world records in Beijing, the fastest man in the world, has added the 150m world record to his 100m and 200m world records, by blasting a 14.35 secs in a specially organized street race in Manchester yesterday.

For those who did NOT see the race, here is a video of Bolt destroying the field by 0.7 seconds (note the graphic at the end of the race says 14.36s - it was rounded down to 14.35s)

Despite cool temperatures, and a reported lack of fitness thanks to a few minor injuries sustained in a car-crash about a month ago, Bolt's first big showing on the world stage in 2009 lived up to the hype (Bolt's love of speed extends beyond the track, apparently. The Jamaican taxi drivers are reported to have a nickname for him - "lead-foot").

The 150m dissected - splits and projections

Bolt's running is anything but lead-footed. He ran the first 100m in 9.90 seconds, which is an extra-ordinary time and a sign of things to come. But even more amazing, the final 100m (from 50m to the finish line) were clocked in an astonishing 8.72 seconds! That is being reported, though it's so fast I'm almost sceptical. The splits, as recorded during the race, were:

  • 50m - 5.64s (this compares to 5.50s in Beijing, by the way)
  • 100m - 9.90s (a split of 4.26 s. In Beijing last year, Bolt's last 50m of his 100m was 4.19s, including the infamous celebrations)
  • 150 - 14.35s (split of 4.45 s)

I have tried hard to find the analysis we did on Usain Bolt's 200m win in Beijing, because I am almost certain we looked at his splits from that race, but unfortunately I can't seem to find the post in question. However, I'm pretty sure his last 100m was not as quick as 8.72 seconds (it would mean his first 100m took 10.58 seconds, which is much too slow). But the last 100m can be misleading because of the different race distances, and so to me, the first 100m in 9.90 secs is more intriguing, because few others have produced that form so early in the season.

Bolt has said he can take the record down to 9.4 seconds - it's not exactly unusual for guys (especially sprinters) to make predictions about themselves (every sprinter worth his salt knocks a tenth of his time in order to hype himself up), but Bolt certainly has a lot to live up to, with hype and attention that has rarely been given to a track and field athlete.

Comparing races - what can be read into the 150m WR? Is Bolt already in WR shape for the 200m?

Much will no doubt be made of Bolt's time and what it means. The 8.72s is spectacular, for sure, but I believe the more telling stats are the 9.90 for the 100m, and also that second 50m interval at 4.26seconds, which is slightly slower than in his 100m final in Beijing (where he celebrated to lose time). Both splits are incredibly fast, but neither is quite up to the heights he reached in Beijing.

Therefore, when fellow athletes say he is already in 19.30 s shape in May, I believe they are incorrect, or getting carried away. Bolt is in awesome shape, yes, but he is 0.2 seconds/100m off the form he had in Beijing, so one should not become too eager to project times of sub-19 for the 200m just yet!

Also, it's not quite the same comparing this 150m race to a normal 200m race - distance counts a great deal at this speed - adding 33% to the race distance impacts on how it is paced. Also, bear in mind that this 150m time was achieved on a straight, without the hindrance of the bend, so any translation UP to 200m is slightly flawed (apart from the obvious distance increase). Finally, I must confess that I'm not 100% convinced about the track surface - remember this track was set up in the city especially for the race and I can't vouch for how it compares to a standard tartan track.

All these factors impact on the performance, and so I would caution against getting too carried away with the actual time in a rarely run event. However, Bolt is clearly carrying some awesome form into the season, and it augurs well for what might be a spectacular season.

So Bolt is back, his off-season antics and growing status as a off-track superstar clearly not slowing him down too much. Whatever your opinion of Bolt - his partying, his celebrations prior to finishing Olympic finals, his general approach to the sport - there is no doubt that he is very, very good for track and field. It has been a long time, perhaps never, that we've had an athlete who is able to garner so much attention OUTSIDE the sport's enthusiasts. Bolt transcends the sport, he is its biggest promotional tool, and hopefully, his on track form can continue to support his off-track persona!

Now, we just need Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay to step forward and turn this one-man entertainment vehicle into a great sporting rivalry, and then athletics will be the winner!

Nadal on clay - a rare defeat

Speaking of great rivalries, Roger Federer managed to turn around a losing streak of note against his great rival, Rafael Nadal, by winning the Madrid Masters Series event. For Federer to beat Nadal is rare enough - he'd lost their previous five finals. But to do so on clay is an enormous achievement for him.

However, before fans start to claim that the tide has turned and that Federer has regained his status as the man to beat, it must be pointed out that the last time Nadal lost a final on clay, it was to Federer, in Hamburg, and only a few weeks later, he went on to beat Federer in the final of the French Open. I suspect that the same may happen this year, only I'm not even sure that Federer will be the man to be beaten in that final.

I'd say the big favourite for the French Open remains Nadal - he's been beaten once all year on clay, but has played more matches than any other player. He played every single match of Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Madrid, and in the end, was a victim of his own schedule. Many are pointing to the epic semi-final he played against Djokovic on Saturday as the reason for the loss, but I think it can be traced to the whole season, not just one match.

Nadal looked tired, sluggish, and lacking his usual sharpness. He made more errors in each of his last four matches than he has made in some tournaments in the past, and generally was well below his best. I'd put him at about 70%. And in the last three matches in Madrid, he was, to be blunt, poor (by his standards). He plays too often, given his game, and if he wants to be around and winning two Grand Slams a year in five years' time, I think he'd be wise to curtail his other tournament appearances.

I think a week off, then the itinerary of matches in Paris, with a day off between matches, will see him much more difficult to beat, and I think he'll win the French Open comfortably.

The second favourite is not Federer, but Novak Djokovic, who I think would beat Federer 7 times out of 10 on clay. Second to Nadal twice this year, I think Djokovic is the form player, playing even better than Nadal (it's just that Nadal off form on clay still beats everyone on form). Then the third favourite, jointly, would be Verdasco and Federer. In fact, I'd even give it to Verdasco, because he is a left-hander and his natural top-spin forehand plays on the Federer-single-handed backhand.

So in my opinion, the battle for Paris will be fought between Nadal, Djokovic and Verdasco. Obviously, the draw makes a huge impact, because if Federer ends up on the same side of the draw as Djokovic and Verdasco, then there's very little chance he'll win it. If it's Nadal, then maybe, just maybe, they'll push the Spaniard hard enough that he finds Federer a challenge. I doubt it though...

That's it for today, just a news-type post, some opinion. Hope you enjoyed the video of Bolt, and we'll see how it sets up the rest of his season.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Swimming's drama continues

If it's not the LZR, then it must be Arena.. Or Jaked....swimming's farce becomes even more farcical

Regular readers of The Science of Sport will be well aware of what transpired in the pools of the world last year, when Speedo's LZR battled Arena's Powerskin for pool supremacy!

In the end, the LZR (or should that be the swimmers wearing the LZR?) triumphed, as swimming saw an unprecented number of records broken. Only 2 events managed to survive Beijing with their Olympic Records in tact, and never before had so many world records fallen.

At one point, just after the Beijing Olympics, I calculated that the average age of a swimming world record for men was 1 year and 1 month. For women, it stood at 8 months. By comparison, the average age of track and field records was 8 years 11 months or 14 years 9 months for men and women respectively.

You can read that post here.

Different year, same situation

But, the madness has not stopped. The first part of 2009 has seen the record glut continue in the pools of the world, as we build up to the world championships in Rome. Just last month, both the 50m and 100m freestyle records were smashed by French swimmers. First Alain Bernard destroyed the 100m record in a suit that was still awaiting ratification by the sport's governing body. Then, only a few days later, the 50m freestyle record fell, this time to Frederick Bosquet, wearing a suit that had been ratified.

His, made by the company Jaked, can be seen to the right. It's pretty flashy, of course, but the secret to the suit, apparently, is the polyurethane material that covers it entirely. You may recall that Speedo's LZR Racer had strategically placed panels that reduced drag. The new suits represent an improvement, the theory goes, because they provide full drag reduction.

They also, according to critics, improve buoyancy, which would make them illegal according to FINA rules of last year. However, pinning down FINA's rules, and how they are enforced, is apparently more difficult than it must be to get into one of these suits.

And so to date, despite what I suspect must be a very straightforward measurement, FINA has not stamped out the use of any suit, and as they are entitled to do, the manufacturers have gone crazy in their efforts to gain a performance advantage (cue running shoes and Oscar Pistorius here)

So good are the new suits, that Bosquet, a man who had never, in 7 years, made an Olympic final, managed to smash 0.34 seconds off the old world record in the shortest event in the pool. The magnitude of the improvement, from a swimmer who has stived for a decade to improve but not done so by more than about a 1 second range, is suddenly swimming nearly a second faster than those who beat him only 3 years ago. Over one length, he has improved by almost a second compared to ten years of performances. That is like a 2:14 marathon runner suddenly improving to 2:06 after ten years of trying. It just doesn't happen.

But it's not the suit - yeah right

Yet he still denies the suit is assisting his performances, pointing instead to better training methods and preparation. This is incredibly insulting to those in the sport, it has to be said. It's as if there was a sudden epiphany among coaches in late 2007 that saw the 2008 performances jump ahead a generation in a few months. Great swimmers of only 5 years ago are now relegated to footnotes of swimming history, their once-great world records not even managing to feature on lists of top 20 performances in history.

Swimming is a complete farce right now, thanks to the toothless, rudderless (apologies for the mixed metaphor) leadership that failed to clamp down on the suits last year, and given plenty of warning, has failed again this year. Critics abound - read this latest article on the Bosquet-defence for an example. And at the bottom of this post is a letter that was written by Professor Brent Rushall, a respected sports scientist at San Diego State, in which he is scathing of the FINA leadership that has allowed this situation to develop.

Sadly, a sport like swimming needs all the support it can get. It lies somewhere in the second tier of sports when it comes to global popularity (apologies to swimming fans, coaches and athletes), but the truth is that the sport needs to reach out to its non-followers, the neutral observers. Unfortunately, when it degenerates into the farce that is world-swimming at the moment, it becomes difficult, if not damaging for the sport. Few people can appreciate the intricacies of the sport, but everyone can see the ridiculous situation that FINA have allowed to develop with these suits.

Sadly, it was predictable from a long time ago, yet we find ourselves debating the same thing, with no end in sight. A ruling is expected in Lausanne tomorrow, but it is not the first meeting to discuss suits. I dare say it won't be the last.

We'll bring you more news as it develops.

Until then, the letter below by Brent Rushall expresses what is pretty close to my opinion. More to follow I am sure!


Perhaps the best strategy to solve the problems in which swimming now finds itself would be to call for the complete dissolution of those holding positions in the current FINA Bureau. While it has been in "power", it has manipulated events in such a way that the reputation and popularity of the sport of swimming is under grave threat.

In the late 1990's when bodysuits came onto the scene, one manufacturer (Adidas) advertised its suit as "equipment" (which is a synonym for "device"). At that time, FINA should have acted on both Rule 5.0 to cover the device factor and Rule SW10.7 to cover the also advertised performance enhancement of the equipment in suits . Similar claims were made by other manufacturers, the general implication being that their "devices" produced unnatural phenomena that enhanced performance. The magnitude of the enhancement claims far exceeded any improvement that would be possible from using any performance-enhancing drug, and the reprehensibility of that action is well recognized and accepted.

FINA's intransigence about the intrusion of artificial assistance has distorted the sport to the point where now it is subject to considerable ridicule rather than admiration. The failure of the Bureau to uphold the laws of the sport and to act on behalf of "swimming" (all competitors and officials associated with practicing and competing in the activity) and to seemingly cow-tow to manufacturers and their profit motives is a clear dereliction of duty. Those responsible for allowing the intrusion of artificial aids in a once pristine and admired activity, a "pure" sport, should be held accountable and dismissed.

The current complicated, manufacturer-friendly, unsatisfactory three-phase procedure that is supposed to correct the situation is seen by most persons actively engaged in the sport as being ridiculous and failing to address the problems and growing concerns of the majority of serious swimmers and swimmer-representative organizations. The ridicule-deserving action of the Bureau, and its steering of "decisions" through various FINA bodies to make it "official" is one of the most blatant insults perpetrated upon serious sportspersons in Olympic sports.

In less than 10 years, a grand history of human physical endeavor has been undone by a few individuals. It is obvious that the current FINA executive and Bureau are incapable of controlling swimming to make it the test of the human vs. human it has traditionally been.

Why haven't FINA acted to save the sport from the intrusion of technology that makes competitions unfair? What is FINA's motive? One can only speculate on a range of motives from incompetence to undisclosed personal incentives.

We are watching the most rapid decline in the concept of fair and natural performance in the sport's history. Swimming medals, once determined by 1000ths of a second of natural talent, now are determined by the suit/equipment/performance-aid of specific makers. Manufacturers are now aggressively escalating the violation of the sport's traditional competition ethics while the Nero-like FINA members sit idly by, seemingly frightened to act in the Circus that continues to unfold.

Clearly, those acting as the power-brokers in the sport and taking responsibility for the actions and inactions that have been witnessed have much to answer for and deserve condemnation and removal from involvement in the sport. The longer they stay "in charge" the worse will be the problem, the more difficult will be the reversal of FINA's transgressions, and the longer will any rectification take.

A new Bureau, a new FINA is in order!

Brent S. Rushall Ph.D.,R.Psy

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Doping = success?

The science of doping - positive means nothing, negative means nothing. So what to do?

Last week saw some interesting debate around doping and sports achievers, inspired by Jonathan's post on the start of cycling's first Grand Tour of the year, the Giro d'Italia. The shift to the Grand Tours usually serves as the catalyst for doping discussions - sadly, few races will go by without a big doping story. Even before the Giro began, doping hit the news. And I suspect that the next few months may well stimulate further doping debates on this site, as well as others that cover the sport of cycling.

In response to that article, we got some pretty interesting comments and opinions from readers, and those have been fermenting in my mind for the last few days, inspiring this post. Then, this morning, I came across a journal with some discussion around the "science of doping" and it seemed a good marriage between the discussions.

The problem with performance: Is doping non-negotiable?

To begin with, the post last week discussed the recent positive tests of Rashid Ramzi and Davide Rebellin, and mentioned that the environment we find ourselves in compels us to question pretty much every athletic performance. A winner in sport (particularly cycling and athletics) not only receives medals and prize money, but now also inherits a mantle of suspicion thanks to what is a growing history of doped up champions. So, we watch the men's 100m final and see an incredibly dominant victory by Usain Bolt. Sadly, we are almost compelled to ASK (not judge, take note) whether the performance is believable? Yesterday, watching the first mountian-top finish of the Giro, I felt myself asking the same question of just about every cyclist attacking off the front.

Because we've been shown by case after case that success is often achieved thanks to doping (remember for example that 4 out of the last 6 100m champions have tested positive, and every winner of the Tour de France since 1996 has either confessed, been implicated through investigative work, or tested positive despite some denials), we tend to lapse into a "guilty" verdict all the time.

In response to this post, we received the following comments - I've taken the relative bits out of two of them, but you can read the originals here:

I agree with Cassio. Bolt is obviously doped.

If he can do a lot better than previous doped runners, he is doped too. Of course he is very talented, and his junior results show just that. But I see that as an explanation of his amazing results, if he wasn´t talented, with or without doping, he would never be able to get those far superior times.

I'm sure of two things: Bolt is an amazing athlete and person, very talented guy and makes people happy. Second: Bolt is very, very doped, if it is possible to be more than just doped...

I concur, Anonymous. I'm always amazed that our sports scientists (seem to?) think that many champions & gold medalists are completely clean. Is this attitude wide-spread among your colleagues or are you the only optimists hoping that people can break world-records without doping?

Personally, I've heard sport MDs (e.g. Moosburger) claim - quite to the contrary - that it is unlikely that any records have been broken without doping in the last 40 or 50 years. That's pretty much the same I keep hearing from different people practising competetive sports & doping themselves.

Both comments are fairly (very) cynical. As a scientist, I applaud your cynicism! These viewpoints represent the far extreme of opinion on a spectrum that extends all the way from "believer" to "complete cynic". So there are people who believe the all winners and sportsmen are clean. I once received an email saying that professional sportspeople love their bodies and respect their health and so they would never dope! On the other extreme is this view, which pretty much states that success REQUIRES doping, and therefore the only requirement to catch a dope cheat is to observe who wins!

Neight extreme is particularly "selective" in how it approaches the problem, and I think most people will appreciate that this is unlikely to produce a very fair or accurate assessment. Either you believe that no-one dopes and wins, or that everyone must dope to win. The first case of an athlete who does not fit the model disproves it and so not many would have such a dogmatic view.

Flags and pointers

Instead, most would (we hope) recognize that it's unlikely to be that clear-cut either way. Our approach, speaking now as the above mentioned sports scientists who are involved in sport from both a scientific and sports-coaching perspective (and marketing, in my case) would be to evaluate every case on the collection of evidence for it, thought this is obviously very difficult to do. Too much misinformation, too much deception, denials in the face of strong evidence, and evidence that is often questionable all complicate matters.

One of the most telling (or suspicious) factors is a sudden improvement in the performance. People were suspicious of Rashid Ramzi for this reason - nowhere one year, double world champ the next. Erratic performances outside of major championships are another - again, Ramzi is a case in point - between the odd world championship gold he did little or nothing in major meetings.

The trouble with both arguments is that they exclude athletes who either develop later (admittedly, a small group), or because those major performances could just as easily be attributed to a "periodized training programme" and a focus on only a few races. That's one we've heard a lot in cycling and the Tour de France in recent years. So it's easy to say "I told you so" in the case of Ramzi, because people's suspicions seem to have been confirmed. But they may well be incorrect in other cases.

Even evaluating a historical progression of performance poses problems. In the aftermath of Usain Bolt's remarkable Beijing performances, we looked at his times as a junior when he displayed remarkable talent from a young age when drugs were almost certainly not a factor. Problem is, some people looked at the same performances and said he IS doping, we said it suggested he wasn't! So the same numbers produce two different conclusions!

Similarly, many of the top east Africans emerge as teenagers running times that clearly set them apart as world-class, and with training and maturity, their normal progression could be to the status of world record holder. Here, the problem is that we are never 100% sure that their ages are reported accurately, and we just don't know where the ceiling exists - projecting times forward is very difficult to do. And so performance reviews are fraught with difficulty.

Doping control - proof of innocence and guilt?

And this brings us onto doping control, where it gets really interesting! In an ideal world, athletes would be tested, and the results from the infallible laboratory and willing athletes would tell us that an athlete can be believed as clean or disqualified as a dope cheat. Unfortunately, that is a dream that belongs in the past.

Doping control became so flawed in recent times as the testers fell behind the cheats that drugs were being used with zero chance of being detected. Methods to avoid detection, drugs that were undetectable, and conspiracies and collusion to cover up positive tests mean that the ideal is far removed from the reality. The world was made aware of this when a designer steroid called THG was discovered only because an anonymous tip-off from a coach sent a syringe to doping authorities. Without personal rivalrly and jealousy leading to this tip-off, there is no telling whether we might still be celebrating the performances of Marion Jones, Dwain Chambers and Tim Montgomery.

I have heard quotes from some experts to the effect that for every banned substance we CAN test for, there is another we can't. Others say, perhaps with some hyperbole, that there are 100 undetectable products! Last year, the Tour de France threw up a test for CERA, a newly designed third-generation EPO, which was supposed to be undetectable, but for the collaboration between WADA and the pharmaceutical company that made it. The question is - how many CERAs exist where collaboration has NOT discovered the test?

Marion Jones would be a multiple gold-medallist, one of the greatest athletes in history and perfectly clean in the eyes of those who advocate that "when you pass a drug test, it means you are innocent". To this day, Jones has never failed a drug test - it was only the "manhunt" that ensued when the BALCO affair began that exposed her.

Similarly, cyclists who claim to be clean and point to their record of being tested often are proving nothing. Being the most tested athlete or sport in the world does not mean the same thing as being a dope-free athlete. So sadly, we can't believe the negative tests.

Positive tests - do they mean anything?

Even more sadly, according to some experts in recent times, we can't believe the positive tests either! In 2008, a paper in the prestigious journal Nature called into view what was called the "fallacy" of the current doping testing practices. The paper, written by a bio-statistician, asked the question "When an athlete tests positive, is he or she guilty of doping?" He went on to answer his own question with the following: "Because of what I believe to be inherent flaws in the testing practices of doping laboratories, the answer, quite possibly, is no."

The article, which you can access with a subscription (or feel free to email us if you'd fancy a copy), was the catalyst for a whole series of comments and debates around the general principle of doping control. Papers have been published (and criticized) calling WADA to task for their ability to accurately test for drug use. Court cases are usually the result of these flaws, because any athlete worth his weight in legal fees recognizes that when a possible weakness in testing exists, it must be legally challenged. Why confess when you can get off on a technicality?

Unfortunately, technicalities do happen, and that makes enforcing doping control very difficult, if not impossible. People have called for life-time bans for drug cheats - this is impossible unless the system to catch dopers is 100% accurate. It isn't, though I'd like to think it is improving (based on what I have heard from colleagues).

The reality is that testing neither proves nor disproves doping. It provides a guide, certainly, and perhaps the introduction of the blood passport system will see the status quo change. I'm sceptical myself, mostly because everything is still so clandestine.

Wikinomics, jury duty and all available evidence

Regular readers will recall that I advocated what I called "Wiki" doping control a while back, based on a book called Wikinomics, which itself is a symptom of the latest trends in how the world operates. The days of narrow hierarchies and chains-of-command have been replaced by open-source, collaborative efforts. Without rehashing the book and business principles, I believe doping control should consider means to spread the knowledge in order to become more responsive to the problem, and this means secrecy is not an option.. Sadly, it's very secretive, and may well find itself falling further and further behind the modern "organization" that drives doping.

In any event, where does this leave us? When we assess performances, like those of the Giro winner (whoever that may be) or Usain Bolt, we have to make the best possible call based on ALL the evidence. I think we are headed for an era where doping sanctions are handled like legal court-cases, and the admissable evidence is not limited to a doping test.

Rather, they will be run like a criminal trial where all the evidence is weighed up and a verdict delivered. Where this kind of process would leave those athletes who remain in the "dock", I don't know. If I were on the jury, I certainly know what verdict i'd be reaching!

There are no answers to these questions. What I do know is that there are elite athletes who succeed without doping, and there are plenty of successful athletes who are doping without getting caught. The doubt is pervasive, and sadly everyone is tainted by it. Your thoughts are, as always, welcome, and if you have any suggestions, feel free to give them.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Marathon running: The next generation

Wanjiru vs. Kebede: The future of marathon racing?

The Giro is now underway, with young Mark Cavendish wearing pink for now, but the first serious mountain stage is not until Tuesday, so while the sprinters have their way on the flat stages we thought we would double back on the marathon season and take a closer look at the two stars that have emerged: Sammy Wanjiru (KEN) and Tsegaye Kebede (ETH). It was not so much an emergence as staking a claim on the future, because over the past 18 months these two have asserted themselves as future of marathon racing with serious times and performances. Hopefully we can expect more battles like the one we saw in London this year, so it is interesting to see exactly how they match up head to head so far.

Ethiopia vs. Kenya: Part I

The 1990s was full of epic duels between Gebreselassie and Tergat as those two chased each other through the ranks, besting each others WRs along the way and producing incredible racing when they met head to head (think back to the 10000 m final in Sydney!). We have written previously about the differences between the two countries systems and how currently Ethopia leads Kenya in head to head competions, and it is timely now that as these two legends begin their swansongs two younger runners are waiting in the wings to keep the rivalry alive. But before we look ahead, let's look back for one second at how Gebreselassie and Tergat stack up:

Ethiopia vs. Kenya: Part II

Before we get ahead of ourselves, don't misunderstand us---both Gebreselassie or Tergat, while at the end of their careers, are far from being washed up. In fact Gebreselassie has bucked the commonly held belief that a runner's best marathon performance comes in about the third or fourth attempt, because has has now run about eight or nine and the last one was his fastest! So both will still be competitive for a few more years and due to their experience and pedigree one can never truly count them out, but in Wanjiru and Kebede we have the potential for the next generation of head to head performances. Interestingly, the two youngsters are incredibly similar on paper:

The first big difference between their predecessors and this next generation is that both Kebede and Wanjiru are running marathons at the same age that Tergat and Gebreselassie were still running cross country and/or track. Kebede does not even have a 5000 m time on record, and although he is matching Wanjiru in the marathon now he has a 10000 m PB of "only" 28:10. However this does not demonstrate his full potential over that distance because he is running much faster in the marathon than plenty of runners, for example Meb Keflezighi who has a 10000 m PB of 27:14 but only has 2:09 best marathon. So had he stayed on the track he likely would have run sub-26:30 before moving to the road in his late 20s or early 30s.

The youngsters' progressions

Both Kebede and Wanjiru debuted very close to each other in 2007, with Wanjiru's first marathon in Fukuoka '07 and Kebede running Paris earlier that year. Both have now run four marathons and both have progressed in a similar fashion:

So if we exclude Beijing, which was unusually warm and a bit of a different race anyway, both men have lowered their PB with each marathon attempt. Kebede had more to gain as he debuted at 2:08, but recall that in London '09 he stayed with Wanjiru until after 40 km, and was 2nd only because he conceded 10 s to Wanjiru over that last 2.2 km. So both men appear to be quite evenly matched, although it took a few races to get there, but it now sets the stage for their next showdown.

Wanjiru is slated to run Berlin in September, but Kebede's agent must still be shopping him around or negotiating details with one or more races. Rumor has it that Gebreselassie's contract with Berlin specifically exlcudes certain runners from lining up against him, but we cannot confirm that. He has always been keen to push the limits and has never been afraid of trying to set a new record, so is that why he is not "afraid" of Wanjiru? The young one seems to have the ammunition to challenge the Great One, but who knows how it will play out down the stretch? Could Geb effectively end up pacing Wanjiru to a new record and the second man under 2:04?

Wanjiru is keen, stating earlier this year that he thinks he can eventually lower the time to 2:02, so it will be all eyes on Berlin in September for this head to head time trial. If Berlin looks after Geb with an army of pacers as they have in the past two years, and they do not replicate the poor pacing in London thus year, then the smart money will be on a new WR.

The Giro d'Italia: Mountain-top finish on Tuesday

Meanwhile the Giro promises to heat up as early as Tuesday, when we see the first mountain-top finish. Of course European readers can watch it live on television, but those of us in the USA can catch it live on the internet over at Universal Sports and then tape-delayed (Tivo, anyone?) later in the day on their cable channel. If you need to keep one eye on work don't worry---Cyclingnews.com will be doing live text updates as the race unfolds so you can keep up with the attacks. And even if you miss the action, we will post on the racing and give you the insight and analysis you have to come to expect from us!


PS---let's not forget the smoking hot performances from Doha and Japan this weekend, which we will get to in due course!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Giro d'Italia 2009

Good news, Bad news prior to start of Giro centenary

This weekend see the start of the 100th running of the Giro d'Italia. It is notable for many reasons, first because it is one of the grand tours and has a significant place in cycling history, legend, and mythology. This year we can add to the hype because Lance Armstrong will be making his Giro debut, so all eyes will be upon the race to see how it goes. Many questions remain about his goals, how he will perform, and whether or not he or Levi Leipheimer will emerge as the Astana team leader. But as always with cycling, we have to talk about doping. . .

The bad news

It is now being reported on Cyclingnews.com and other sites that the first "non-negative" test has been returned even before the first stage. It turns out that Austrian National Champion Christian Pfannberger (Katusha) returned a non-negative out-of-competition test on 19 March. It has not been released yet what substance produced the result, but according to ProTour rules the team must suspend any rider until all samples can be analyzed and his name cleared or he is officially suspended by the UCI and/or his national body.

A couple of things are noteworthy here. First, Pfannberger served a previous ban from June 2004 to June 2006 as he tested positive for testosterone. He served that ban, fair enough, but the question must be asked regarding the deterrence of bans and testing. On this case alone we must conclude that the benefits of doping outweigh the risks of getting caught. This point was first argued by Michael Shermer at Scientific American and is an eloquent approach to understanding doping in sport.

Second, Pfannberger is a national champion (2007 and 2008) and was a top ten finisher in 2008 at The Amstel Gold Race (6th), La Fleche Wallonne 9th), Leige-Bastogne-Liege (5th), and the UCI World Champs (8th). Clearly he is an ambitious rider trying to be competitive at the top and not just sacrifice himself for a team leader in big races.

The good news

In the end we are fans of cycling, so let's try to look on the bright side of this. A cheater has been caught even before he started the race. Furthermore, if his "non-negative" is confirmed he will face a lifetime ban by the UCI for a second doping violation. As more athletes are caught it can only be a good thing for the sport, although cycling is a long way from being declared "cured" of doping.

Looking ahead to the next few weeks as the Giro unfolds, we should expect more positives, and we should be cynical of exemplary performances. Does this make us pessimists? No. Simply put, the history of cycling dictates this. Last year during the Olympics we wrote that it is legitimate to question Usain Bolt's amazing performance in the 100 m, because there are no major sprint champions in the last 30 years who have escaped suspicion, and many have been caught or confessed.

Just a note on this - if you check the comments below, you'll see an interesting comment or two - we just have to emphasize that we're not casting doubt. In fact, if you read the article we wrote at the time, you'll see that we've in fact stated that we believe Bolt to be legit. You can read that article here. However, it's still appropriate to wonder, which is what we're saying here - the history of the sport has forced on us a suspicion and mistrust, which is perhaps the most unfortunate consequence.

So like it or not, doping is a part of the cycling scenery and must be kept in mind as we go forward. Having said that, however, you can still enjoy the racing, and way back in 2007 we gave you some reasons why you should still watch the racing.

Looking ahead: try to watch the TTT

The first stage this year promises to be spectacular, a 20.5 km team time trial set in Venice with St. Mark's cathedral looming in the background. It is a dead flat course on a sandbar so the guys are going to be "low flying" on their way to the finish. Team Garmin-Slipstream has targeted this stage once again and will try to place one of their riders in the maglia rosa like they did with Christian Vandevelde last year.

We will be following the race a bit more this year due to its elevated "newsworthy" status, and we will also try to work in our much-anticipated commentary on Andy Shen's interview with Michael Ashenden, so stay tuned as we swtich over from running to cycling for a bit!